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Crisis Management- A time to reflect and rebuild

Crisis management is more complex than one might think, and here, we have managing director Scott McKenzie describing the aftermath of a crisis and how companies should respond. 

two men looking at plans with a hardhat, for illustrating crisis management

At the height of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, the then CEO of BP Tony Hayward (in)famously remarked that “he wanted his life back”. He was understandably pilloried as a result for his crass lack of sensitivity, as people had lost their lives, fisherman had lost their livelihoods and wildlife across the Gulf of Mexico had lost their habitats.

Within all of that there is however, an important question: when does life return to normal after a crisis? How do you know when you can have your life back? Perhaps the most overlooked aspects of managing a crisis is knowing when it is over.

Based on our experience of handling crises for clients, there are three elements of the late/post crisis period:

  1. De-escalation of the crisis
  2. Lessons learned
  3. Reputation recovery

De-escalation of the crisis

What we have observed is that most organisations are good at recognising the signals that a crisis is happening and mobilise their Incident Management Teams and crisis protocols effectively.

By contrast, there is not the same rigour around recognising when the crisis is over. When a pattern has been set of Saturday evening conference calls, monitoring round ups being sent around three times per day, and WhatsApp group traffic every evening, it is perhaps understandable that people get a bit too used to it.

Indeed there is a risk that people begin to crave the adrenaline that the crisis has provided, and prolong the crisis as a result. This of course has cost and resource implications – and is frankly a major risk to the organisation.

Managing a crisis is mentally and physically exhausting and senior executives have a duty of care to their colleagues, the organisation and indeed themselves to avoid prolonging the crisis. Allowing unsustainable ways of working to persist can have long term implications for the health of those involved.

On that basis, we would strongly recommend that the client has a clear-headed assessment of the crisis and is able to use the same decision-making criteria they used to escalate the issue into a crisis to start switching things off. After all you can easily go back to calls three times per day if the situation warrants it.

The decision around starting the de-escalation process is of course one of judgement, but can usually be based around stability across a range of key performance indicators (KPIs) over a prolonged period of time.

Lessons learned from crisis management

In any crisis your processes, judgement and decisions will be put under severe pressure. At the point the crisis passes there is the natural drift back towards people doing the day job they have been neglecting in order to handle the crisis.

We would strongly recommend that there is an exercise to evaluate the organisation’s handling of the crisis and specifically to gather lessons learned. There is a temptation to focus these exercises on what went wrong, but in our experience there is just as much validity in capturing what went well so that this can be repeated in future. In sessions we facilitate we focus on four questions:

  1. What went well?
  2. What went wrong?
  3. What would you do differently next time?
  4. What do we need to change as a result of this crisis/issue/incident?

While all aspects of the session are important, the emphasis should really be in the final question – what specific actions does the organisation need to take to improve their approach to handling a crisis?

One further consideration is when to run this type of exercise. There is a balance between allowing some distance from the crisis for people to reflect, versus capturing issues while things are still fresh in the mind.

We think it’s worth doing in two stages: gather some initial views as part of the de-escalation process (perhaps via a template), and then conduct a further exercise (usually a workshop) when people have had time to reflect.

With respect to the workshop we think it’s important to be objective and that you have a facilitator who will challenge the participants to reflect on their own performance through the crisis, and to be thoughtful around what worked and what could have been improved. On that basis we would recommend independent facilitation of the workshop, structured as above around what went well, what did not work, improvements for the next crisis, as well as identifying actions and recommendations (and owners for those actions).

Reputation recovery

The final and usually the longest part of the post-crisis period is recovering the organisation’s damaged reputation.

Depending on the severity of the crisis this can take many months and years (as BP of course have found out to their immense cost). Based on our experience of working with clients, it’s important to listen to customers and other stakeholders and ensure that any attempts to rehabilitate your reputation are based on what they are telling you. For example, have apologies been made, compensation paid etc.

It would be worth stepping back and asking:

  • Do we need to change anything about our business approach to address the new realities?
  • Which stakeholders do we need to engage with?
  • What messages do we need to reinforce and /or introduce?

Indeed one key area of judgement is evaluating the timing of when to switch the emphasis of your communication from handling the crisis, to more positive communications about the brand. This will partly be informed by your brand and reputational KPIs which will have been monitored closely throughout the crisis, but are also down to a high degree of judgement.

However, once that decision is reached it’s important that people feel you have paid a fair price for any mistakes you may have made before you start telling everyone how wonderful your products are (again).

Longer term, rebuilding the organisation’s reputation goes well beyond the communications effort. You need to look at practical ways you can rebuild trust – for example if the issue was around a product failure – what investments have you made to avoid similar failures in future? You could argue that the best examples go further than rectifying mistakes – they recognise the need to have genuinely learned from the crisis and applied lessons to the way the organisation operates.

For example, our client the Co-operative Bank saw the various crises they faced as an opportunity to re-establish their ethical credentials, by conducting the largest ever poll of customers (and staff) on their ethical policy.

In summary, handling the end of a crisis requires more emphasis, effort and investment than it sometimes gets. Knowing when to de-escalate, how to gather the lessons and how to begin the reputation rebuild are all essential building blocks in handling a crisis.

Scott McKenzie is Joint Managing Director of Lansons and also heads up our specialist change and employee engagement business. Scott has worked on major corporate issues and crises across a range of sectors including healthcare, financial services and manufacturing.

Recent projects include helping a chemical firm develop its issues preparedness protocols, helping a Bank recover from a major reputational challenge and working with a manufacturing company to implement a high profile redundancy programme in a heavily unionised environment. If you’d like to discuss this article or any aspects of handling a crisis or crisis management in particular, then please contact him at scottm@lansons.com.

This article is part of our special edition Crisis and Issues Management newsletter.
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