Every period of turmoil is frightening. It challenges the status quo and threatens our comfort zone. Turbulent times, uncertain times and crises all call for focus and steadiness. Perhaps the cliched navigation metaphor can never be too relevant: To ride out the storm, one must hold the course.
Statistics from the Institute of Crisis Management's 2011 annual report show that 61 percent of business crises worldwide are non-event-related, or smoldering, crises, and that they originate mostly from management inaction and/or neglect.
Often the problem or issue exists long before it goes public, yet little is done to address and resolve it before it escalates. A single trigger--a rumor, a leak, a stakeholder action--can catapult an organization into crisis in a very short time, with devastating effects.
Thus, crisis management today should be treated as a strategic function that is embedded in the organization's corporate culture, driven from and by the top echelon, and implemented across all levels. Crisis management is not only about tactical response preparedness, but also about anticipation, prevention and mitigation. While communicators used to focus on media relations, they are now tasked with stakeholder mapping, scenario planning and other strategic roles that can help management teams alleviate the impact of a crisis.
Recognizing the obvious and the not-so-obvious stakeholders
Globalization and the increasing interdependence of our societal systems are generating multiple levels of stakeholders that are a challenge to engage with in normal times but that become a nightmare to manage in a crisis. Besides employees, regulators, politicians, victims, customers and shareholders, organizations now also have to reckon with stakeholder groups that become involved through social media networks. The multitude and diversity of these intertwined stakeholder groups are compounding the intensity of crises. Overall, we are witnessing more stakeholder outrage at corporate and institutional misbehavior.
Internet-based news sources allow individuals worldwide to follow such situations. Social networking sites, blogs and online news sites can play a big role in the unfolding of crises and scandals in the public and private sectors; the popularity of Twitter and Facebook, for example, has led to the light-speed dissemination of information and misinformation alike.
There is no clearer sign that stakeholder mapping must be high on the priority list of any well-trained crisis manager today. To anticipate, prevent and mitigate crises, business leaders and communicators must have a solid grasp of the climate in which they are working as well as the stakeholder scene surrounding any emerging issue. Yet stakeholder mapping is not an improvised task. It requires skills and a process.
"Stakeholder mapping identifies stakeholder expectations and power and helps in understanding political priorities," write Gerry Johnson, Kevan Scholes and Richard Whittington, Ph.D., in their book Exploring Corporate Strategy. "There are different ways in which stakeholder mapping can be used to understand stakeholder influence. It underlines the importance of two issues: (1) how interested each stakeholder group is in impressing its expectations on the organisation's purposes and choice of strategies, and (2) whether stakeholders have the power to do so."
Says Rebecca Lee, director of communications and brand image for Michelin AIM (Africa, India and Middle East): "Stakeholder mapping has now become an indispensable part of the team's crisis and issues management process. We have found it to be a particularly useful and critical tool, which, when correctly applied, is able to help steer the crisis team through difficult situational terrains."
Preparing for the worst
No crisis manifests itself the same way as another, and no one can predict exactly how long a crisis will last, how it will twist and turn, and how it will end up. …