Your smartphone catching fire in your hand? This is not just a metaphorical image that might be resonating with you as a crisis manager. It became a physical reality in 2016 when Samsung released the new Galaxy S7. Reports from customers were followed by media headlines such as “Galaxy S7 Spews Fire”. Soon came the inevitable tsunami from Social Media. The hashtag #samsungonfire still yields, years later, an onslaught of damning posts. “Samsung offering explosive deals for Christmas.” “Breaking News: Terrorists are getting smarter as they are purchasing Samsung smartphones.” Samsung’s delay in communicating to the public resulted in their voice drowning in the ocean of collective outrage.
We live in unprecedented times: customers have the platform as much as companies do. And while companies communicate strategically, customers on Social Media are not bound by policies. Their frustration “catches fire”. A crisis would always inflict massive PR damage, but today’s digital culture multiplies this a hundredfold.
The stakes are higher than ever for companies to react adequately in the first hours of a crisis. They need to act decisively, quickly, with zero room for error, and to always be a step ahead in communication. Let’s explore specific steps to achieve this.
First 30 Minutes
Managers who know what decision to make, and managers who don’t. Experts who know what to do, and experts who don’t. People you need and people you don’t. How do you tell them apart? While you might have everyone’s name and phone number, each situation is unique. Too often in the initial chaos of a crisis, you get pigeonholed in investigating one issue only to find out hours later that the problem was something else. So now you need to contact more people and brief them from scratch.
The “War Room” concept takes the reverse approach. When a crisis strikes everyone gets together. The principle is that people can leave when their area is completely ruled out. Until then, everyone is on stand-by and helps the investigation as needed.
Everyone who has been involved in a crisis knows the desperate frustration of getting hold of people and controlling a scattered information flow.
A “War Room” resolves this with a designated space, both physical and digital.
- Have a specific room “reserved” in the office for crisis situations. When an incident happens, people can just walk over.
- More importantly, especially as most people work in different physical locations, it is essential to have a dedicated digital space where all relevant information, action items and their corresponding status, can easily be tracked. In contrast to chaotic email communication and spreadsheets which need to constantly be updated and sent out to everyone, having a centralized interactive platform, such as Krizo, removes the majority of obstacles in managing a crisis and replaces them with a clean Kanban-like overview of all pending actions and their owner, status and priority. In a crisis, it is invaluable to have a space where everyone can connect and instantaneously see all necessary information.
Once you have ensured that everyone connects to one dedicated space, the “When” becomes “Right now.” Hours of chasing the right people and managing chaotic streams of information are scrapped, and you are already many steps ahead.
Crisis communication can only be equated to tightrope walking. Too much defensiveness, and you’re blamed for concealing information. Too much acceptance of responsibility, and suddenly you are liable. It is a daunting task, so as always when facing a complex problem; let’s break it into smaller components.
Get The Facts
Sounds simple, but it never is. People are in panic and aggravated. Think of yourself as a doctor examining a patient in emotional distress: remain calm and methodically get the most basic facts.
- What is the exact problem?
- What is the impact on the business?
- When did it start? When was the last time it was working?
- What is the name of the device/s impacted?
- Is the device offline or online?
- When and what was the last change implemented in this environment?
- Do we have resiliency?
- Has any data been lost?
- Do we have a backup of any lost data, which we can restore?
Depending on the business specifics of the company, these questions will vary. The point is to get all the basics right, as they are the foundation for all of your next steps. An integral and difficult-to-master part of managing a crisis is the lack of information and your ability to make decisions with limited information available – so make sure you get the initial ones straight.
Without exception, as you explore the above questions you will begin to get a sense of what issue you are dealing with. As soon as the problem starts taking shape, your technical experts can start the troubleshooting process. In a War Room scenario, you’d have all of your teams investigating in parallel.
