A crisis is just like an express train – there's always one just around the corner and it travels very, very fast.
Take this January as an example. The month started well, but after just two weeks we were in Crisis Central Station. From HMV's administration, to horse burgers and Lance Armstrong's performance on 'Oprah', the month threw up more than its fair share of bad news as brands imploded.
It doesn't have to be that way and you just need to plan for it.
Keeping the analogy rolling, sometimes the light at the end of a tunnel is an oncoming train. To get on board safely, follow three simple steps:
1: Preparation planning
2: Response planning
3: Recovery planning
Step 1: Best practice preparation
Start by formally defining what makes a crisis – like the old adage, don't make a mountain out of a molehill.
With this basic definition in hand, the next step is to build a set of measurements of crisis impact. The best ones are:
• Physical impact e.g. human loss.
• Financial impact e.g. lost revenue.
• Reputation impact e.g. brand damage
It's now much easier to plan for a best and worst-case scenario and to decide how and when issues get escalated in a live response.
Step 2: Respond with clarity, speed, accuracy
There is one thing people want in a crisis and that's information. It's also the thing that is in shortest supply so follow the '4 Rs' of crisis response:
1: Regret – say you are sorry and mean it.
2: Resolve – prove you are sorry by fixing what's broken as quickly as you can. If it's going to take time, explain that clearly and openly. And tell people.
3: Reform – find and fix the root cause of the problem to ensure it doesn't happen again. And tell people.
4: Recompense – if your mistake costs people money, you need to fix that for them too. It may not always be necessary, but plan for it.
Step 2(A): understand the media response to another fine MESS
If you haven't planned for a crisis then, like Laurel and Hardy, you will find yourself in 'another fine mess'. That mess is like a meal with four courses:
Mayhem – this is the chaos at the start. Media will report the mayhem as quickly as possible.
Epicentre – is where the media will likely go next to see what's at the core of the problem.
Searchlights – will then shine on the person or people who caused the problem.
Stoplight – the crisis reporting does stop and is superseded by the next crisis.
Throughout the MESS, the role of leadership is crucial so invest in capabilities of key spokespeople.
Ensure they can clearly articulate and communicate the cause, effect and solution as you strive to keep customers.
This communication needs to happen internally and externally.
Keeping your employees up to speed is vital. You need a coalition of the willing and in a crisis your frontline teams need information.
Step 3: Recovery (aka when will it end?)
For everyone in the white heat of a crisis, it seems to go on and on and on. But research shows that crises typically last about 50 days. These will be days of unrelenting pain but it does come to an end. If you have built a plan, followed the 4R's and navigated the MESS, then you are well on the way to recovery.
But this is the long hard slog when you need to build up the deposits again in the bank of goodwill.
Putting your marketing expertise into action is vital for recovery. Things do return to normal. And if you are lucky or if you plan for it, the new normal may even be better than before, so never waste a good crisis by failing to plan.
Alan Tyrrell is deputy managing director of Pembroke Communications (www.pembrokecomms.ie) and leads the firm's Corporate Division