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How to get senior management to act on your crisis communication plan

01 Jun, 2020 Issues and crises, Proving PR value

Well, well…the threat of a virus pandemic never entered experts’ minds, not to mention the mind of the average person. All other risks have paled in comparison. Nevertheless, other risks still exist. Every week we see in the media the latest terrorism incident that has been thwarted or happened in countries around the world. And, of course, there are all the types of corporate crises that could happen, many related to the internet and information technology. In view of all this, you need to get senior management to act on your crisis communication plan.

One of the first considerations in a crisis plan is to monitor and analyze information about potential risks in the operating environment. As we have seen with COVID-19 and its variants, as well as other risks, many global risks have potential to affect your organization at a local level. What’s more, sudden crises accounted for more than 50% of worldwide media coverage of crises in 2020, according to the Institute for Crisis Management in its 2020 annual report, published in August 2021. Previously, ‘smoldering’ crises accounted for two thirds of crisis situations. Smoldering crises are much easier to predict and minimize, so the predominance of sudden crises in 2020 may be a sign of the future. Many countries are already reeling from sudden extreme weather, and other crises like employment uncertainty and loss of social cohesion caused by inequality. It is therefore prudent to consider these types of potential risks as part of your business environment scanning for crisis communication planning.

WEF global picture of risks and potential crises

The World Economic Forum (WEF) conducted a survey in 2021, which found the most common concerns about global risk, as noted in the chart below. The WEF defines global risk as the possibility of the occurrence of an event or condition that, if it occurs, could cause significant negative impact for several countries or industries. For the purposes of the WEF’s Global Risks Report 2022, the scope was over the next 10 years, and included human suffering, societal disruption, economic shock, environmental degradation, and political instability. Respondents were “the Forum’s extensive network of academic, business, government, civil society and thought leaders. Survey responses were collected in September-October 2021 from the WEF’s multi-stakeholder communities (including the Global Shapers Community), the professional networks of its Advisory Board, and members of the Institute of Risk  Management.”

Image: World Economic Forum The Global Risks Report 2022, 17th edition, p. 14.

Disruptive forces

In a similar way, Amy Webb, Professor of Strategic Foresight at New York University, summarized “The 11 sources of disruption every company must monitor” in the MITSloan Management Review of 10 March 2020. Being aware of these potential sources of disruption enable competent management of risk in your communication strategies. Webb uses a simple tool to apply the future forces theory to organizations as they are developing strategic thinking. The tool lists 11 sources of macro change that are typically outside a leader’s control. She says technology is so intertwined with everyday life that it is shown as intersecting with all the other sources in the image below.

Image: The 11 sources of disruption every company must monitor, MITSloan newsletter, March 2020.

Prof. Webb says:

In 15 years of quantitative foresight research, I have discovered that all change is the result of disruption in one or more of these 11 sources. Organizations must pay attention to all 11 — and they should look for areas of convergence, inflections, and contradictions. Emerging patterns are especially important because they signal transformation of some kind. Leaders must connect the dots back to their industries and companies and position teams to take incremental actions.

The 11 sources of change might seem to raise an immense number of potential risk issues at first, but there are big benefits from taking such a broad viewpoint. The most success arises in teams who use the macro change tool not just for a specific deliverable but to encourage ongoing signal scanning. Webb says sources of macro change encompass the following:

  1. Wealth distribution: the distribution of income across a population’s households, the concentration of assets in various communities, the ability for individuals to move up from their existing financial circumstances, and the gap between the top and bottom brackets within an economy.
  2. Education: access to and quality of primary, secondary, and post-secondary education; workforce training; trade apprenticeships; certification programs; the ways in which people are learning and the tools they’re using; what people are interested in studying.
  3. Infrastructure: physical, organizational, and digital structures needed for society to operate (bridges, power grids, roads, Wi-Fi towers, closed-circuit security cameras); the ways in which the infrastructure of one city, state, or country might affect another’s.
  4. Government: local, state, national, and international governing bodies, their planning cycles, their elections, and the regulatory decisions they make.
  5. Geopolitics: the relationships between the leaders, militaries, and governments of different countries; the risk faced by investors, companies, and elected leaders in response to regulatory, economic, or military actions.
  6. Economy: shifts in standard macroeconomic and micro-economic factors.
  7. Public health: changes occurring in the health and behavior of a community’s population in response to lifestyles, popular culture, disease, government regulation, warfare or conflict, and religious beliefs.
  8. Demographics: observing how birth and death rates, income, population density, human migration, disease, and other dynamics are leading to shifts in communities.
  9. Environment: changes to the natural world or specific geographic areas, including extreme weather events, climate fluctuations, rising sea levels, drought, high or low temperatures, and more. Agricultural production is included in this category.
  10. Media and telecommunications: all of the ways in which we send and receive information and learn about the world, including social networks, news organizations, digital platforms, video streaming services, gaming and e-sports systems, 5G, and the boundless other ways in which we connect with each other.
  11. Technology: not as an isolated source of macro change, but as the connective tissue linking business, government, and society. We always look for emerging tech developments as well as tech signals within the other sources of change.

