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Be prepared: Digitization meets crisis 4.0

Christoph Schupp

Managing Director, Germany

Burson-Marsteller

Christoph.Schupp@bm.com

 &

 

Alexander Fink

CEO, Germany

Burson-Marsteller

Alexander.Fink@bm.com

 In the digital age, media outlets work around the clock and the rise of “citizen journalism” through social media makes companies and brands more vulnerable than ever to a crisis. And not just the crisis itself, but also the knock-on effects of a crisis on reputation, image, and business success.

There is also a whole new range of threats to brands that have seemingly come out of nowhere and from a completely different direction: digital threats that can seriously damage the reputation of a company or the value of a brand. In addition to the well-publicized recent global cyber-attacks on business computer networks, these new threats include campaigns by opponents, data theft, and hacker attacks on customer accounts or IT infrastructure.

Such risks require companies and brands to rethink how they prepare for and manage a crisis. Crises cannot only be significantly minimized with the right measures, but their impact can also be significantly reduced with the appropriate communication tools and a specially adapted infrastructure. It is no longer sufficient, however, for corporate communications teams to think they have done enough by creating a crisis manual, writing a few stock statements and FAQs, and keeping the emergency call list up to date. Good crisis preparation and successful crisis management must now include new ways of protecting companies and brands from harm, successfully managing crises, and recovering from them.

Practice makes perfect

An example of the digitization of crisis communications is in crisis simulation. It’s common that crisis teams within a company will simulate a crisis to ensure they can meet the challenges they face. Now, they must train to deal with the social media element of a crisis, in real time. In addition to handling media inquiries, people engaged in a simulation like this must also consider immediate communication with other stakeholders, such as NGOs, employees, and shareholders. This way, crisis-management teams can gather realistic experience on the communication challenges they are likely to face during a real crisis, and make the right decisions about how best to use all available communication channels. A simulation activity like this goes beyond determining whether existing internal crisis plans and processes actually function or need to be optimized; they can identify weaknesses in crisis documents and digital, which can be adjusted with the appropriate measures before a real crisis strikes.

If, in the event of a real crisis, the company already has in place a sophisticated crisis response that can be quickly adapted to the specific communication needs of the event, a lot has already been done to protect the brand.

The recent global cyberattacks are not only challenging internal IT structures, but also the communication departments of many brands. At the same time, they also offer a great opportunity for crisis communicators: they made it clear that areas of responsibility should be redefined made part of an integrated information security management system. Too often, however, businesses are cautious about such an integrated approach. They think: “So far, nothing’s happened to us, so why should we change?”

It is precisely this kind of silo-style division of responsibility and carelessness around digital risk that can trigger the kind of disaster we call “Crisis 4.0”.

PR agencies, which not only have many years of experience in crisis communication, but also provide risk-management experience, provide professional support in the optimization of these processes. It is important for companies to know in which areas, for example, internal IT security and emergency management need to be improved. This can be done through reviews and testing of existing communication processes and structures, by preparing for a range of emergencies, and by broadening the resource base and skills in the crisis management team.

Prevention, better than a cure

To be ideally prepared, from a PR perspective, for a digital attack, two things are particularly important. The first is that there must be seamless interplay of IT expertise, experience in risk management, and communications skills. Secondly, there must be a high-functioning crisis-management team that can investigate, test, prepare, prevent, and react – and follow up.  This last step is often overlooked, but there is an opportunity for brands to strengthen their reputation during and after a crisis.

Experience shows that the damage caused by a crisis can be significantly reduced if companies are thoroughly prepared. In the digital world, the need to undertake that preparation is urgent. Neglect this at your peril.