Companies are increasingly
emphasizing proactive approaches
to crisis communication
by Caroline Sapriel
orporations have long
understood that they
must be prepared to
respond effectively to
crises. But today many
are emphasizing anticipation, preven-
tion and mitigation of crises as well.
Communicators in particular have an
opportunity to help shape best practices
in this critical management function.
In response to the threats posed by a
more complex world, crisis communication
over the past two decades has become more
sophisticated. Gone are the days when corporate
spokespeople could work with their journalist
contacts to mop up bad news when things went
wrong. Crisis management used to consist of having the
PR department write up a crisis manual and organize media
training to make sure top management was ready for the worst.
24 Communication World • September–October 2007 www.iabc.com/cw
Today, proactive crisis management and mitiga- Rethinking crisis communication plans
tion includes a more deliberate process of identi- Shift your organization’s focus from reactive to proactive crisis communication:
fying risks and issues early and managing them G Establish cross-business line risk and issues management systems to monitor, assess
before they escalate to crisis levels. Especially since and manage threats. For example, instead of having the communication department
September 11, 2001, both the public and private and finance or planning departments manage issues and risks on behalf of the entire
sectors have come to recognize that communica- organization, best practice calls for all functions to manage their respective risks and
tion is a strategic tool that’s not only useful in the issues under an umbrella of cross-organizational issues and risk management systems.
midst of crisis, but may be even more important This approach ensures alignment and consistency across departments and functions
in the pre- and post-crisis phases. and enhances the organization’s ability to detect risk.
Communicators are uniquely positioned to G Establish and manage risk based on well-defined common assessment criteria that are
integrate crisis communication into the overall adopted throughout the organization.
business strategy. “Professional communicators G Manage risk and issues through clearly assigned areas of expertise. For example, assign
understand the environment their organization responsibility for risk management to people with particular knowledge in that area.
operates in, which provides them with a keen G Identify stakeholders and map out their potential actions early in the business planning,
understanding of emerging discrepancies that can project management and market entry cycle to build resilient strategies.
evolve into a crisis,” says Dr. Arjen Boin, director G Plan for potential scenarios for each case based on detailed stakeholder analysis and risk
of the Leiden University Crisis Research Center in impact assessment.
the Netherlands. Because they have their fingers G Define communication strategies to anticipate, prevent and mitigate escalation.
on the public’s pulse, Boin continues, “they also —C.S.
have a good grasp of the credit level remaining for
an organization hit by crisis. This allows for a
smoother transition back to a state of normalcy.” Consequently, organizations are shifting their
Statistics show that most business crises today focus to issues and risk management to monitor
are non-event-related, or so-called smoldering new and unimagined threats and, if possible, to
crises (see “Sudden vs. Smoldering Crises,” anticipate and prevent their escalation. For
below). This implies that a great majority of busi- instance, when Hong Kong hosted the World
ness crises could be prevented or mitigated. Trade Organization conference in 2005, the com-
munication groups in all the key companies of
one of Hong Kong’s leading multinational con-
Sudden vs. smoldering crises glomerates put in place contingency plans to mit-
igate potential incidents, alerting management to
possible complications and escalation (such as in
31% the case of SARS), ensuring crisis management
procedures were in place and well maintained,
and capturing and sharing lessons learned by
1996 Need for integration
1998 Corporations recognize more and more that crisis
1999 management must be institutionalized and that
2001 all key business functions must formally antici-
2002 pate, prevent, mitigate and recover from a crisis—
2004 a task made more challenging by the complexity
Smoldering 2005 and size of today’s organizations, and the effects of
69% restructuring, mergers and acquisitions, and
divestments, and the ever-growing number and
Research from the Institute of Crisis Management diversity of stakeholders.
has shown that nearly three-quarters of all organi- “Today we see a more integrated approach,”
zational crises are “smoldering,” that is, non-event- says Bjorn Edlund, vice president of communica-
related, and therefore potentially preventable. tions for Royal Dutch Shell. “The higher level of
www.iabc.com/cw Communication World • September–October 2007 25
dian, whether an individual senior staff member age reporting, plan for different scenarios and
or a department, and embed it into corporate mitigate effects, can actually unveil opportunities
management planning. for improvements and enhance efficiency across
When the business contingency planning the business (see “The Crisis Management
process is not assigned to a custodian in the Culture Ladder,” right).
