1st June 2017

Crisis what crisis?

A number of years ago I was meeting with a client from a large retail chain that had recently promoted a free gift with every purchase, but the demand for both had outstripped supply, resulting in some customers having to wait several weeks before receiving either item.

The meeting had been called to work out a communication plan to deal with the issue. However, just as we got underway, the company’s marketing director noticed one member of the communications team had brought a folder along to the meeting, with the words CRISIS COMMUNICATION written in large letters on the front. The marketing director was understandably stung by this, pointing out, quite rightly, that this was not in fact a crisis but a fairly unremarkable issue to be managed.

Conversely, a few years later while talking through the crisis communication preparedness of a global company whose main product was baby food, I was alarmed to find that the way the company defined whether or not something was a crisis was based on the number of sales regions or countries that were affected.

If one or two countries were affected, they told me, the situation was deemed an “issue” and handled at a regional level. However, if several regions were involved it moved up the scale to a “crisis”. Head office became involved, the crisis communication process was triggered and additional money and resources were immediately made available.

The problem with this geography-based approach to distinguishing an issue from a crisis, and resourcing accordingly, was that the level of harm – or potential harm – to babies was not taken into account. The focus was entirely on an operational process.  By taking a purely functional view, the company had completely lost sight of its responsibility to respond swiftly and effectively to any situation that could cause harm to babies, regardless of the extent of the geographical or media pick up.

Both these scenarios highlight the importance for effective crisis communication planning to have a clear definition of what is a true crisis (broadly categorised as anything that adversely affects a business and / or its staff, key stakeholders or customers for an extended period of time),  as opposed to day-to-day issues management.

Of course poorly handled issues can eventually turn into crises, which is why having a process to identify and mitigate risk should also be part of any communication plan. By being clear on what constitutes a crisis in advance, the people in your organisation know when to escalate something and it also helps management assess the appropriate level of response.

With social media fanning the flames of discontent and outrage, and newspaper headline writers all too ready to cry “crisis!” – instead of “minor issue that’s now been dealt with” –  a sense of perspective has never been more important.

By Sue Milne-Bennett, B2B Deputy Managing Director