All BCM program components must be validated prior to any disaster ever occurring; the more validation performed, meaning the more tests with varying situations and scenarios are performed, the better the overall Crisis Management plan and strategy will achieve. The problem is that all too often an organization will draft a crisis management strategy (contained within the crisis management plan) and believe that it will work as documented. This isn’t always the case and in too many instances, it can prove to be detrimental to an organization when it’s experiencing a major business interruption – regardless of the trigger.
There are many indicators to show an organization that what it’s doing isn’t working and that the strategy they are currently working with needs an immediate change.
Disasters and crises can present many challenges for organization and an organization should no compound their own problems by not being alert to early signals that they might be heading down the wrong road.
Below are just a few of those early warning signs that can help an organization amend its crisis communication strategy (the plan) to ensure it doesn’t end up losing control of the overall situation.
1. Negative Social Media Traffic: You’re communicating all sorts of information but no matter what you do messages being posted on the various social media sites are negative towards you and your efforts. The cause could be that the messages you’re sending out aren’t addressing the concerns of those impacted or those that require information. Instead the messages are ‘self-serving’ and thus causing friction with the public, which results in negative comments being posted. Negative traffic can also be caused by the organization itself; it’s not all external. If an organization has schedule postings or updates about the latest product or service, it doesn’t hold well when these keep coming out during a disaster.
2. The Speaker is confused: Nothing is worse than having the ‘face’ face of the organization (that is experiencing the disaster) seem confused and not knowledgeable of what is going on; what the overall disaster situation is or what the organizations plans are in responding to the disaster. Any speaker should know what is occurring and be able to speak to the situation at hand and what the organization is doing; if they can’t, they will make the organization seem unprepared to respond and being in total confusion.
3. Rumours Abound: If you are addressing the situation and providing accurate information but rumours are still being spread, then the organization isn’t addressing the concerns of those needing information. Like #1, people will begin to determine their own conclusions based on little bits of information they come across and then post those conclusions to social media sites or through emails to others. When this occurs, ensure you address the rumours so that they can be dispelled immediately; not addressing rumours will mean they continue, which will harm your crisis management efforts even if you are doing the best you can.
4. Staff Rebellion: When staff begins to moan and groan, it probably means they’re not receiving information they require. Often, organizations focus so much on ensuring that others receiving information and they assume that employees know what they need to do or know where they need to go to get it; this isn’t always the case. You must include employee communications – and continued updates – in your crisis management strategy.
5. Media Questions & Responses: If the media are asking the same question over and over, or leading you back to the same question it means that a key point hasn’t been addressed. It may be something you don’t want to address or don’t know completely, and if so, you better be aware that the media won’t let go of the topic until they feel that it’s been addressed. If you don’t know, then state you don’t know and will update them when it’s possible to do so but ignoring it or simply ‘skirting’ around the topic will only cause them to continue to press for information, which in the end will look like you’re hiding something. And when that occurs, some organizations become antagonistic and begin to debate – to put it politely – with social media posters and traditional media representatives. Don’t get into a debate with them about what has or hasn’t occurred; you’re just being sidetracked by fictitious situations and scenarios being presented by people who have not received the basic information the organization needs to communicate.
6. Clear Lack of Awareness & Training: Nothing says a person don’t know what they’re talking about when they are full of “um’s” and “uh’s”. It shows that there is clearly no proper training in speaking in front of people or that a basic understanding of what the organization will do is severely lacking. It’s as though the person standing in front of the camera’s making it up as they are going or that their responses on social media sites are just basic run-of-the-mill responses; the kind you can relate to sports figures that rattle off basic one-liners after a game (i.e. it was a tough game, I thought the team did well, we played hard…etc). If anyone sounds like that, they know there is no real awareness or training on what needs to be done because during a disaster people are looking for specifics, not boiler plate responses. When there is a lack of training and overall response awareness by company spokespeople, messages can be contradictory because they are speaking ‘off the cuff’ or making it up based on what they ‘think’ is occurring behind the scenes rather than what is occurring. This is why training and awareness must be tailored for all areas of an organization; from the most senior position to the newest employee. Each must have a reasonable understanding of expectations and what role – if any – they will plan. Awareness isn’t just about the response activities but also awareness of what actually happened. People will send messages on social media based on what they know and if you’re organization isn’t aware of what happened, you won’t be perceived as really understanding the situation.
