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Pandemic highlights crisis planning needs: Agencies still the go-to provider

Crisis management has long been a vital tool in PR agencies’ toolbox – making them indispensable for many businesses and brands. The adaptability, experience, and strategic communications insights an agency offers is often difficult to replicate in-house during times of crisis. But if so many agencies offer the services, how do you differentiate your offering?

Wright Communications’ answer was to seek innovation technically and in 2019 the agency launched New Zealand’s first mobile phone-based crisis management app, In Case of Crisis. We talk with Wrights’ Managing Director Nikki Wright about that step forward and why crisis management and communications are only going to get more crucial as crises and their consequences proliferate in this connected age.

Wright says her agency has worked with many clients to better prepare for crises, bedding down processes to help them respond effectively, over the decade and a half since she set the agency up. She says the crisis management app was a response to a need she perceived within businesses to have crisis management processes, tools and resources at their fingertips at all times.

Nikki Wright

“The PR industry has traditionally worked with crisis management manuals that were word documents. But it became increasingly apparent it wasn’t practical to have that information sitting on a server or in a filing cabinet, if when the crisis struck you weren’t at your desk or otherwise couldn’t easily access it – which is often the case.”

Seeking a digital solution took Wright to Washington DC, where she managed to locate a highly rated crisis communications app and secure the exclusive licence to supply it to New Zealand businesses.

Wright says the app is not a one-size-fits-all offering. “No two businesses or their potential crises are the same, so we are able to easily customise the app and its content for each client, no matter what sector they’re in.  We then train the business on how to use the app themselves; a client typically  has perhaps five or six different crisis scenarios, ranging from a cyber-attack to a major industrial accident, or, as recent events showed only too vividly, a pandemic – an eventuality most companies didn’t allow for in their crisis planning before February this year.”

A critical component in the app, essential for all businesses whatever the crisis, is a focus on employee communication and management, an area many businesses struggled with during the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown.

“At the outset of the pandemic we worked a lot with clients on employee messaging. For many of them, especially those with larger workforces, lockdown meant a significant move to remote working, posing major operational challenges. So, keeping staff informed during that first phase of the pandemic was critical. The beauty of the crisis app is that it pushes out notifications to pre-selected groups via smart phones – instantly.”

While crisis management has traditionally been delivered by external agencies, Wright says there has been a shift in recent years to greater in-house capability and accrued experience, while many agencies have lost some of the more seasoned practitioners.

“In-house people can have a lot of crisis comms experience, but agencies do still bring expertise and knowledge built up over time and with multiple scenarios and strategies. Whether in-house teams will be able to manage the crisis effectively depends on the skill level of the in-house operators – they may still need that seasoned external counsel. Often the in-house team gets snowed dealing with media and the agency provides that essential backfilling around message preparation and strategic guidance.

“The shift to in-house crisis management may halt or reverse following COVID-19, as businesses may be forced to lay off employees, so external agencies I feel will still have a prime role in supporting businesses through crises, bringing their experience, objectivity and skills to the table.”

Evolving with the times

Wright says new technologies like the crisis app were an essential development. “We’ve always emphasised the need to act quickly and efficiently in responding to a crisis, but the response now has to be much quicker in this digital age. Reputations that took many years to painstakingly build can be shattered in minutes. Agencies have to sharpen their offering.

“The speed and ubiquity of social media is changing how you manage a crisis, and also changing the whole perception of PR in a crisis. More than ever there’s pressure on a company to do ‘the right thing’. Social media means that there is now a 24/7 news cycle and greater opportunity for the consumer to respond and be vehemently and damagingly critical publicly, with a wide and eager audience. As such, brands need to act a lot quicker which puts the comms response under great pressure.”

As a result, says Wright, PR agencies have had to become more adaptable to change to help brands better manage a crisis.

“The principals of crisis management are the same they’ve always been, but for our clients it comes down to scenario planning and preparation to get the best result. It’s easy for companies to put their head in the sand even if they’re worried about a particular eventuality and not ready to address it; hope it will go away. Smart companies focus on the known risks and put systems in place to address them, especially for potentially high-impact risks.  We work with businesses to rehearse their crisis plan using our app so they can perform better under pressure if the risk or issue does evolve into a crisis. 

“When we prepare a crisis or issues management plan it looks at several aspects: core crisis management principles and crisis team structures; processes for identifying and escalating the response to a crisis; strategic approaches; key messaging; potential holding statements; Q&A; and templates for draft letters to customers, staff and stakeholders. All of that content is stored in the crisis app and is accessible 24/7.

“With crisis management, however, you’re never really ready until you test your processes. And when companies rehearse a crisis at an operational level, they often find – and it’s a very valuable lesson – that their procedures don’t go as smoothly as they thought they might.”

Running an annual crisis management exercise is essential to figure out what’s missing or doesn’t work – aspects that could torpedo the whole response, says Wright. She particularly recommends training the CEO or spokesperson well in advance, so they are performance-ready.

“That’s the value of having a dedicated PR team or person guiding you through the responses, ensuring you’re going to make this type of communication a priority. We understand crises are high-stress events and everyone is probably doing 20 things at once. It’s important that everyone has a specific role in a crisis. And without a dedicated communications function, people tend to look past the communication side and go straight to problem-solving. When that happens, it reflects badly on the company; media reports say it won’t comment and the public assumes the business is ignoring the media and perhaps not taking the crisis seriously.”

For businesses looking to improve their crisis management, Wright says the best thing is to be realistic about what might happen, even if the crisis could have devastating consequences.

“Be real, be honest about it, even if it feels like that step is too hard, that you don’t want to tackle it. Rehearse your plans at least once a year, which means dedicating time in the calendar for key players within the organisation and external stakeholders. If you include people that are important to your business and let them in on your rehearsal, or even just let them know that you are doing it, that’s going to be positive for your reputation and standing with those stakeholders.

“I think the other thing businesses can do now is to just reflect on Covid-19 and what they can learn from this as a company. Look at the things that you could be doing to prepare for the same thing possibly happening again, because this won’t be the last time, and people need to get moving now on how they are going to prepare for that next crisis.”

To get in touch with Wright regarding the In Case of Crisis App, email her at: nikki@wrightcommunications.co.nz

This story is part of a StopPress series celebrating the ever changing PR landscape. To read more on Storyteller Month, click here.