The Pick 'n Pay "poisoner" scare maybe yesterday's news, but the case demonstrated in technicolour detail why every company should have a crisis management plan to product its reputation in case of disaster.
"Tell it all, tell it fast and tell the truth", was the theme of the Marcus Evans conference on Crisis Communication held in Johannesburg recently. International guest speaker and global specialist in crisis and emergency management systems, Alan Taylor, told delegates at the packed venue, that a crisis was the loss of management control resulting in an actual or potential threat to a company's long term ability to do business, due to the impact on the operability, image, reputation and liabilities of the company.
Speaking on the 'Anatomy of Crisis Management', Taylor, a director of Alan H Taylor & Associates in Australia, said the development and implementation of an effective crisis management system was crucial to any business. By definition, Crisis Management was "the strategy and actions undertaken to regain management control and protect corporate assets - real and intangible - from actual or potential threat to long term viability posed by a catastrophic incident, a non-physical event or a series of negative developments that escalate to crisis proportions."
And in order to ensure business continuity management, a company had to maintain transparent management control of a company during a crisis or an emergency. Taylor said there was a need to develop and implement a set of 'Standard Policy and Procedures' documentation such as:
* Crisis and Emergency Management Policy or Business Continuity Management Policy.
* Occupational Health and Safety Policy.
* Corporate Guidelines for Handling of Kidnap, Ransom and Extortion.
"All well founded companies should have policies and procedures in place to ensure continuous business continuity in the business world of today." These policies and procedures should cover:
* Company objectives (vision, mission, key core values, company charter, etc).
* Regulatory requirements.
* Insurance requirement.
* Social requirements (license to operate).
Part of that business continuity management system, was efficient and effective Crisis and Emergency Management (CEM) plans and procedures in place that can be activated in the event of an accident or incident.
Taylor warned that companies that did not have an effective and efficient CEM in place when an incident occurred, risked their reputation and made it difficult to exercise transparent management control, risking the escalation of an incident to crisis proportions. "Public opinion can form from perceptions or media opinion, which can turn to 'reality' and then solidify into 'fact'."
In fact, Taylor emphasised, a CEM system had to be embedded into the daily operations of any business.
Commenting on corporate culture and the challenges inherent in organisations, Taylor said that unfortunately, in many counties, companies still exist with 'silo mentalities' and have a pyramid management structure. "CEM, as described, is a flat structure which brings in the specific technical and operational expertise into a generic CEM structure, which has all the staff functional expertise and support functions already designated and trained to take over any incident and gain management control."
Trainer and reputation management specialist, Deon Binneman, spoke on the management of reputation prior to any crisis. "PR after the fact is not good enough," said Binneman, MD of Repucomm.
"Crisis Management deals with the reality of the crisis and Crisis Communications deals with the perception of the reality - the distinction is importance as this informs on which consultant or approach to use."
A comprehensive Reputation Management Framework consisted of :
* Risk identification and strategy.
* Governance structure.
* Management controls.
* Response (Crisis Management Structures).
* Disclosure (Communication with all stakeholders).
* Priority business and issue hotspots (based on risk profiling conclusions).
"The challenge for companies, stakeholders and assurance providers is to come up with a framework which can provide assurance on issues, systems and processes, impacts and outcomes, targets and objectives," Binneman said.
Agni International director and communications specialist, Brenda Kali, said in her speech, that interaction with the media in times of crisis is key.
"In any risk/crisis communication plan, gaining the support of the media should be a major objective. Effective communication during a high risk incident is absolutely essential as the reputation of the organisation is judged by the manner in which it communicates the event, rather than the actual event itself."
Kali pointed out that negative perception of the media in their coverage of a crisis is particularly dangerous to the company as the public hears, sees and reads about it, and good media relations will in fact often minimise the chances of bias or one-sided reportage.
"The consistency of a company's message to the media, investment community and other stakeholders is critical to the continued strength and reputation of the company's brand and equity in times of crisis.
Kali says key imperatives when dealing with the media during a crisis, are:
* Good media relations.
* Humanise your organisation.
* Proactive communication.
* Access to management.
* Access to information.
* Be aware of using emotive language.
* Keep it simple: always tell the truth.
In understanding the media, Kali recommends:
* Never ask to have a story withheld.
* Never ask to review a story before it is published.
* Avoid being evasive.
* Never question the right of a reporter to ask a question.
* Do not imply that a question is stupid.
* Keep promises and get back to the journalists with requested information.
"The better media are suspicious of PR gloss, especially during a crisis. They see themselves as society's watchdogs and are often antagonistic towards business. They feel that the only good story is the one you don't want to have published, not the hype handed out as media releases!" warns Kali.
Kali prepared a list of practical guidelines for companies during a crisis:
1. Respond immediately - express regret and concern for what has happened.
2. Establish the company immediately as the authoritative source of information.
3. Dependent on the nature of the crisis - contact emergency personnel and other stakeholders on the scene and discuss procedures for handling media questions.
4. Everyone involved in the incident needs to tell the same story (reporters often question emergency personnel and the police.)
5. Prepare a brief statement. Wordy releases often lead to distortion.
6. Always be available - and manage the flow of information.
7. Avoid automatically saying no comment.
8. Act with integrity and credibility - if you don't know, say so.
9. Tell the truth - but rather not comment if it is defamatory or injurious to the company.
10. When in trouble with a media query, buy time and consult. If the matter is potentially controversial, consult legal.