May 11, 2020

Surviving a crisis comes down to your planning – and your leader

By Chris Forrest 

As someone who has provided guidance to organizations caught in the midst of high-stakes crises, it has been particularly painful to watch some companies in the agri-food space not only stumble, but outright fail at their crisis communications. The circumstances that created the crisis may be out of our hands – natural disasters, political conflicts, pandemics – but how we communicate our way through the crisis says a lot about our brand and our core values.  

While many companies have stepped out in front and shown tremendous stability and leadership during these unusual times, there are still too many who have shown a failure to plan and train for a catastrophic event. It always seems like a left hook catches us off guard, but the truth is we can and should prepare for all sorts of unwanted scenarios that fall anywhere between minor to apocalyptic.  

Too much at stake  

Lack of preparedness is an entirely needless stress added to an already hectic situation – and the financial costs can be staggering. CEOs regularly lose their jobs over a bungled crisis. Share value can drop significantly. Contracts can be terminated. Bonuses are cancelled. Brand equity tanks. And the impact to the morale of the employees who have to work through and beyond a crisis is probably immeasurable. If issues keep recurring across a specific industry, new and tougher regulations come into play. Social trust can be jeopardized. 

Three keys to navigating a crisis 

Besides the obvious recommendation to (a) build a custom crisis communications plan (b) appoint a team to manage that plan, and (c) rehearse the plan in at least one mock scenario each year – I’m sharing here my three keys to navigating a crisis: 

1. CALL A FRIEND – Engage a strong network of friends as you step out into the public. Be honest and open in sharing your situation and how you are addressing it, and how a supportive word from them would help the company move forward. Most good companies have way more people in their corner than they think – consumerssuppliers, vendors, entire communities who count on the company’s longevity. If the relationship with stakeholders is in good shape, this is the time to withdraw some of that goodwill.

2. CEO OR BUST – Is your CEO or business leader up to the challenge that lies ahead? The potential for sleepless nights, the endless interview requests, the key messaging that changes by the minute based on an evolving situation: do they fundamentally understand and accept their role as the chief communicator to the public during a crisis, and are they willing to take or least strongly consider the advice providedThe leader makes all the difference during a crisis. I have seen some people really rise to the occasion and perform superbly while some others wilt under the pressure. A CEO who embraces her role and agrees to media training is a great start.   

3. WHODOESWHAT? – Exactly. Everyone working in communications or marketing understands what chaos can look like on any given project if there is lack of clarity on fundamental things like roles or budgets. Adding the context of a high-stakes crisis only magnifies any lack of alignment between colleagues on a crisis response team, or between the team and other stakeholdersBy the time a crisis response is initiated, roles have been defined, accountabilities assumed, communications already routed and mapped across all channels, down to sharing a glossary of terms to employ if and when the crisis escalates. Starting each morning with a meeting of the response team is critical.   

We acknowledge that these are expectational times and individuals and organizations have been stretched beyond capacity. There are more tough days to come, we know that much, but we also know that in agriculture and food we have the right minds and the right hands to build an even stronger industry, diverse and ever more adaptable. Let us help ourselves by investing in honest and open communication with the public as our entire agri-food industry gets up again and moves forward.   

A lifelong storyteller, Chris Forrest is a reformed journalist who still places who, what, where and why at the heart of his work. He has managed many high-stakes crises in energy, agriculture and food.