Thursday, June 05, 2014

Managing risk - a crisis in PR

Some years ago, I commented on FIR how we can manage uncertainty.

Risk Management is methodology to reduce exposure to risk and is a well known and established discipline in high risk environments. Today, social media has exposed most companies to high risk.

It is time to plan for such occasions

The methods that have been refined over the years can be applied to all forms of activity and where the cost of risk is likely to be significant, prudent companies use it.

Reputation risk is, for most organisations, a crisis. It escalates very fast and for most entities has disproportionate ill-effect on the organisation and people involved.

Most people try to behave honestly and justly and are deeply affected when issues arise or crisis hits. The actual cost to organisation in terms of lost confidence throughout the organisation is immense.

With the writable web, organisation have begun to discover that there is the potential for immense harm to come swiftly.

I have been reviewing my approach in the last few weeks and have come up with some added content:

The nature of risk and crisis

In developing a policy, it has to be noted that social media is very volatile and needs a very responsive capability to manage risk.

The nature of risk and crisis is well documented and often characterised as four steps towards danger:


All plans/activities have expected outcomes, financial budgets and timescales. These are often identified using aids for project planning. Monitoring such plans will identify where plans are going awry. This is normal day to day management. We all do it. In social media it is manifest in day to day chatter; planned outputs; anticipated message devolvement and community building and supportive commitment. This is part of the daily norm and planned activity that typically has modest variation to the anticipated result.

Foreseen uncertainties

There are some variations that are identifiable and understood that the management team cannot be sure will occur or when. They can be planned for and are part of management.  Like coping with unexpected staff illness – managers cope. Such issues can be identified from past experience and brought into this category with a developed mechanism to reduce impact or turn disadvantage into advantage. An ability to monitor the the organisation, its competitors, working environment and people commenting on them is a method for seeing evolution at an early stage. There are other such issues such as evolving consumer offerings; mobile phone effects; not to mention the implications for, and responses of the organisation and its competition at home and abroad as potential to create issues. It is not unreasonable to use scenario planning to manage foreseen circumstances even to the extent of imaging new forms of product/service management derived from digital evolution, criminality and radical religious and political threat.

Unforeseen Uncertainty

This kind of event cannot be identified during project planning. Or during risk management planning. There is no Plan B. Good management has crisis management planning in place to mitigate effects.  The ability to implement capabilities that mitigate such events have to be developed. For example, a capability to monitor volume and semantic focus of conversations will help identify an issue gaining pace. A capability to do this dynamically with an alarm trip for incidents that seem to be different from the norm is a good start (variance alarms). Having a capability to reach experts, spokespeople and management quickly is another. Scenario planning and ‘war games’ also offers a capability to develop expertise.

Unknown unknowns 

Sometimes referred to as “unk-unks,” they make people nervous because existing decision tools are not available. It is possible to push unk unks further away with good crisis management tools in place. Developing capability  to manage Unknown Unknowns is also part of the work of the PR practitioner. With a trained management team is becomes possible to identify an unknown risk and alert the organisation  and its constituents to the environment. It is, thereby possible to 'plan' for Unk Unk's.

The elements of a plan

The elements of a plan need to be in place at an early stage and include the following:

  • Broad and well versed issues and crisis team to develop plans and maintain capability
  • Comprehensive and regular audits
  • Integration with wider BoE issues and crisis systems
  • Comprehensive monitoring and alarm systems
  • Development of responses to different (known, projected) forms of issues and crisis.
  • Escalation/de-escalation policies/practices/planning. 
  • Regular reporting

Steps to be taken

There is a need to create a formal response to issues and crisis. 

This will form a formal plan to progressively identify the nature of issues and crisis across a range of social media (YouTube, Twitter, etc) and eventually covering the majority of such media.

There is some crossover between media and other operations, these need to be explored and planning developed to optimise monitoring, reporting and response.

The extent to which issues can be significantly dangerous and mitigation can be developed needs exploring and formal policy developed and implemented.

The continued evolution of policy and activity needs to be developed to mitigate less helpful public contributions:

There is a strong strategic case for the organisation to develop alternative forms of communication. For example the some organisations are very dependant on the leading reporters in their field and the views of  a small journalistic elite. They have a particular view of events. 

There is a case for developing alternative channels to the wider population using social media. 

Equally, there is a cadre of  writers in academia and the management consultants shaping opinions and strategic application of social media can offer the means to address their audience without dependence on their outputs.

Because we can identify a large part of their audience, it is possible to use social media to go direct to a wide and interested audience and still avoid the traditional opinion formers.

There is much we can do in planning for issues and crisis management

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