Why the only certainty in 2020 is more uncertainty

Originally published on Stoppress

If the culture of your company is to be one which responds well to crisis, leaders need to be trained and ready to drop everything else at a moment’s notice to deal with an emerging crisis, writes Kate Alexander of Alexander PR.

As we all expected, the new decade dawned dramatically. The world is contending with climate and related natural threats, from the Australia bushfire catastrophe to the Covid-19 pandemic, and the year 2020 is certain to be filled with political drama amid the New Zealand and US general elections, Brexit and more.

In the South Pacific region, with many companies having operations in both Australia and New Zealand, events in one market typically affect business in both countries. Growing up with parents who were businesspeople and farmers I was aware from an early age that at times bad things happen to good people. It taught me to have empathy for businesses around New Zealand, Australia and further afield who are facing serious and unpredictable issues on an increasing basis.

Businesses can prepare themselves now to fend off whatever may come their way and survive – and even thrive within – the vicissitudes of the natural, cultural and political environment. Here is a real-life guide to being ready for crisis:

1. Establish a system of constant environment scanning.
It’s about really listening. Determine what constitutes environment scanning for your business; is it monitoring media for keywords, checking in regularly with certain stakeholders, monitoring weather and financial reports for signs of volatility that could affect your business?

Who on your team is responsible for this, who is the back-up in the event the key person/s is not there, and who do they report to? How is the whole company educated about environment scanning so they know to raise a flag if they spot something of interest? The key to effective scanning is training everyone to be aware of issues that are relevant to the company, then ensuring they feel confident about speaking up – and that the chain of command works well so the C-suite/board are brought in when needed.

2. Set leadership up to be nimble.
If the culture of your company is to be one which responds well to crisis, leaders need to be trained and ready to drop everything else at a moment’s notice to deal with an emerging crisis. This may mean leaving an important meeting, jumping on a plane or even cancelling a holiday at a moment’s notice. Make sure the key people in your business are briefed as to what constitutes business NOT as usual and how they are expected (and empowered) to react. They may need to make big decisions unilaterally or on the hop and need pre-authorisation to do so.

3. Keep your communication channels updated and ready.
The test is whether you can communicate clearly and directly with all stakeholder groups within 30 minutes of the crisis being identified, and whether the messaging is consistent across all those groups – which may be staff, customers/clients, directors, media and the general public, and possibly across a wide geographic area. You will need to deploy mobile and email databases, instant messaging, social media channels, Zoom/Skype or conference call facilities, and more. Check that all that data is current, and that you have well-functioning systems for feeding in fresh data and deleting anything no longer current.

4. Make sure all spokespeople are media-ready and well messaged.
When the crisis hits, the company needs a voice, and whomever is speaking for the business must be well prepared and properly supported. The first rule is to be honest. The second is to put people first. It is not an easy job, no matter how practiced you are. The most difficult crises can be the ones that seem to drop out of a clear blue sky, and the company CEO is doorstepped unexpectedly on a random Tuesday morning because of something that (for example) was posted on social media overnight. The best training is the kind that is done in advance of necessity, and the people who will be held to account in a crisis are trained to respond to tricky questions about a variety of scenarios. The key is to imagine every crisis that could reasonably affect the business and work out, step by step, how it would be handled when a camera is pointed at one of the leaders of the business.

5. Decide who is responsible for leading the crisis response.
An important addendum to the spokesperson question is who is going to be the point person at any given time. If the CEO (or another appointed crisis leader) is at the bach, on a long flight, in surgery or otherwise way out of range for the critical first 24 hours, who is in charge? The company’s crisis plan should always include a plan B designate, and they must be media-trained, fully messaged and properly supported as well.

6. Always stay close to the people who matter.
There is a consumer expectation now that good companies invest in and ‘give back’ to the communities in which they operate. This doesn’t need to amount to huge annual expenditure, but businesses and their leaders do need to show goodwill, good faith and a sense of responsibility as commercial operators. It goes beyond the simple provision of goods and services. Handling a crisis and coming out of it well depends in part on how close you have remained to the communities in which your company operates. Have you been in touch over the years when times were good? Do the people in the community know the company’s leaders? When the chips are down and questions are being asked about your company’s role in an ‘event’, relationships count for a lot.

7. Audit your response plan regularly.
It’s never about having a pile of files sitting on a few people’s desks. It’s more about the muscle memory of how to reactive when it hits the fan. Who connects with whom? Who takes what action? Companies have health and safety drills, fire drills. How often have your leaders taken themselves out of their comfort zones and dedicated the time to go through, step by step, what the team and each leader would do under the stress of a tricky issue or a crisis. Forward-thinking boards/directors and leading companies have a risk matrix of the top three issues that they are likely to face, they have a real-world plan for each one, and they audit the plans regularly to keep them current.


By Kate Alexander, Crisis & Legal Consultant, Alexander PR

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