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What’s the worst that could happen?

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23rd August 2023

What’s the worst that could happen?

How many times have you heard people in the middle of a crisis situation say “nobody could have known this was going to happen” or “this came entirely out of the blue”?

It’s a common enough response to an unexpected force majeure type event when the person in question is shocked and disbelieving that whatever has happened is actually happening to them.

Acts of God, freak occurrences and unprecedented chains of events do happen of course. As we witnessed over the past couple of years, very few organisations had a plan in place to deal with a global pandemic. But all too often, in the post-game analysis of many situations that could be described as a “crisis” there comes a moment where people realise they could have both predicted and prepared for “the thing nobody saw coming”.

I’m not talking about black swan theory here – where a major event is inappropriately rationalised after the fact and with the benefit of hindsight by people saying, “oh yes, that was bound to happen”. It is about using what you know today more effectively.

Knowing your risks

Most businesses or organisations will have some sort of risk register, often drawn up for insurance purposes, which detail some of the things that could go wrong from a health and safety or operational perspective and which could disrupt business continuity. The office burning down, or a meltdown on your IT system, for example.

But these registers rarely look at the full range of risks facing the organisation or think about the damage particular scenarios could do from a reputational point of view.

In a recent Business Leaders Survey, the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) found that around half of UK businesses have a plan for identifying and tackling reputational risk. But while reputation was one the top three risks cited by over 40% of the 300 business surveyed, one in three businesses said they had no plan for dealing with reputational risk and over a quarter had no crisis communications plan.

This seems ill advised in a world where social media is ever present, the news cycle is 24/7 and reputations can be lost in a matter of minutes if communications are not effective.

Scenario planning can be a really useful exercise to start the process of putting a plan in place to deal with things you would rather not happen, but which just might.

Planning your response

We normally begin this process by asking clients to map out all of the situations that would be damaging to their business and then plotting them on a grid with four quadrants – low probability but low risk, high probability but low risk, low probability but high risk and high probability and high risk.

It’s a simple exercise but it very quickly helps to identify the areas which you need to prioritise when looking at where your reputation might be vulnerable to damage and also for then planning a crisis communications response strategy.

This could be anything from a factory fire or industrial accident, cyber-attacks, data breaches and failures of IT systems, to fraud and financial wrongdoing, customers lawsuits, product recalls, redundancies, employee discrimination cases, bad investments, sexual misconduct allegations or a company founder dying. You get the picture and chances are you can think of a long list of other specific issues you wouldn’t want to have to deal with in your own organisation when you walk into work tomorrow morning.

The next question we’re often asked is whether there’s a crisis communications playbook for responding to a one of these damaging scenarios?

The answer is yes and no. No because no situation and no organisation is the same, but yes because there are principles that can be applied to each crisis scenario and responses that can be designed for each of the issues you map out.

You can’t always know when a crisis will hit, but you can have a plan for responding to the bad things that might potentially happen to your business. These plans need to be as simple as possible so they are easy to put into practice in a pressure situation.

Within that plan you will outline what you will do in each scenario and crucially who will be responsible for each part of your response. It will also help you think about your priorities. Who is the most important stakeholder when a particular reputation-killing situation arises.

If you’re one of the third of businesses who don’t currently have a plan for dealing with reputational risk, the question is, can you really afford not to?

By Symon Ross