UK: What To Do When A Crisis Hits: Top 5 Tips

Last Updated: 14 March 2013
Article by Stuart Thomson

It is often said that the key issue to successful crisis management is recognising that you are in a crisis in the first place. Recent new stories on allegations, very strongly denied, against Lord Rennard have also become about how the Lib Dems handled the issue in the first place. A whole series of questions which may have huge political and reputational implications for the party are now being asked. Were the allegations considered properly? How were they first considered? Who knew what? Who took the decisions?

The handling of potential crises also shows that the often knee-jerk reaction to try and keep them as quiet as possible may not be the right option. It could be better to deal with them more clearly and from the outset rather than waiting for problems to emerge at a later date. Under these circumstances, not only does the organisation need to deal with the allegations but also give immediate consideration to how they deal with them in the first place.

If an organisation believes that it may be facing a crisis then there are a number of actions that need to be considered.

  1. Take advice – any decisions on the case should not be the preserve of a tightly knit group of people who all have a similar view of the world. This may mean bringing in outside help but it is really about the ability to think through the issue and ensuring some perspective which is the critical factor. A range of options and alternatives need to be considered and all the risks associated with a plan of action mapped out. What may appear to be the correct short term option may not look quite so good when the news comes out later. In other words be prepared to take comments from a range of opinions and disciplines, it will make for a more informed decision.
  2. Use the expertise around you – there will be people in and around the organisation that have relevant experience and this should be utilised. Too often, a crisis is treated as a one-off event and organisations fail to utilise the skills at their disposal. It should not be a case of starting from scratch every time. A properly thought through crisis plan should have a note of previous experience, lessons learned, individuals involved etc. Making the most of the collective corporate memory is essential.
  3. Think long term as well as short term – the crisis should not be considered solely as a short term, media management issue. Instead the potential long term implications should be part of the decision-making process. The different viewpoint may alter the actions chosen. It may be better to take a short term 'hit' rather than delaying the scrutiny. The short term urge to avoid media coverage may not be the right tactic. It may instead be better to take the 'hit' but use it as an opportunity to demonstrate that firm action has been taken.
  4. Investigate, investigate, investigate – a few conversations here and there handled by someone trusted in the organisations is not an investigation and will not be viewed as a proper investigation by the outside world. This means that when comments are made about an investigation or the promise of one they have to be extremely robust. An independent investigation is often promised but without a full consideration of what that means or entails.
  5. Media handling – obviously a critical factor but again the recent Lib Dem approach seems to show lessons have not be learned - inconsistent messages, denials followed by 'clarifications', a lack of clarity over how the allegations were handled etc. But add to the need for effective media handling, the need to work with and engage a range of stakeholders. For most organisations, the media are but one, albeit hugely important, audience. Too often politicians and policy-makers are ignored but they are the ones who are quoted in the media and make decisions which can have a lasting impact.

Each experience of a crisis should be treated as a learning experience and the resulting lessons should be fed back into the crisis planning process. It should not considered as a closed or isolated process.

There have many recent examples from the Lib Dems through to those supermarkets and suppliers affected by the horse meat scandal where effective crisis communications have been lacking. Each will have its own reasons for their respective communications failings but considering the points above will doubtless have helped.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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