Digital Crisis Management (Part 1)

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FIR On Strategy with Andrea VascellariThis is part of a series of posts that explores the “Adaptive Digital Strategy Framework” , an operative guide that I created to plan, execute and manage online strategy programs more effectively and efficiently. Each of post of this series comes with an audio podcast in which you will find the audio version of the post with additional audio commentary about the discussed topics. The name of the podcast is “FIR On Strategy with Andrea Vascellari”.

In this cast/post we will understand how to strategically predict the various phenomenons that can potentially originate a crisis and how an organization can plan the responsive actions needed to face such crisis situations. 

Crisis Hurt

When a crisis hits, you can’t eliminate the damage. You can just manage it, control it and minimize it.

Whether you actually failed or you are at the center of a big misunderstanding, speculation, non legitimate accusations and you know you didn’t do anything wrong…well, it doesn’t matter. You, your brand, your organization, is going to suffer. It doesn’t matter how well you are going to hide or how far and fast you are going to run, you have no choice but dealing with it. It’s the only way to reduce short and long-term damage.

Choosing the “no comment” path, expecting that the problem is going to vanish or avoiding media is not going to take you anywhere, actually it’s just going to make things worse. This is why it’s vital to have a crisis management plan in place.

Think about your customers, clients, stakeholders. If you don’t address and properly manage a crisis, what are they going to think? What is going to happen to that loyalty and strong relationship that you’ve put so much effort in building? They deserve to hear from you and they need you to take action.

Think also about the media. How do you think they will react and portrait you and the issue that your organization is facing? The media can be your best ally or your worst enemy. They can support and help you making sense out of what you are going through or they can contribute to the counterproductive chaos around the situation that you are facing.

The media wants blood. It’s either going to be yours or someone else’s on the other side of the fence on which you are fighting to defend your organization but someone is going to get hurt. Same goes with social networks, social media and the countless number of online communication channels. You can use your online presence and digital properties to address the issue or you can choose to opt out, and yes… you don’t need me to remind you that any move down that road will come back to bite you.

Where to start from?

You will get hurt in a battle, but if you have a strategy plan you can reduce and minimize the damage. So, where to start from? How to think about a digital crisis?

This digital age opened up new doors but it also brought to the table a whole new range of factors that can potentially originate a crisis. Nobody can predict the future and identify all these factors ahead of time.

So what can an organization do?

My advice is to start by looking at the different strategic areas of the organization and ask to the managers in charge to list the environmental factors that can potentially have the greatest impact on the performance and outcomes of his/hers plan.

In our case we’ll do this with “digital” because that’s what we are focusing on but you can use this methodology with other strategic plans within your organization.

For each identified factor the manager should ask two fundamental questions:

  • To what extent am I able to predict the behavior and the effect of this factor?
  • To what extent am I able to react and respond to the potential development of this factor so that adverse effects can be reduced or, alternatively, so be taken advantage of?

These two questions are based on Peter Lorange‘s research. In the 70’s he created a great framework for effective response to environmental change that I think is still valuable especially in today’s ever-changing digital landscape. So what I’m sharing with you in this cast/post is based on this model.

Depending on the answer you’ll give to each one of the two questions, you will be able to classify your organization in one of the following cells:

Crisis Management - Lorange

Predictability: Organization’s ability to predict environmental changes that can originate a crisis.
Response: Organization’s ability to react to such changes.

Steering Control: High Predictability – High Response.
This is the ideal situation in which every strategist and organization would love to operate. It’s a form of strategic control that is possible when you are able to predict and at the same time to react to the various events and phenomenons that can occur in the environment in which you operate. It’s a “low risk” situation. This scenario is not particularly challenging because the issues that may arise can be generally managed without problems. When we look at “digital”, this is the case in which the organization has a fairly high degree of control and confidence in dealing with new technologies and for example with the online communication channels used by its target audience.

Post-Facto Control: Low Predictability – Low Response.
In this scenario it’s difficult to forecast how the environment will change and at the same time there’s a very little potential to address the related issues. This is a high risk scenario. Once the management has defined an action plan to address the problem, there’s a very limited chance of change it. Because of this limited “space for action”, the focus here is on analyzing the situation after the fact, so it has to be seen more like a “learning experience” rather than an opportunity to “cut losses”. It’s in understanding how the issue was addressed, what actions were good and what could have been done better. This is generally what you face when you operate in strategic areas characterized by big investments of capital in very unstable markets. Looking at digital, this is the case when the organization has to deal for example with a new technology and the related new target audience’s behavior that comes with it.

Anticipative Control: High Predictability – Low Response.
This is generally the case of organizations that don’t have the capacity to react well and fast enough but that are able to predict with a fairly high degree of accuracy what might happen. Basically the organization is able to identify potential environmental phenomenons but has difficulties in changing its strategy once it has been created. So what happens in this scenario? Usually the management has to decide whether to discontinue the adopted strategy or not, in light of the most recent forecast. There’s a continuos monitoring that enables the organization to react in time to control losses or on the other hand speed up again when favorable events are identified.

Contingency Control: Low Predictability – High Response.
These are organizations are not capable of accurately predicting trends in the external environment but that are structured extremely well at internal level to respond to such trends. They can address properly and rapidly the various issues faced by the organization. This doesn’t mean that the organization doesn’t monitor. The crisis event will hit the radars of the organizations but it will show up unexpected because it wasn’t possible to predict it. However the management is in the position of being able to choose or change the strategic approach as soon it’s confronted with the negative or positive development of the environmental phenomenon.

Why is this model useful in “digital”?

This model helps an organization to internally define clear roles and responsibilities for the execution of specific crisis management strategies.

Looking at “digital”: The digital landscape changes and evolves really fast bringing to the table new variables that keep putting the organizations in front of new challenges. For example, organizations already spent years testing and experimenting with blogging and community management. A crisis that originates on/from any of these channels is easy to predict and to manage with “Steering Control” approach. Now, if we add to this new variables like for example “real-time” and “mobility”, the scenario changes. A few years ago people used to comment on a blog or interact with a community only when they were in front of their desktop computers. Today they can do it in real time and from wherever they are thanks to their mobile devices. In this situation we can see how the organization is almost forced to shift towards a “ Post-Facto” approach.

So using this model to contextualize “digital” considering also the geography, the industry in which your organization operates, the potential scale of the events etc. helps you understand what you should work on to improve your organization’s ability to predict and react to specific factors and scenarios that can generate a digital crisis.

Strategic & Tactical Approach

In this cast/post we understood how we can invest in predicting the various events that can potentially originate a crisis hence how to enable the organization to plan accordingly the various responsive actions that are needed to face such situations. This is a strategic approach. But how about tactics? What should we actually do when the crisis hits? How can we approach this? What actions can be taken and what digital tools can be used? In the next cast/post we will dive deep into that tactical dimension of digital crisis management.

Your Thoughts

At a strategic level, what would you add to this model? Have you used this or similar approaches in your sector (public/private)? Is there anything you would approach this differently? Let me know in the comments.

Andrea @vascellari
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