organization, corporate communication depart- Moving up the ladder from reactive to calcula- The crisis management
ments are increasingly called on to take on its tive to proactive and finally generative, organiza- culture ladder
coordination. tions must examine the external context more Forward-thinking companies are
“While crisis management and communica- closely and listen to their stakeholders’ percep- taking a look at how they view
tion today definitely play a much more promi- tions and needs while staying on track with busi- crisis management. The “ladder”
nent role than, say, 10 years ago, I observe a dual ness goals. In crisis mitigation, the communicator below describes the various
evolution,” says Marianne Amssoms, vice presi- is often best placed to link these. states of readiness to crisis, from
dent of corporate external communication at Not all crises are preventable. However, having least prepared to fully prepared
InBev, the Belgian-Brazilian multinational brew- effective risk and issues management processes in for almost any kind of crisis.
ery company. “Many companies have embraced place will help organizations plan and be more
crisis management, introducing the necessary proactive, deciding whether to take, treat, transfer Generative: Crisis anticipation
procedures and tools to increase crisis awareness, or terminate the risk. and prevention is how we do
preparedness and management, and external cat- More than ever, communicators can make their business around here.
alysts have multiplied over the years. Consumer mark on crisis management not only to facilitate Proactive: We continuously work
organizations, shareholder associations and pres- preparation and response but also to anticipate, on problems that we still find.
sure groups have become more organized and prevent and mitigate. Communicators in profes- Calculative: We have systems in
outspoken. Our role as professional communica- sional organizations are recognizing and seizing place to manage crises.
tors is to drive the agenda to get to an integrated this opportunity to demonstrate the long-term Reactive: Crisis management is
crisis approach.” strategic benefits of a proactive crisis management important; we do a lot every
culture in their organization. time we have a problem.
Moving up the ladder So is the role of communication truly gaining Pathological: Who cares as long
Across industry sectors, best-practice organiza- momentum in an integrated crisis management as we’re not caught?
tions are busy designing a sustainable crisis antic- approach?
ipation, prevention, mitigation and recovery “I am not sure whether this is a general trend or
capability, and building a proactive crisis manage- a growing realization among trendsetters,” says
ment culture—one where the continuous drive to Boin. “Recent crises suggest this may not be a
detect problems and identify issues early, encour- widely shared insight, but that it should be.” G
stage, because the federal gov- How does SWIFT approach the organization. It is our role
ernment program had to remain risk management and business to pick things up and escalate
confidential, we established a continuity in relation to crisis them appropriately. That does
confidential project team to management? not mean corporate communi-
address leaks. Second, we devel- Our plans are integrated. Busi- cation should be the only depart-
oped our strategy so that when ness continuity planning focuses ment doing that. It is sound
The New York Times published on operational continuity, and business to build a culture that about the author
the story [detailing the govern- our corporate crisis manage- encourages the long view, where Caroline Sapriel is founder
ment’s efforts to access the ment process manages the fall- employees are encouraged to and managing director of CS&A,
financial records of people with out of incidents. These processes anticipate issues and bring them a specialist risk and crisis
ties to terrorist organizations include triggers to activate vari- to the fore. A big challenge is management consulting firm
such as Al-Qaeda], we were ready ous response mechanisms. Risk sorting through all the informa- headquartered in Hong Kong,
with our response. management is still a challenge: tion to end up with usable intel- with offices in the U.K., Belgium,
Another example is our pan- We must sensitize more people ligence. Another one is learning the Netherlands, Singapore, Los
demics team, which monitors in the organization to non- how to deal with an expanding Angeles and New York City. She
developments globally, regularly operational risks and issues. and more complex range of is based in Brussels, Belgium.
exchanges information and stakeholders, particularly since
adapts our preparedness accord- What role can the professional the compliance case. Corporate
ing to the feedback and input communicator play in crisis antici- communication at SWIFT is defi-
we receive from our team mem- pation and prevention? nitely leading this initiative.
bers around the world. I believe we are the antennae of —C.S.
www.iabc.com/cw Communication World • September–October 2007 27