Part 2: Is this a Crisis?!

ow to implement crisis monitoring to ensure you aren’t caught unprepared

By Mary Fearon

A CRISIS: it’s big, it’s bad, and it’s usually a surprise. And, it requires immediate and decisive action to manage the impact of this crisis on the organization and its stakeholders. With the future viability of the organization and its value to stakeholders in your hands, the opportunity rests in the quality of your response. We’ve all witnessed crises from afar. Just a few years ago, our region was at the centre of public attention as a result of the allegations
surrounding Mayor Rob Ford. And even currently, Wells Fargo has created a disaster for itself with the unauthorized bank account scandal. These are huge crises where reputations were severely affected, and, in the case of the latter, millions of people were cheated out of millions of dollars.

Thankfully, situations of this magnitude don’t occur every day. There are, however, many issues and events with serious implications for which organizations are all too often unprepared. Although not every crisis can be prevented, regardless of the level of preparedness, many issues can be averted or at least alleviated. If the thought of a potential crisis has ever crossed your mind, the question you should be asking yourself is, how can you prepare, prevent, and anticipate potential issues before they occur?

Recognizing crisis challenges in franchise systems

In many ways, franchise organizations are not unlike any other organization in crisis. A situation hits a critical turning point and all stakeholders – corporate, franchisees, employees, partners – throughout the network feel the impact and become part of the response plan. The franchise business model does, however, present some unique challenges within the crisis management context, including but not limited to:

  • The size, scope, and complexity of the network itself
  • Decentralized ownership and decision-making ability
  • Perceived and actual levels of control and influence within the independent franchise unit and the network
  • Effectiveness and efficiency of communication flow throughout the network
  • Trust levels within the network

Managing a crisis in these environments requires a comprehensive crisis plan clearly outlining roles, responsibilities, and expectations of the franchisor and franchisee. Jeff Lake discussed these considerations, along with the importance
of crisis communication planning, in his “Be Prepared in a Time of Crisis” article in the Summer issue of The FranchiseVoice. And there is nothing more valuable in times of crisis than the roadmap for the who, how, and what of managing the impact. Yet
sometimes the biggest challenge can be recognizing whether or not you’re having a crisis in the first place, and determining the nature and level of response required. Your crisis plan will provide a framework for action, but only a deep understanding of your environment and risk factors will tell you when to trigger action.

Crisis monitoring framework

Issues and crises fall on a continuum defined by the order of magnitude, the gravity of the situation, and the response required. A crisis can come from within the organization, or be driven by external factors. It can hit like a tornado or, like global warming, slowly evolve over time. All levels and situations require management, the question is: how can you be prepared for when a situation hits, assess its position on the continuum, and take action to prevent or minimize negative impact? Continually monitoring and assessing the environmental forces in your business against this continuum will shape your understanding and guide your response as risks escalate to issues and potentially crises.

Figure 1. How do you know if you’re in too deep?

1. Know what to look for: Define potential themes that matter most to your business.
Crises come in many forms – use the various categories of crises to outline potential risks specific to your business. Identify practical and potential risk scenarios and the information you would need to determine whether risks are turning into issues or issues into crises.

Crisis categories, defined by experts Ulmer, Sellnow, and Seeger:

  • Intentional – terrorism, sabotage, poor employee relationships, poor risk management, hostile takeovers, unethical leadership
  • Unintentional – natural disasters, disease outbreaks, product failures, downturns in the economy

Which can be further broken down by:

  • Natural – storms, earthquakes, fires
  • Technological – contamination, spills, meltdowns, explosions
  • Confrontational – internal or external disagreements that lead to confrontations amongst employees, or between organization and public stakeholders
  • Malevolence – malicious acts, terrorism
  • Management failure – misconduct, deception

2. Employ crisis monitoring systems.
One of the gifts of a highly connected world is the availability of feedback. Countless data sources and communications channels are firing feedback on a 24/7 basis. All you have to do is listen. Having a pulse on actions and conversations will not only make you aware of any issues or crises in action, but will also provide insight into the nature of issues and concerns to support your response.

Figure 2. The chart below is an example of what you might see in
a monitoring framework at a food service franchise.

Internal feedback

Leverage any existing internal communications channels (e.g. intranet, franchise hubs) to raise awareness and understanding among employees and franchisees about the potential risks and
expectations for communications. Develop protocols for managing different levels of risk and exposure to crisis. Set expectations for reporting risks, issues, and crises. Risks will often first emerge at the front line of customerservice. Without clear expectations in place for sharing and reporting, unaddressed incidents can snowball into greater issues. If internal communications infrastructure is lacking, you can leverage, at little to no cost, sharing platforms to create private feedback pages and discussion forums (e.g. Facebook).

External resources

Never before have organizations had more access and insight into their external stakeholder environments. Ultimately, you’re looking for changes, like increases in negative media coverage or conversations. Monitoring industry and trade media can help you stay on top of macro issues at the industry, category, and brand level. In addition to scanning for specific brand mentions or risk themes, follow the issues and topics covered by key media and opinion leaders to identify new risks as they emerge. Even the simple act of setting up Google alerts can help you stay on top of relevant stories or mentions that could impact your brand.

Social listening

Social media is an interesting area. Often, our clients will look at an issue that percolates within a social channel as a ‘social media’ issue, when in fact, social media issues are a symptom of
something greater. An immediate influx of negative communication could trigger, or be an indication of, a possible issue or crisis. It’s important to keep on top of all comments and, where issues
do arise, do the work to understand the root cause. And remember, everything in social channels is public in one way or another. Companies need to do more than just listen on these platforms;
they need to be responsive and react appropriately to any issues that may come their way.

The power of search

A less commonly used, but highly valuable reference is search terms. If you have a good handle on what’s being searched in relation to your brand, you can stay on top of any changes or fluctuations in activity. For example, if search terms (found through Google analytics, website, etc.) are changing from purchasing to returning your product, it’s time you find out why.

3. Know when to activate your crisis management plan.

Remember, no amount of planning or preparedness can guarantee you will avoid crisis altogether, but understanding the nature of the risks to your business and having the appropriate monitoring systems in place will help you recognize when to act when crisis is afoot.

Mary Fearon is Vice President, Strategy at Jan Kelley, a Burlington, Ontario-based advertising and communications agency specializing in B2B, dealer, and franchise networks. Crisis communications is just one aspect of the strategic communications practice she has cultivated at Jan Kelley. Creating desire from the inside out, Mary provides the guidance that enables clients to build their brands
through employees, dealer networks, distribution channels, retailers,and franchise systems.