Protests, boycotts and crisis events

Crisis communication plans can help firms stickhandle through tough times
By Liz Bernier
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 11/19/2013

Dozens of protestors gather outside your high-profile meeting with stakeholders, shouting slogans and waving signs. Or maybe an activist group stages a vocal — and highly disruptive — demonstration against a large project you’re planning.

Or even worse: A terrible accident at your company sweeps through the national news.

Whether it’s the Enbridge pipeline reversal backlash, the shale gas protests in New Brunswick or the CN train derailment in Alberta, chances are at least one of these recent headlines has crossed your desk, computer or television screen — and your mind.

So what would you do if your organization became the target of a protest, boycott or some other crisis event?

There are many employers that wouldn’t have an answer to that question, said Jane Shapiro, senior vice-president at public relations experts Hill+Knowlton Strategies in Toronto.

“They look at situations unfolding in the news on a regular basis, and they look at it and say, ‘What would we do in that situation?’ And they’re not ready, and they know they’re not ready.”

“Increasingly, we’re seeing organizations wanting to be prepared. And part of that preparation is considering, what are the situations that put the organization at risk?” she said. “How would we respond? What are the communications messages we would want to deliver? Who would deliver them? Who do we need to be talking to?”

Preparing for the worst with issues management

Before a crisis event ever happens, it pays to be well-prepared.

“There’s a first step that is a precursor to all of this, and that’s having really good issues management,” said Bart Mindszenthy, co-founder of Mindszenthy & Roberts Communications Counsel in Toronto.

“A lot of companies get into trouble because they don’t watch the horizon — so something comes up and bites them, but they should have known it was coming. A protest doesn’t happen out of nothing… there’s always some sense of dissention, unhappiness, agitation,” he said.

“If you’ve got your radar working well… by and large, you shouldn’t be caught off guard.”

Part of that planning process involves setting up a crisis team, said Gillian Catalano, assistant vice-president of business continuity management at insurance broker and risk adviser Marsh Canada in Toronto.

“This really begins with setting up a crisis management team that will be responsible for assessing the situation and potentially invoking the crisis management plan as well,” she said.

That team should consist of key decision-makers, but also subject matter experts who have specialized knowledge about the issue at hand.

“Depending on the nature of the crisis, you’ll really require various subject matter experts. For example, if it’s an IT crisis, you’ll want the IT department involved,” said Catalano.

And while good planning is essential, it takes practice to make sure you can effectively put your plan in motion.

“It’s not enough to have a plan on a shelf,” said Mindszenthy. “You’ve got to be able to work that plan instantaneously when a crisis happens, and the only way you’ll ever do that is by, once or twice a year, having simulations, rehearsing.”

Consistent communication — both internally and in public

When dealing with the public during a crisis situation, safety must be the first priority, said Shapiro — minimizing reputational risk and providing timely information are secondary to the safety of those involved.

“In any situation, do not engage directly or confront directly… what you want to do is avoid anything that will escalate the situation,” said Shapiro.

“You don’t want (employees) to become physically involved — which can happen, particularly if a demonstration is near where your offices are — but also, you don’t want them to get engaged in either giving media interviews or being active on social media.”

The employer should have a pre-existing social media policy that asks employees not to comment on company issues.

“These things can happen, usually with the best of intentions — your employees are loyal, they want to respond to a situation they think is unfair… but it’s never a good idea,” said Shapiro.

Organizations should err on the side of over-communicating with employees — but keep one important caveat in mind.

“Anything you say, you have to consider to be in the public domain,” said Shapiro.

“So it’s not just between you and your employees — it can easily and often does transfer into the public domain. So it has to be consistent with what you’re saying in the public domain, and it has to be something you would be comfortable seeing there.”

Another thing to consider? If your organization played a negative role in the event, taking responsibility is critical for regaining public trust, said Catalano.

“The organization’s leaders should really address the issue at hand and take responsibility for their actions as appropriate and as required — some incidents that take place are not necessarily the direct result of an organization’s actions,” she said.

Showing dedication to corrective actions, demonstrating how you will prevent the event from occurring again and making sure a post-incident review takes place are also important practices for an employer to manage a crisis effectively, said Catalano.

“Crises such as these really have the power to positively impact an organization’s reputation if handled well.”

Preventative measures can avoid crises before they start

The ideal, though, is for these crises never to arise in the first place.

There are a number of measures an organization can take to prevent or minimize the risk of a crisis event — many of which centre on awareness, and — once again — preparation.

“Every organization has a set of risks that it faces, and if there’s a really good understanding of what might occur, it’s easier for those mitigation procedures to be put in place to reduce the likelihood or impact of a threat,” said Catalano.

In some cases, it’s possible to proactively prevent protests or demonstrations by building positive relationships with stakeholders in the community, said Shapiro.

“For organizations that want to diminish the risk of protests and demonstrations, getting involved in the community and bringing the stakeholders who have an interest in an issue to the table from the beginning, is really important in avoiding these situations,” she said, adding that an organization’s “social licence” to operate is just as important as a regulatory or legal licence to operate.

Investing significant time and energy preparing for a crisis that may never happen might not seem terribly appealing to employers that already have countless competing priorities, said Mindszenthy.

But, in the end, it’s absolutely worth the investment.

“It’s a lot of work to do that prep stuff, and a lot of organizations don’t want to commit the time or the money or the energy to do that work. And yet without that work, you’re never going to get it right,” he said.

“You only have one reputation and if you lose it once, you probably won’t get it back. It takes years to hone and build a reputation; it takes minutes to lose one.”

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