7. Lawyer Speak: There is a time and place for lawyers and lawyer speak but it’s not at the outset of a disaster when people need to know what has happened, what they need to do and if they are going to be impacted by the situation (if they haven’t been already). Lawyers don’t want leaders of organizations to take responsibility for the disaster but they have to take responsibility because they need to respond to it. Taking responsibility does NOT equate to accepting blame, which is what many legal representatives tell leaders. The time for legal speak comes when the dust has begun to settle and a clearer view of the situation comes to light; not at the outset when the main concern is people safety and getting operations back to an operating level. When legal representatives do all the talking for an organization, it sends the wrong message to the public, which are expecting the leader(s) of the organization to do all the talking and direction; to be the human face of the organization. Leaders are leaders during good times and must also be leaders during bad times, or else it shows that the organization has no plan in place and lacks clear leadership, which may not be the case…but will be the perception. It’s commonly joked by many individuals – the public in general – that lawyers and politicians can speak for ages but never say anything, so don’t let lawyers do the talking for you, even though they will play a key role in the crisis at later stages.
8. Communication & Decision Delays: If the chain of command is too long and the delay in obtaining decisions takes allot of time; then you can imagine the silence that would be coming from the organization when the demand for information by the media and public is increasing. If the decision process is taking too long then there is too much discussion occurring in the “Crisis Management” team and not enough action. This could be that the restoration/recovery/resumption/continuity plans are not sufficient enough to deal with the situation or possibly that required plans don’t exist. If they don’t, then that would cause the delay for decisions and in communications. Too much time at the boardroom table trying to figure out an action plan means no one is communicating outward to those needing information and that absence shows the media (and public) that there is no action plan in place. This is what causes rumour and conjecture to take hold and then cause a PR disaster for the organization. Not only are you fighting the disaster itself, you’re fighting public perception.
9. Leadership Visibility: During the Lac Megantic rail disaster in Quebec, Canada (July 6, 2013), the President of the rail line (Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway) waited days before appearing in the devastated town, believing that his presence was best spent at his corporate headquarters coordinating efforts. He wasn’t visible to those impacted or anyone else requiring information; the railway was ‘faceless’ and only press releases and comments released through the media were seen by people, which gave the message that the railway was hiding and wasn’t addressing the situation at hand; a situation that literally levelled the centre of the small town. This was not seen as acceptable especially when there are examples of leaders being on scene and taking control of bad situations such as the then New York mayor, Rudy Giuliani, who was coordinating efforts almost immediately after the 9/11 attacks.
10. Focusing on Blame: Continuing from #7, everyone will want to know the cause of the disaster and who’s at fault…but not immediately. Despite perceptions, an organizations first priority to ensure people safety; finding the blame can come later once the first priority has been taken care of. Unfortunately, some organizations would rather try to deflect criticism first and find the blame rather than addressing the key point of life safety. Even if 1st responders are available and internally employees were there to help any injured parties, if the communication coming out of the organization is about blame then the fact that the organization did help those impacted first, will get lost. There is a time for blame – and that’s when the time for investigating the cause has begun, not when the disaster first begins. Organizational resources will be focuses on people and then obtaining some level of operational capability and when that occurs, and then the cause can be looked at. Of course, if a major hurricane occurs then the cause of the disaster should be obvious but then the questions about why you weren’t prepared will surface.
11. Appear to be Uncaring: You can communicate all you wish and if you’re perceived to be uncaring then no amount of communications is going to change that. In a majority of situations, an organization tries to make itself the victim but in all cases, it’s the people impacted (or hurt) by the disaster that is the victim – not the organization. An organization is rarely seen as the victim, though the people within it can be perceived as victims. A crisis management plan addresses the situation at hand but must also address and focus on the impact the disaster on people; the real victims of the situation. If an organization doesn’t seem to come across as caring in its communications then it can be seen as a pariah within the community, rather than a member of the community and no amount of back-tracking is going to change that perception any time soon. Your crisis management plan – regardless of how extensive and comprehensive it is – won’t ever be perceived as successful because the external view of the organization is negative.
If any of the above noted aspects occur, you’re on your way to more problems as each item is an indication that your current crisis management strategy isn’t working and you need to ‘change gears’ quickly to get things back on track. Remember, this isn’t the restoration, recovery or resumption activities, this is how the organization manages the crisis (disaster) and if that isn’t working well, it makes no difference how successful your restoration and recovery activities are, people will still see your organization in a negative light.
© StoneRoad 2014
A.Alex Fullick has over 17 years experience working in Business Continuity and is the author of numerous books, including “Heads in the Sand” and “BIA: Building the Foundation for a Strong Business Continuity Program.”