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Dec 2018 | Green & Resilient Communities


The world is quickly changing around us presenting risks that are greater, more dynamic, and less predictable than ever before. From the growing unpredictability of climate change, to the world’s politics, acts of terror, cybersecurity, to the power society can yield over an organization with the simple click of a few buttons or the activation of their phone’s live streaming features, there’s no denying that we live in uncertain times. However, while these uncertain times present significant new risk to organizations, they also present unprecedented opportunity. Opportunity for connection, for seamless communication in times of crisis and emergency management, and for having the ability to quickly detect, evaluate, and assess the uncertainties that exist all around us in a way that makes them more predictable and anticipatable, giving us the unique ability to get ahead of them in very powerful ways.

In fact, throughout my career, I’ve examined how most of the challenges, risks, and crises that materialize—incidents that organizations often describe as having been unforeseeable—are entirely predictable. And while we may not be able to prevent all risks, we can prevent much of the escalations that cause the most amount of damage to an organization’s reputation and stakeholder trust when those risks materialize.


I. understanding expectations


The rise of the internet, social media, and mobile technology has led to a heightened baseline of expectations that stakeholders have in today’s organizations. Brands like Amazon have created an expectation of instant accessibility, while social media has provided a platform for every individual to express themselves in ways that can garner attention and bare impactful weight. Not to mention that the speed at which information travels, and the sheer volume of noise that can require filtering through and responding to in the midst of an emergency, can be overwhelming, distracting, and risk-induced.

And yet, as inclined as an organization may be to remain silent and simply let the storm pass, there is a very real expectation of a timely response, whereby remaining silent or defaulting to the infamous line of “no comment” is no longer acceptable or tolerated. Nor is it in the organization’s best interest, as the longer an organization takes to effectively respond to a viral issue, crisis, or emergency the more control over the narrative it loses, the more trust and credibility with its stakeholders it risks losing, and the more crisis response penalty* (CRP) it risks suffering.

Fortunately, when you understand the parameters of what will be expected of your organization in times of crisis and issue management, and when you take proactive measures to be crisis ready to meet these expectations, the opportunities for successful real-time crisis management suddenly become abundant.

*The crisis response penalty is a term coined by the author that examines the short- and long-term, monetary and reputational impacts of a crisis on an organization as a direct result of mismanagement. When an organization is crisis ready, the CRP becomes mitigatable.


II. What it means to be crisis ready


Crisis preparedness has historically been about creating a “crisis management plan.” The creation of this plan, generally speaking, is typically tasked to a specific department or a select few members of management and produces a generalized, siloed, and stagnant document. This is currently the status quo of crisis preparedness.

Unfortunately, however, in an age where social media can send an incident going internationally viral within mere minutes, and where the longer an organization waits to effectively respond to a negative event the more lost trust, credibility, and CRP it risks suffering, by the time leadership reaches for that plan the story is already miles ahead of them and they’re already in a position of playing catch-up—rather than being ahead.

For this reason, the current status quo of crisis preparedness accomplishes the opposite of its intent: it puts today’s organizations at a crisis management disadvantage. So, while the act of planning remains to be an invaluable exercise, the choice to solely rely on a stagnant plan sitting on a shelf leaves organizations increasingly and needlessly exposed and vulnerable. Instead, rather than relying on a document, the objective needs to be to embed a culture of crisis readiness. Being crisis ready means that every single member of your team, in every department and position, understands intrinsically:

  • What risk looks like and how to detect it in real-time—giving you the opportunity for a swift response;
  • How to detect the risk’s material impact on the organization—just because an issue goes negatively viral does not make it a crisis; and
  • How to respond in a way that does not just put the incident to bed, but enables the organization to manage it in a way that fosters increased trust and credibility in the organization.

When your organization is crisis ready and your entire team is trained and empowered to quickly and seamlessly detect, assess, and respond to any type of negative event in a way that fosters increased trust and credibility in the brand, then you’ve attained a level of invincibility that can weather any storm that may come your way.

