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Page last updated at 01:30 GMT, Saturday, 1 November 2008

How to manage a crisis


It's been a torrid week for the BBC as it has struggled to contain the fallout over the Russell Brand-Jonathan Ross prank calls. But what should organisations do in such situations? Crisis management consultant Clarence Mitchell explains.

Reputation is as precious and fragile for the grandest corporation with global reach as it is for the individual. Often won with great difficulty and effort over many years, it can be lost utterly in the moment.

Whatever the reality of the situation, a sudden dip in public confidence can quickly erode an organisation's status. That dented image itself becomes the reality.

The basic principles of effective crisis management are deceptively simple. The very essence of success - the first rule if you like - is to actually understand and accept that you do have a bona fide crisis on your hands. This might seem stunningly obvious, but may not be so for those at the centre of such storms.

Daily Mail front page

This is partly because of the sheer bureaucratic scale of large multi-national organisations. It can take time for simple decisions to be processed, approved by line management and brought to the attention of directors.

It is also underpinned by an often institutionalised reluctance to see any approaching icebergs. These combined can lead to a collective blindness to the subtlety of the incoming, submerged problem.

Secondly, once the crisis is seen for what it really is, one that is gaining traction in the modern media environment, with a lethal momentum to roll beyond control without swift, decisive and appropriate remedial action, do just that. Take swift, decisive and appropriate remedial action. Within minutes.

And then, just as importantly, be seen and heard to do so - very clearly and very loudly. It will not only buy you time, it might even win plaudits. How many organisations are condemned for showing leadership and purpose during the firestorm?

Without such a basic framework of visible, immediate action, within which a more considered remedial strategy, investigation or sanctions regime can be implemented, the common errors that merely compound a crisis stand out for what they are.

Grudging apologies

Across today's media landscape the signs that a bad situation is being made far worse are merely magnified by the 24/7 on-demand, online culture. It spans broadcast, print and the blogosphere, all of which - like nature - abhor a vacuum, particularly one without information. Those organisations that do not fill that vacuum will suffer.

Clarence Mitchell
Clarence Mitchell, centre, has managed many a media scrum
Common symptoms for bodies mismanaging a crisis are apologies, where obvious and appropriate, that are still seen to be slow in coming, grudgingly given or issued in stages, despite the rising clamour from stakeholders growing ever louder.

Equally damaging is the appearance that the organisation is being buffeted by events. Worse still, the public perception that its actions are merely reactive, responding to events rather than controlling them.

Senior executives shouldn't come across as adrift, blinking uncertainly as they are swept from wave to wave of negative headlines swelling into the perfect storm, so easily avoided just a few days earlier.

Issues and crisis management is today increasingly important. Given the modern media environment, it is not a luxurious add-on for an organisation. It is a vital business component.

Imagine a world where global debate surrounding your company's products and their failings can be dissected across continents in minutes, where campaigns against you can be started in seconds and have thousands of people signed up within hours.

The media now operates 24 hours a day across all time zones and YouTube happily ensures your communications disaster can be rerun and rerun at leisure.

Reputational crises don't die away any more, they just get posted online for posterity. That world is here and now and effective crisis management has never been more relevant or valid.

Clarence Mitchell is an issues and crisis management consultant with Freud Communications.

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