Issues and Crises: Lessons from the field

The difference between an issue and a crisis is not subtle.

Issues prevent us from getting a good night’s sleep and may, when particularly acute, demand our full undivided attention. Bad press from a product recall, the market’s rejection of management’s latest strategic plan, or a threatening piece of regulation; these are issues all too familiar to those of us in PR and, with millions of dollars at stake, can be very serious stuff. Issues and their mitigation shape our reputation as brands, companies or even industries, and deserve our careful consideration, due diligence in planning and occasionally, swift intervention or response.

A crisis is a different beast altogether. More than simply an ‘issue on steroids’ or a particularly nasty problem, a crisis threatens our very existence. In a crisis, lives are at stake or have already been lost. Crisis management is not so much a matter of image or reputation, but one of survival.

These moments necessitate an altogether different level of focus and expertise.

For many of our clients, these are especially uncertain times and the possibility of genuine crisis is at the top of planning priorities for the coming year. Natural disasters and security emergencies show crises can happen anywhere, and a globalizing economy makes significant accidents more, rather than less, likely.

So, to provide our clients with access to full ‘crisis communications’ services and advice, this week we announced a partnership with Kenyon International, the world’s largest company focused on emergency support and management. For more than 100 years, Kenyon has offered specialist personnel, equipment, systems and advice during major incidents, particularly those involving significant loss of life. Their impressive client roster includes national governments and local authorities, transportation and heavy industry companies, as well as organizations operating in dangerous parts of the world.

Often in the field at the sites of major incidents with the first-responders, the Kenyon team has accumulated experience over time that most of will never use – we hope – more than once, if at all. From this experience, a few lessons are worth sharing:

  1. In a crisis, focus on those directly affected; everyone else can wait.  When responding to an ‘issue,’ we rightly attend to the various and multiple stakeholders connected to it: shareholders, employees, customers, media, regulators, industry bodies and advocacy organizations. But in a crisis – an airline crash or a major industrial accident, for example – the focus must be clearly on those direct affected: the family. Kenyon’s specialists are trained to offer continuous care to family members and to assist national and local authorities.
  2. To help in a crisis, you must be entirely self-sufficient. The last thing a client needs during a crisis from a consultant is a request for help finding a hotel or car-rental service. Kenyon’s response teams are equipped with fully portable family assistance center packs giving them all of the IT, communications, and technical support equipment they’ll need, along with ensuring they’re fully self-sufficient and not a drain on limited resources at the scene. These services are deployable from centers in Texas, England and Australia for round-the-globe support.
  3. Existing software and IT protocols rarely meet the needs of a true emergency. Kenyon has developed Kenyon Response, a powerful, new, scalable enterprise crisis data management software package to share information immediately, providing a single platform that supports management beyond the first few hours of an incident. This gives clients the capability to establish a scalable inquiry center, provide direct employee, customer and family support, manage their own alert and recall notification systems, and incident management systems.
  4. Most (if not all) organizations are unprepared for surges in media interest following a major incident. Even the best crisis manuals usually fail to anticipate the sheer volume of incoming inquiries. Kenyon’s response is through a set of services that offers a consistent, professional response through a structured single environment, from several dispersed locations or a virtual response organization. Communicators use a dashboard and preconfigured reports to easily track media interest by region, and the type or nature of the inquiry -identifying key or emerging themes. The dashboard feature provides multiple critical snapshots in a graphical format of key data, so they can immediately identify potential choke points or emerging trends and manage them before they become problems.

There’s no way to ever fully prepare for a real crisis, as anybody who has been through one can attest. However, this partnership strives to leverage a holistic, coordinated and comprehensive suite of crisis management, communications and preparedness services.  Crisis response and crisis communications cannot operate in silos.  Combining the expertise of both organizations breaks down these barriers, allowing limited time and resources to be focused where they matter most.