Choosing to be crisis ready needs to be the new status quo. Fortunately, there are three easily implementable steps you can take now that will help you take a giant leap towards implementing this crisis ready culture. These three steps include:

  1. Identifying your high-risk scenarios;
  2. Understanding the impacts of emotional relatability; and
  3. Taking a 360-degree view of your key stakeholders.


Step 1: Identifying your high-risk scenarios


This step begins with first defining “issue” versus “crisis” for your organization. An issue that goes viral can often feel like a crisis. But virality is not the defining criteria of a crisis and miss-diagnosis can lead to over or under reacting in a way that harms rather than helps the situation. Furthermore, a crisis for one organization does not automatically translate into a crisis for another organization. Therefore, understanding where the thresholds lie for your organization is essential for your crisis readiness.

Defining issue vs. crisis

A crisis is a negative event or situation that stops business as usual, as it requires escalation to, and decision making and guidance by, leadership. A crisis requires leadership’s attention as it threatens long-term material impact on one to all of the following:

  • People;
  • The environment;
  • Business operations;
  • The organization’s reputation; and/or
  • The organization’s bottom line.


Whereas an issue does not stop business as usual or require escalation to leadership because the situation does not threaten long-term material impact on any of the five attributes listed above. Another way to see it is that issue management is business-as-usual on hyperdrive. It requires proper attention and management, but as it does not threaten long-term material impact, it can be effectively managed by the right team or department without further internal escalation.

Note: As those in the public sector also have to account for emergencies, it’s worth noting that an emergency can be an issue or a crisis, depending on the threat of the long-term material impact it presents to the organization, people, and/or the environment.

Identifying your most-likely high-impact scenarios.

Every organization has a series of most likely high-impact issues and crises that it is most prone or vulnerable to. I call these your “high-risk scenarios” and your next task, once the definitions are clear for your organization, is to identify the high-risk scenarios that pertain to your organization. After all, one cannot build invincibility without having a global understanding of their most likely, most impactful areas of vulnerability.

The following is a high-level overview of some very common high-risk scenarios to help you get started. Not all of these will pertain to your organization. What you want to focus on is identifying which of the following types of negative events are likely crises for your organization?

  • Cultural crisis
  • Cybersecurity incident
  • Executive or employee misconduct in the workplace
  • Executive or employee misconduct outside the workplace, with direct impact on the organization
  • Foodborne illness / contamination
  • IT or other operational malfunctions with major business impact
  • Key person event
  • Misconduct or failure of a key external stakeholder that directly impacts the organization
  • Misstatement of financials
  • Natural disaster
  • Offsite accident or catastrophe
  • Onsite accident or catastrophe
  • Organized activism against the organization
  • Product failure
  • Societal issues and trends
  • Regulatory incident
  • Workplace disruption
  • Workplace violence


Step 2: Understanding the impacts of emotional relatability


There are two components to emotional relatability that are critical to understand and be prepared for. The first enables you to better determine when something might escalate against your organization, and the second will help you craft responses to negative incidents that will help you de-escalate the situation.


“… the better you understand the people that matter most to your organization, the more equipped you will be to anticipate and exceed expectations, giving you the opportunity to get in front of rising issues in a way that fosters increased trust in the organization.”

Using emotional relatability to properly assess the risks of a situation

In my experience, I’ve found that people are often left blindsided by a situation’s negative escalation, when the emotional relatability of that situation should have been a clear indicator. Let’s evaluate.

If a story entices a strong negative emotion and you know that by sharing the story it will relate to and entice the same type of emotion in others, will you be inclined to share it? If you’re like the majority of people, the answer is yes. Now, replicate this by dozens, hundreds, thousands, or even millions and you have a story that has just evoked a strong negative emotion that relates to, and is being shared by, a high velocity of people, sending it going viral. If your organization is at the heart of that story, that means the story—whether it translates into an issue or a crisis—has a high likelihood of going negatively viral against your organization.

