A crisis of competence or character? How to understand (and prepare for) crisis basics

crisisahead

Are you prepared for the worst? (image source: http://www.adweek.com)

The past 18 months has been a remarkable time for crisis watchers. We’ve watched as global brands and leaders have become embroiled in crises. Some of these have been of their own making (think Sepp Blatter and FIFA, or Volkswagen and emissions). Others have been due to unfortunate circumstances, such as with Emirates flight 521.

As communications professionals out there know, there’s nothing like working on a crisis. In an excellent piece for the Financial Times by David Bond, Rupert Younger, director at the Oxford University Centre for Corporate Reputation, sorts crises into two basic definitions – a crisis of competence or a crisis of character. To quote from the piece:

Examples of competence scandals include Toyota’s 2009-11 recall of 4m of its cars because of defective accelerator pedals, or the battery defaults on some of Boeing’s Dreamliner aircraft. These, according to Mr Younger, can deliver a direct, and in some cases short-term, hit to a company’s sales figures.

A character crisis calls into question the culture and behaviour of a company and its senior executives and often arises out of media scrutiny or criminal or regulatory investigations. Fifa and News International were both crises of character.

The worst type of crisis involves both. The BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010 is a case in point. It was triggered by a disastrous oil rig explosion that called BP’s offshore drilling competence into question. But the company’s response turned the crisis into a far wider issue of trust.

As communicators, our roles have traditionally covered managing the fallout from a crisis. However, whether we like it or not (I hope the former), we’re also becoming the conscience of our organizations. It’s incumbent on us to speak up when we hear about or see an issue that could harm an organization’s reputation. This is easier said than done. Volkswagen is a great example of a crisis of character – dozens of VW employees must have known about the manipulation of data, and yet no one spoke up (or, if they did, the information didn’t get to the right people).

To tackle such a crisis, communicators need to work with executive management to create an ‘incident aware culture’. Employees should feel that they can report issues without reproach or fear of retaliation. Employees also need to feel that they’re working for and in an ethical organization that cares about doing the right thing. This requires continuous communication from and engagement by the board and management, as well as support from legal and HR teams. If things do go wrong, communicators and management need to proactively engage with stakeholders to explain what has happened and why, a strategy known as stealing thunder. This is best defined as an organization “breaking the news about its own crisis before the crisis is discovered by the media or other interested parties” (Arpan & Roskos-Ewoldsen, 2005).

Unfortunately, as has been noted by academics such as An-Sofie Claeys, this type of self-disclosure is rare in practice. As with the case of VW, organizations are tempted to conceal the crisis rather than make it public.

Crises of competence are easier to deal with. However, many of us still aren’t prepared for what happens when this type of crisis occurs. Here’s a simple crisis communications assessment grid developed by the communications team at US firm Timken, which establishes crisis severity based on the type of incident and the involvement of various stakeholders, as well as who needs to be involved.

timken-crisis-comms-framework

For a more detailed look at how to handle a crisis (pre, during and post), then have a look at this post I wrote after meeting with crisis communications expert Caroline Sapriel. And, if you have any feedback on how do deal with a crisis, please do share. I’d love to hear your views.

Caroline Sapriel and a masterclass in crisis communications

While I’ve been in the communications industry for a while (read the lines on my face!), every now and then I have the opportunity to meet someone who wows me. I had that feeling two weeks back when I met with Caroline Sapriel. Caroline, who is an expert in crisis management and communications, was invited along by the International Association of Business Communicators to talk about her insights on crises. What with all that is happening globally, it seemed apt to talk about how we can communicate better on issues that have an adverse impact, both on reputations and operations.

First of all, Caroline defined a crisis by three points:

1) Surprise

2) Brevity or shortness of time

3) Threat

What is fascinating is Caroline’s assertion that two-third of crises are smoldering, in other words they’re issues which aren’t tackled properly or which are ignored. However, as Caroline also adds, “most organizations don’t properly understand what a crisis is.”

Now, to the good news. Organizations rarely face true crises, issues which can substantially damage or stop operations and ultimately destroy reputations. However, most crises are still handled incorrectly. Many leaders look to manage a crisis in the same way as they manage through normal times, by forming a consensus and aligning others. However, Caroline states that a crisis needs a different type of behaviour, one that follows a command and control model where one person takes charge and acts decisively, with or without the approval of others. She spelled out five key competencies that leaders need to navigate a crisis.

1) Situational awareness and analysis

2) Sense-making

3) Stakeholder mapping

4) Scenario planning

5) Decision-making in a crisis

Now, let’s come to our role as communicators. Caroline was very kind to share her company’s integrated business contingency framework as well as spell out her 10 commandments of crisis management, which are based on decades of hands-on experience as well as research.

CS&A's integrated business contingency framework seeks to explain how communications and stakeholder management can support organizations in a crisis, through every stage of a crisis.

CS&A’s integrated business contingency framework seeks to explain how communications and stakeholder management can support organizations in a crisis, through every stage of a crisis.

The 10 commandments is also a fantastic read:

#1 Own up to and communicate the problem early on

#2 Recognize that you cannot make what is bad look good

#3 Be prepared for the worst. In a crisis, things get worse before they get better

#4 Prioritize and remember people’s safety is always first

#5 Focus on protecting your credibility and not winning brownie points

#6 Set the course, have a Mission Statement and stick to it

#7 Map and remap issues and stakeholders as the situation develops

#8 Use every available channel to communicate with your stakeholders

#9 If the crisis drags, don’t retreat into a siege. Stay out there!

#10 Manage the aftermath of the crisis. Remember, it’s not over until it’s really over

Caroline adds that in a crisis we can’t control the events, but we can control our credibility.

If you’re wondering how your organization is doing, have a look at the below image which has been developed by Caroline and her organization. The crisis management culture ladder will help you to understand where you are in terms of preparing your organization for a crisis.

CS&A's crisis management culture ladder maps out where organizations are in terms of their ability to manage and learn from a crisis. At the bottom are organizations who essentially don't care as long as they're not caught; at the top are organizations who thrive on and grow with every crisis they encounter. Where are you at?

CS&A’s crisis management culture ladder maps out where organizations are in terms of their ability to manage and learn from a crisis. At the bottom are organizations who essentially don’t care as long as they’re not caught; at the top are organizations who thrive on and grow with every crisis they encounter. Where are you at?

As an additional plus, Caroline has shared a reading list that will help guide you on improving your understanding of crises and what you should do to prepare as a communicator and leader.

On a final note, I’d like to thank Caroline for her time. And if you’re interested in knowing more about Caroline Sapriel, she’s the managing partner and founder of CS&A International, a pioneer and a recognised leader in the field of risk, crisis and business continuity management. For additional information please visit her company’s website.