As a communicator, you can take a leading role in influencing your top management to extend their horizon and start identifying tomorrow’s disruptors. This would be a great opportunity to add value to your role – not just monitoring the current operating environment, but anticipating future actions that may be needed. You can also read more about identifying risk in my article, “Management of risk in your communication planning.”

Crises are largely about the perceptions of stakeholders

Whether you are inhouse or a consultant, crises are relevant to you as a communicator because crises are largely about the perceptions of stakeholders. Operational managers can deal with operational emergencies, but crises happen when emergency incidents impact on stakeholders, whose actions can affect the ability of your organization to survive. That’s where you come in – to communicate with key stakeholder groups such as employees, customers, shareholders, government regulators and suppliers.

It’s not easy to get senior management to actively support crisis communication plans. Most of them don’t want to know about crises. They know the chance of being caught up in a crisis is tiny and they don’t want to take time away from their daily work priorities to deal with something that just might happen one day, and then again, it might not. And crisis preparation costs money in staff time, in equipment and other resources. Point to business crises that have recently occurred, and use these as a basis for convincing senior management to act on your crisis communication plan.

What’s more, many executives perceive crises and emergencies only in terms of an operational response (“put the fire out and return to full operations ASAP”). They look at communication only as an afterthought to the real work. This is an extremely frustrating attitude to encounter. Those executives will need to be convinced of the impact on your organization’s operations and therefore profitability before they take full notice of your communication plan. (In a government agency the discussion would need to be about the impact on output and the fallout from politicians to a public shambles.)

One fatal assumption many organizations make is to think their own IT and server will be available during a crisis. You need to ensure you can communicate with key stakeholders from your back up system for a significant time during a crisis. Lack of thought in this area could come back to bite you. Save your crisis response material on a separate server and regularly update it so that you can use it during a crisis, even from other premises.

How to get senior management to support your communication plan

A great crisis communication plan is only as good as the extent to which it is implemented. Here are some ideas to get senior management to respect your crisis communication plan and support its implementation:

  • Be an ambassador of communication. Every person in your organization involved in emergency management should know your first name and face. Meet the emergency-procedures planners informally and talk to them about how better communication with key stakeholders would help them achieve their crisis management goals.
  • Inform senior managers of clear objectives for communication in a crisis. When many emergency response planners think of ‘communication’ they tend to think of two-way radios or other forms of telecommunication. It might be better to use terms like ‘stakeholder information’, ‘public communication’ , ‘regulators’ or ‘decision-makers’ in a crisis.
  • Tell senior managers how the overall response and recovery operation is more effective by investing in crisis communication activities. In fact, poor crisis communication could destroy the organization. Use the examples of cases you can find to persuade senior management to act on your crisis communication plan.
  • Always ensure you have fully completed your allotted tasks in the preparation of a crisis communication plan that you bring to discuss at committee meetings. Other people can tell if you have rushed your preparation or if you have neglected parts of it, so they will lose respect if you have failed to honor your commitments.
  • Since most executives are busy with their day-to-day activities, they tend to put off the time needing to be spent on emergency and crisis response activities. You can take the initiative and systematically arrange meetings with key managers to discuss the importance and the broad content of their communication role in a crisis
  • There are many high-profile examples you can cite of good and bad examples of crisis communication to back your case. Document each example concisely and circulate the documents in a regularly spaced series, ie a month or two apart, to management to drive your message home to them.

Any concerns about management not understanding the importance of crisis communication must be addressed in the pre-crisis planning phase. You need to be proactive and meet with the emergency response planners now. Show them your competence and expertise. Be energetic. Set your own time aside for thinking through and documenting for your reference any action points. Act promptly on those action points. So many types of crises have emerged in recent years that it is essential for you to get senior management to act on your crisis communication plan.

Photo by Edwin Hooper on Unsplash – The World restaurant in the UK temporarily closed due to CLOVID-19.

About Kim Harrison – author, editor and content curator

Kim Harrison, Founder and Principal of Cutting Edge PR, 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 his books available from cuttingedgepr.com.

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