Being in a position to evaluate the emotional relatability of a negative situation provides your team with the advantageous ability to properly assess its likelihood for escalation and the potential material impact it risks having on the brand.


Using emotional relatability to reach the hearts of your stakeholders in times of crisis

One of my crisis ready rules is “emotion always overpowers reason.” This means that, if people are emotionally charged, especially in times of crisis, spouting logic at them will not enable you to achieve the results you’re hoping to achieve. The impact of their emotions will override the logic, no matter how rational or irrational it may seem. In order to overcome this, your crisis communications need to be emotionally intelligent. This means two things: validating their emotions and wrapping your logic in emotional relatability. The more inapt your team is at communicating with emotional intelligence, the higher success rate you will experience with your crisis and emergency communications.

Emotional relatability is a powerful phenomenon. Training your team to be able to quickly identify and understand it will give you a powerful advantage of proper assessment and effective response to a rising threat.


Step 3: Taking a 360-degree view of your key stakeholders


It always amazes me how many organizations don’t take the time to map out their key stakeholder groups. Meanwhile, the better you understand the people that matter most to your organization, the more equipped you will be to anticipate and exceed expectations, giving you the opportunity to get in front of rising issues in a way that fosters increased trust in the organization.

Fortunately, stakeholder mapping is quite a simple exercise that offers a wealth of advantages that lend to your crisis readiness. It involves creating a list of your key stakeholder groups and then conducting a deep-dive to better understand things like:

  • Which team members own each of those relationships.
  • How each stakeholder group interacts with the brand in daily activities.
  • The organization’s history of issue management.


Once you have a baseline understanding of each stakeholder group and how they interact with the organization on a regular basis, you can go a step further and identify, in the event of each one of your high-risk scenarios, what each stakeholder group will:

  • Expect of the organization.
  • What emotions they will feel and how they are likely to express them.
  • What questions and concerns will matter most to them.
  • How they will expect to be communicated with, e.g.: will they expect a phone call or to receive an email? Will they navigate to your website expecting to find updates and relevant information? Will they follow you on social media? Etc.


Taking the time to identify who your organization’s stakeholders are and what they will care about in the event of a crisis will give you a powerful advantage to be in a position to meet, and hopefully even exceed, their expectations when it matters most.

Building crisis readiness into the culture of your organization

Living in uncertain times presents greater exposure, both to your organization and its stakeholders, and being in the public sector means you have a responsibility to be in a position to properly detect, assess, and respond to a rising threat in real-time. Not doing so can be as consequential as risked lives.

Becoming crisis ready requires a conscious effort to identify and understand the risks that pertain to your organization and the people who matter most to your business. Fortunately, when you break it down, the steps to achieving this level of readiness are less cumbersome than many expect—and the rewards of investing in your organization’s crisis readiness present powerful opportunities to the organization as a whole, both in and out of times of crisis.

Taking the three steps outlined in this commentary will help you take a giant leap in the right direction. Once taken, share the information with every member of your organization; you never know who will be the first to detect a rising threat and you want to make sure that no matter where a risk materializes, early detection, proper assessment, and the ability to respond in a way that fosters increased trust and credibility in your organization is seamless and instinctive.

Here is to you and your organization’s invincibility.


MELISSA AGNES, author of Crisis Ready: Building an Invincible Brand in an Uncertain World, is a leading authority on crisis preparedness, reputation management, and brand protection.  Agnes is a coveted speaker, commentator, and advisor to some of today's leading organizations faced with the greatest risks. As a strategic advisor and keynote speaker, Melissa Agnes has worked with NATO, Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Defense, financial firms, technology companies, healthcare organizations, cities and municipalities, law enforcement agencies, global non-profits, and many others, helping them understand risk and build invincible brands that can withstand even the most devastating of events.