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Simple early warning tools to identify potential issues and crises

01 Jun, 2020 Issues and crises

This article was originally published in 2015 and has been completely updated in 2020.

Around 70% of corporate crises smolder – they should have been identified and precautions or responses planned well before they hit. Crises might be a surprise, but they don’t just strike without warning. Issues that could become crises can generally be identified easily. Several sensible techniques give early warning of possible issues that can lead to crises.

What’s more, 80% of crises are caused internally – by actions or inactions of management (50%) or other employees (30%). Monitoring mechanisms can improve this situation.

Several sensible techniques can give early warning of possible issues that can lead to crises. These are very easy ways to monitor your internal and external operating environment and keep senior management alerted to possible serious problems. These techniques are a great way to strengthen perceptions of the communication role at the same time.

Market research

When budgets allow, information gained from market research is an important way of identifying issues and their importance. However, formal market research is costly and only suited to large programs.

On the other hand, smaller market research projects are feasible by piggybacking questions onto an ‘omnibus’ survey, which market research firms conduct on behalf of several clients simultaneously. This spreads the cost among several clients.

Another option is to conduct your own surveys using software such as SurveyMonkey. Just ensure you have a sufficiently large mailing list. This type of survey has the advantage of being sent to your newsletter recipients. Also, pop-ups can be arranged so the visitors to your website are prompted to participate in the survey every time they visit your site. Although this can be bothersome to visitors, apparently it does work quite well, especially if you offer a reward for participating.

Media monitoring

Media monitoring is the obvious technique to monitor the operating environment. You can appoint a monitoring service to do this, although the service can quickly run out of control unless you brief very carefully about the specific keywords you are interested in. If you are too vague or generalized about the keywords you want monitored, the service may pick up many irrelevant items and fail to pick up significant ones. This can cause you to spend much unnecessary time in manual processing of results.

A free alternative is to set up Google Alerts to pick up web coverage of topics.

And, of course, you should be scanning relevant news media yourself, including local and national newspapers, news websites, and business and industry magazines. Also, you could keep an eye on television news in the evenings. You might be able to spread the load with colleagues on this. In addition to news, all these sources are important for sparking ideas for related feature items. For instance, scanning travel and lifestyle features in newspapers can be hugely fruitful for adapting specific angles if these sectors are relevant to you or your clients. Plus this type of scanning gives you a general feel for what is covered in these items.

There are many ways to monitor coverage in social media as well. One increasingly important part of a company’s strategic early warning system is sniffing signals in social media discussions. More on that in another newsletter.

Listening at events

Listening is a key skill in this age that tends to be submerged under the constant need to send out key messages. Try listening to this TED talk on…listening. The same skill can be applied in an issue management identification approach at events in which your organization is involved.

A community, school or other similar activity creates a great opportunity to interact with stakeholders. Attending such activities with them provides common ground, which is key to gaining their trust. They are more likely to talk forthrightly and honestly with you.

Meet key stakeholders

It is important for organizations to have periodic meetings with various key stakeholders such as politicians, industry leaders and even competitors in your industry . Such occasions should be treated as vital because they create the opportunity to gain some feedback about how your organization is viewed by your stakeholders and those whose views the stakeholder may claim to represent. The occasions also enable business relationships to be strengthened and common issues to be discussed.

Current or pending changes in government action can shift the basis of competition or make it easier for entrants to an industry. The government is often portrayed as an inhibitor to innovation, but many commercial innovations, including the internet, mobile technologies, and countless lifesaving drugs, have emanated from government research. When governments change the rules, or focus their huge buying power in new directions, organizations need to understand and act. Keeping close to government stakeholders will help to identify such changes.

Are your employees listening as well as advocating?

Employees are your key stakeholder group. Research shows that cultivating strong relationships with employees produces strong organizational performance. Therefore it is crucial to pay attention to employee views expressed at social functions, where they are likely to relax and offer their sincere opinions based on what they perceive at their frontline level about customers and competitors. This helps you to understand changing customer preferences and habits due to changing technologies and social standards.

In many cases, supplier comments to your employees will give important insights into trends such as new technology advances by established and new competitors. Such feedback from interactions at work and at functions and other gatherings enables you to learn of emerging issues.

Regulatory interaction

Companies in various industries, particularly those affecting the environment, are obliged by law and by regulation to consult with local communities. This obliges them to interact with a wide range of stakeholders, informing them of intended operations and asking them a range of questions. Apart from the matter under question, this process creates the early opportunity to further identify any potential issues significant to the organization.

What people are saying about your competitors

Public stakeholder feedback about your competitors is a valuable early warning tool for your organization. Such feedback may emerge in publicly available documents such as community response to projects that affect the environment. Such feedback may be unreliable and unrepresentative, but perceptions can cause more damage to reputation than facts.

Feedback about competitors is valuable because it gives insights into what stakeholders may also think about your organization for you to act upon. You can establish networks of key employees who can give this type of information to you.

Organizations need to do more than analyze early warning signals. They need to make sure they organize and act in ways that maximize their chances of responding effectively. And they need to recognize that, all too often, the right time to start is before they feel the need to respond. Good early warning systems can provide the information to help inform these decisions.

About the author Kim Harrison

Kim Harrison loves sharing actionable ideas and information about professional communication and business management. He has wide experience as a corporate affairs manager, consultant, author, lecturer, and CEO of a non-profit organization. Kim is a Fellow and former national board member of the Public Relations Institute of Australia, and he ran his State’s professional development program for 7 years, helping many practitioners to strengthen their communication skills. People from 115 countries benefit from the practical knowledge shared in his monthly newsletter and in the eBooks available from cuttingedgepr.com.

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