Will you sink or swim in a crisis?

A hardy bunch of 15 PR practitioners had our “crisis readiness” well tested in a two hour crisis simulation exercise run by Australian crisis expert Grant Strudwick. Grant is executive manager for crisis and security consulting from Control Risks, a global risk consultancy that deals with issues like kidnapping, product tampering, industrial disasters and natural disaster. For example, Grant helped a number of international clients who were caught up in the Mumbai terrorist attack of November 2008 in which 179 people including 22 foreigners were killed in a three day bomb and gun attack.

Grant gave us his take on risk and crisis management and then we divided into three groups of five to do a crisis simulation exercise. We became the managers (managing director, HR, PR, sales and marketing, and production manager) of a food company and reports started coming in from consumers to our customer service centre of a potentially fatal problem with one of our products.

As with most breaking crises we didn’t get all the information immediately. Grant delivered new information in dribs and drabs as the exercise progressed, changing the
complexion of the crisis. Using a crisis process provided we worked through known facts/assumptions, worst case scenario/likely scenario, stakeholders that needed to be addressed and actions required.

Under pressure from angry customers, lawyers, and the media we needed to quickly assess questions like: Is the problem isolated or widespread? Was the contamination accidental or deliberate? Do we need to put a hold on sales – and if so, in just one store where the problem was reported or nationwide? Who do we need to communicate with – customers, distributors, staff, lawyers, police, overseas parent company, insurers, journalists? What do we say? If we are going to get product off supermarket shelves, how do we ensure it happens? How do we maintain production and revenue? How do we protect the company’s reputation? How do we deal with the conflict between keeping business going and safeguarding consumers?

Needless to say there was a lot of animated discussion within the groups and we stopped twice for the groups to report back on how they were handling the crisis as it evolved. There were lots of lessons: One of them was make sure you “do the right thing to ensure the health and safety of customers, staff and others” – in other words it is more important for organisations in a crisis to prioritise health and safety above the short term losses that may result from withdrawing products/services or paying for the resources to get the crisis sorted asap. Be wary of any lawyers, sales or finance people whose counsel is to deny /evade or continue trading in an effort to minimise liability or business losses. Another lesson is that it is good to have a crisis plan – but it is much more important to run regular crisis exercises to make sure the plan works.

Grant said he had worked with organisations which had a crisis plan in place but had failed when a crisis struck because they couldn’t put it into practice; conversely organisations without a crisis plan had survived crises because of good teamwork. He said the long term goal for an organisation after a crisis is recovery. Recovery of reputation and of business to a level that is as good if not better than pre-crisis. Many organisations nowadays equip themselves to deal with crises, through risk
management, planning and simulation exercises. Nowhere near as many deal well with the long term recovery phase.

Tim Marshall

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s