The approach of “parallel actions” is widely recognized as the most efficient one in crisis management. It not only saves time, but it helps in the diagnosis of the issue by taking into account a multitude of factors. Which is why the future of crisis management lies in the development and automation of action plans which allow parallel activities by – in advance – taking into account all the key players, all the business context, and the technical infrastructure of your environment. Having operational, pragmatic and easy-to-understand crisis management plans can “make or break” the initial phase of the resolution process, by giving you a headstart in the investigation. To explore how to develop an integrated, flexible and highly operational plan, visit this link.
Hour 1 – 2
The Business Talk
As people are doing the first checks, you need to hold a business conversation with your internal stakeholders. There are a few crucial elements that must be covered rapidly:
- What is the impact on the business?
- How will this impact increase if the issue is not solved in X hours?
- What are the business priorities?
- Which internal stakeholders need to be sought for approval, for resolution steps and external communication?
- What message are we sending to our external clients?
While the first four points can get clarified within minutes, the 5th point is a truly challenging one. This is where you need input from your key stakeholders as they bring knowledge of political, financial and legal nuances. Always consult with them before sending out external communication.
The Internal Comms
Everything you discuss with your internal stakeholders, needs to be recorded in writing. Traditionally, this is done in an email, however an email thread becomes too long and incomprehensible during a crisis. Information is shared in bits and pieces, so you have to scroll down in order to get the full picture, and the larger your audience, the more people are likely to reply, splitting the main thread in two different ones. This is extremely confusing for your audience, but more notably it can significantly delay and even derail your resolution process.
But keeping everyone on the same page is our number one priority during a crisis. Nowadays, most multinational companies have teams and key players spread out all over the world, covering different time-zones and shifts. Also, don’t forget your stakeholders who could at any moment in time be sprung in a conversation with a client, a legal representative or even a reporter. The importance of keeping everyone on the same page, from your resolution team to your C-level stakeholders, cannot be understated. And this can only happen with a ‘paper trail’, a written official communication, which everyone has immediate access to.
The ideal solution is for a platform where live updates are logged and automatically sent out to your audience. It is centralized, and leaves no room for confusion or misinterpretation. During the moment when your team is working on, for example, bringing a server back online, your CEO would be able to tell their client “We are currently working on bringing the server back online.” Having a unified organization during a crisis is invaluable.
The External Comms
The external message needs to be published as fast as possible, ideally within one to two hours after the crisis has been detected. A general rule of thumb is to keep it focused on the “service”, on the actions you are taking, and to not overburden it with technicalities. An example message from Samsung would have been: “Samsung has pulled a crisis response team to investigate the recent reports of device explosions, and is taking immediate measures to minimise danger by recalling the devices from the market.”
Hour 2 – 3
What’s the plan?
In this case, by the second or third hour you should have tried most troubleshooting techniques and narrowed down your course of action. You need to ensure the following questions have answers, and then communicate them to your internal stakeholders:
- What are the exact steps?
- Who is responsible for which step?
- How long is each step expected to take?
- If the plan doesn’t work, what is our Plan B?
Hour 4 – 12
As the resolution progresses, your focus shifts towards maintaining a smooth operation: ensuring that the stakeholders are calm and that your resolution team can do their work. The key steps to keep in mind:
- Send regular updates to your stakeholders on the progress of the resolution.
- Always tell when the next update will be sent. If you are using a system or a platform which automatically triggers the next message at a predetermined time not only guarantees high trust from your audience in your consistent comms, but it helps you by removing the necessity to keep track of update timings and sending them out manually.
- At hour 5 or 6, start thinking about lining up backups for your technical team, ideally bringing them in early so that the handover can be seamless.
The importance of reacting rapidly to a crisis, with an “all hands on deck” approach, cannot be overstated. By demonstrating to your internal and external stakeholders that you are taking the situation very seriously, you are killing two birds with one stone. You are ensuring an adequate resolution while mitigating potential damage to the company’s reputation.
Leaders of today must be prepared to handle crises and while it can be hard to foresee exactly what crisis that will knock on your door, you can always train the process and your team, which we highly recommend you do because it will give you the toolbox on how to operate in such a chaotic and dynamic environment where the entirety of your organisation is on the line.