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Three Questions Every Chief Communications Officer Should Prepare For When Confronting a Crisis at a Global Manufacturing Firm

Matt Panichas

The rules governing a crisis typically adhere to the following process: at the outset, collect information. Assess the situation. Respond to your stakeholders. Evaluate message resonance and reaction. Adjust and optimize, as appropriate. Easy, right? Well, not so fast. 

While the process outlined above generally covers the main points of the crisis response and intervention process, it glosses over the operational, structural and geographic complexity inherent to global manufacturing firms. 

Consider the following scenario: An explosion rocks a manufacturing facility in Western Europe. There are casualties, and the sensitive nature of the materials manufactured at the site pose an environmental risk to the surrounding community. Local officials and emergency responders are at the scene. Families are calling to check on their loved ones. Public transportation has been halted. Supply chains have been disrupted. And while all of this is happening, in the United States, where the company’s headquarters are located, most, if not all, C-Suite, corporate communications and human resources executives are still asleep. 

To ensure you are prepared with the right approach and process, be sure to ask yourself the following three questions:

  1. Do you have a stakeholder matrix? When you’re in the heat of a crisis, you will experience a great deal of stress, and the likelihood of making mistakes increases. But, with the right preparation, you and your team will be better positioned to respond. This starts with having a stakeholder matrix. A stakeholder matrix encompasses the audiences that could be affected by a crisis: employees, customers, investors, regulators, suppliers, media and local communities. For each stakeholder, there should be a clear articulation of the person or group responsible for communicating with them, and the communications goals, associated pain points/expectations, tactics and channels through which they will be engaged. 

  1. Do you have assigned roles and responsibilities? For global manufacturing firms, operations are fundamental – and that no doubt applies to crisis communications, too. When an incident occurs — whether a fire at a local plant, a product defect or a natural disaster — the role of communications extends to other functional teams. This means that human resources must be engaged to communicate with employees. Site leaders are responsible for communicating with local authorities. The commercial team must help shape communications with customers. Legal teams should always be engaged to advise on compliance and legality issues, and so on. Truly, it takes a village. 

  1. When will you communicate with your key audiences and in what order? In short, you need to communicate with all stakeholders. Of course, the scope and nature of the crisis will dictate how best to prioritize outreach to these audiences, including employees, investors and customers, among others. While an incident could be confined to a couple of days and may not appear to have a profound impact on all stakeholders, remember one thing: everything that is internal is external, and everything that is external is internal. So if an issue involves an employee death at a facility due to a machine defect, the first call should immediately go to the family and a message should be sent to employees shortly thereafter. In subsequent communications with customers and suppliers, for instance, acknowledge the facts, communicate transparently, and demonstrate what the company will do to prevent future incidents. 

While the questions and thoughts outlined above are not a panacea, they will put you in a much stronger position to manage a crisis with a geographically dispersed workforce, customers in different time zones, and local jurisdictional dynamics. Preparation and operational alignment are key. Cross-functional team communication and collaboration will drive efficiency, accuracy and responsiveness. And communications will be rooted in transparency, credibility and forthrightness, which, ultimately, leads to what every brand needs: trust.