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Issue? Crisis? Emergency? What’s the Difference, and Are You Prepared?

Josh Cobden

Few people would say that the world has become simpler in recent decades. In fact, there is strong evidence of the increased complexity facing organizations in sectors such as business, charities, universities, government and other institutions. The same complexity applies to reputational threats in the 21st century. These risks present in different ways, and each requires a different approach.

For over 25 years, Proof Strategies has been a leading crisis communication firm helping clients manage all forms of reputational risk. As these threats have evolved, so too have our solutions.  Today, Proof Strategies offers modern approaches to modern risks, combining expertise in trust and reputation protection with powerful digital technology. But it starts by understanding each category of risk, so let’s explore them.

Issues and their risks

The lowest immediate reputational threat is an issue. An issue is a known concern whose risk level can be affected by current events. For example, worker conditions in China concern some people who may choose to boycott Chinese products, sign petitions or take to social media. For others, the joy of cheap goods is more important than the plight of those who make them. However, evolving events can ramp up the threat level of an issue. Someone who isn’t bothered by poor worker conditions in China may be enraged if it turns out this work is also carried out by children.

Every organization ought to know what its issues are, and issues management is the practice of knowing which way the wind is blowing for each of them and how to react. This requires an always-on approach to reputation protection that might include social and traditional media monitoring, influence measurement and opinion polling, among other research approaches. A trusted advisor takes this one step further by providing risk analysis and cost/benefit analyses of actions as issues evolve. At a certain point, an issue may progress from a communications challenge to a legal challenge or even an operations decision. Helping leaders recognize and assess risk is vital to determining if an issue can be de-escalated through communications, or if more is needed.

An emergency risk

A second category of reputational threat is the emergency. An emergency is an undesirable but predictable event, even if it is unusual. Some issues accelerate into emergencies or vice versa. For example, for an airline, an obvious and predictable (though unusual) emergency is a plane crash. Some plane crashes end up being isolated incidents (an emergency), whereas others might share a common trait (e.g. a specific model of aircraft), in which case, even after an emergency, a lingering issue will remain.

Every organization ought to have emergency plans in place around predictable events, even if they are unlikely. These might include scenario planning and simulations that stress test processes and help refine and update them, and media and spokesperson training. This planning should involve key functions within an organization that may play a role in an emergency, such as communications, HR, IT, operations and security and legal, among others. A few savvy groups had plans in place if a pandemic were ever to occur. Since COVID-19, we can be sure this topic will now be covered in most risk audits. Still, many organizations are caught flat-footed when emergencies occur.

The crisis

A third category, the crisis, is an unexpected and unpredictable event that also has the potential to damage reputation. To use the airline example again, while a plane crash is a known and predictable risk, leaked video footage of the airline’s crew appearing intoxicated in an airport lounge is not.  A crisis is often fast, intense and dynamic, and social media platforms have all but eliminated the time an organization once had to circle the wagons.  Thus, during a crisis, digital monitoring and presence are essential

Technology’s new role

Crisis management in the famous Tylenol case occurred in the old analogue world. Now, the Internet and social media have accelerated the speed and multiplied the reach. To battle the faster and farther impact of a crisis, our human talent is matched with technological prowess.

At Proof Strategies, we use highly advanced social media monitoring processes and tools to track, assess, and forecast a threat’s velocity and growth. These techniques harness artificial intelligence and predictive analytics and identify what is being said, by whom and how fast the message is travelling. This, in turn, informs our response strategy.  

Responding requires the ability to engage on whatever communications platform is most efficient in reaching key audiences. If the crisis is unfolding on social media, it is likely best to respond on social media. As my colleague, Rob Clark, says, “if one thinks of a crisis like a fire, one’s own side of the story can be a stream of water to control or even extinguish the flames. But if your hose can’t reach the fire, it will keep burning and even spread.”

Prepare in advance

Good preparation involves setting up communications platforms and communications assets that are most likely to reach an organization’s audiences (including potential critics) and then establishing a voice and following on each. This can’t start from scratch on the day a crisis erupts. Doing the work in advance is like insurance that pays out in all stages of reputation management but can also provide benefits in good times.

While the threat of widespread reputational damage has existed since the advent of the printing press, the stakes have skyrocketed. The combination of social media and evolving social expectations have formed an accelerant that can turn a spark into an inferno – unverified, amplified and magnified.  Handling these threats must be done with precision, and that starts with how we describe them in the first place.