The importance of communication in a crisis

Having to deal with a serious crisis is hopefully a rare occurrence for an enterprise, however they do happen and businesses have to be prepared. The way crises are dealt with and the ability to make quick decisions is imperative to the future success of the business concerned.

A critical element of any crisis management plan is getting all key decision-makers in the same place as quickly as possible to develop a suitable strategy for response.

However, given the increasingly global nature of enterprises this can be very difficult to do in an adequate timeframe.

Since most crises are newsworthy events, media from the region, nation and even world, will quickly expect statements and explanations about the cause and effects of the situation.

The need for a quick response is further amplified by the advent of the internet which enables breaking news to appear online almost immediately - now more than ever the business in question has very little time to respond.

To take an example of a crisis situation, health officials may find a link between several cases of E.coli and a juice company with the result being one fatality and a further 80 people falling ill.

This is likely to cause panic, law suits and a drastic decline in sales. Relevant teams (including external parties such as lawyers) have to be formed and mobilised to quickly make a decision on what steps to take.

This can be fairly straight forward if all key decision makers are in the same building but it gets more difficult if they are spread across the country or, just as likely, across the world.

Flying your CEO from New York to London or waiting an hour for your lawyers to drive to your office for a crisis meeting is time no business can afford.

If your business doesn’t provide any information, or doesn’t provide it quick enough, the public - such as reporters, employees and members of the community - will turn to other, often less credible sources of information.

The well-known maxim that ‘in the absence of information, misinformation becomes news’ can become all too true and cause irreparable damage to your business and its reputation.

This is where advances in communications technology can be vital and whilst the internet can present problems, it can also be part of the solution.

Obviously there are a variety of factors that constitute a successfully managed crisis, however speed underpins everything.

This is why holding online meetings, using web conferencing technology, can be an essential element to any crisis management plan because it can keep forcibly dispersed workforces operating effectively.

Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) applications give relevant parties greater accessibility if they need to work outside the office because all that is required is an internet connection.

This means it can be used anywhere - from home, at work, or in any wi-fi hotspot - and is increasingly becoming available on wireless devices such as mobile phones and Blackberrys.

Users can access the business applications they need whenever they need them, so if your CEO can’t get to the office for that all important meeting, they can still be productive elsewhere.

However, it isn’t just a case of being able to see one another. To be effective, an online meeting tool has to offer users the means to collaborate and do so in a secure environment, particularly as information discussed is likely to be highly confidential.

To take the first point, collaboration is essential in a time of crisis. Even if the group managing the crisis is spread out across the UK, America and New Zealand, you still need to ensure that everyone can view essential documents or contribute to drafting a press statement.

That is why it is important to choose a conferencing system that provides sufficiently broad functionality to support the needs of the business. It is important to consider both internal and external communication in a crisis situation and you can use web conferencing to support both.

For example, the business in question can hold regular company-wide online meetings to update employees - regardless of their location - on the situation and give them the opportunity to ask questions. It can also be a useful platform to host a press conference - so those who can’t attend the event in person can not only still see it live but also ask questions online.

The second point is that any web conferencing tool has to provide a stable and secure platform for carrying out real-time web communications and collaboration.

Of course, such a requirement is necessary for any business situation that requires an online meeting, however this becomes even more vital in a crisis.

Security should not only cover voice conversations but also the information and documents that are shared. Participants may be able to view a document but you don’t necessarily want them to have access to it after the meeting has ended.

Similarly it shouldn’t be saved anywhere on the internet thus presenting the risk of someone else hacking into a system and finding it.

As a mission-critical platform you need to ensure your web conferencing system can cope under any situation and follows rigorous security procedures.

It is important to ensure that it can scale to meet increased capacity, upholds rigid security policies, meets stringent performance requirements and has guarantees on continuous availability and reliability.

A final point worth mentioning is that whilst online meetings are a very effective way of ensuring fast communication with key stakeholders when it really matters, it is important users are familiar with the technology to get the most from it.

The best approach is to put resources in place before your people need them. That means the web conferencing tools you regularly provide for business operations can quickly be turned into high-performance assets for communication in emergency situations.

There are many challenges to effective first response in a crisis but crisis management and business continuity professionals understand that effective communication before; during and after an incident can drastically alter the outcome of that incident.

If an enterprise cannot do this, the misperceptions created by alternative sources in the initial moments of a crisis may remain and be difficult, if not impossible, to change.

In turn, these misperceptions may directly translate into significant organisational losses, for example if employees quit, customers switch brands or shareowners sell their stock.

Businesses need to recognise that secure and robust web conferencing technology is available to allow geographically dispersed teams to meet almost immediately and be just as effective online as off.

This article was written by Bert Van der Zwan, VP of EMEA, Cisco WebEx