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Crisis Management Shouldn’t be Measured by News Coverage

The annual ICM Crisis report is a fairly in-depth look at the most affected businesses and industries over the past year, explicitly pointing out several instances that garnered media attention (traditional or social) – and there’s the rub.  The analysis is derived from a look at negative news coverage, and the takeaway appears to be that issue and crisis management is merely about keeping bad news off CNN, out of The New York Times or off Twitter.

So there were 10,000-plus crisis situations that made news in ’08, but what about the thousands that didn’t make news because the organizations or industries were prepared for the worst that could happen?

Sure, every CEO’s bladder will burst on the boardroom floor at even the notion of bad publicity, and the poor soul in corporate communications will suffer mop-up duty consequences.  We’ve all been there facing panic-stricken suits looking for a panacea, and it’s not a catheter or ultra-absorbent Jockeys. Our role in these circumstances is obviously helping company executives communicate to their stakeholders, but we’re failing miserably if we leave it at that.

The very premise of issue and crisis management is prevention – not just stopping the headlines or social media storm, but anticipating internal and external threats or vulnerabilities and shoring up those gaps at the operational level.  It’s spending painstaking hours in the C-level suite agonizing over what gives the CEO insomnia and working with the senior management team on systems and protocols, and collaborating with industry, academia, vendors, suppliers and any other party in the supply chain.  It’s putting procedures in place to minimize the likelihood of disruption in business.  (Toward the back end of the ICM report, the authors talk about “smoldering crises,” and this is were we as counselors are most effective.)

Case in point: Shortly after wrapping up a crisis plan for a food client with distribution throughout North America, disaster struck – bacterial contamination.  Systems and protocols were in place; all hands were on deck, and steps were followed.  While all hell broke loose, the crisis – with significant financial implications for the client – was managed effectively and not one headline written.  Was it not a crisis because it didn’t make the news?

Here’s another: A bug practically naked to the human eye has the capability to wipe out the California citrus industry.  News and social media coverage is but one facet of the communications strategy to call upon stakeholders to take action before the problem becomes too serious.  Is it crisis out of control or effective issue management before reaching crisis level?

One more: A widely known national consumer brand dating back to the ’50s closes manufacturing operations, putting thousands out of work.  Protocols supported strategy, and there was barely a mention in any form of media.  Crisis?

It goes without saying that even the best laid plans can likely end up falling apart (human error; unidentified gaps) and manure will hit the fan any second.  It’s the construction site explosion and not just readying the foreman for the media onslaught, but also preparing him to deal with death and liability.  Or the bagged-salad company looped into a national recall, even if its product was perfectly fine; counseling the company and its legal team on strategy, including a review and revision of its disaster preparedness.

Handling media is but one part of the job; operating holistically is doing the whole job.

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