ITL #333   Always-on risk management: let’s talk resilience not crisis

5 months, 1 week ago


Managing risk in a world of increasing motion and consumer expectation calls for a fresh approach to issues and crisis management. By Rebecca Wilson.

Less than a decade ago, issues and crisis management was something to be summoned on an emergency basis. Like firefighters, the issues management team would screech in to douse the blaze before reverting to a business as usual mentality. Fast forward to today and the picture couldn’t be more different.

The ever-changing realities of a world in motion and the increased speed at which information spreads means that issues management too has changed. Or if it hasn’t, it should.

Customer expectations are exponentially increasing, competition is greater, and technology is driving daily change across industries, business and products. Throw in the power of digital communication to amplify even a lone voice with unprecedented magnitude, and what was once rated as a low-level issue can morph into a full-blown crisis — at breakneck speed.

WE’s 2018 proprietary Brands in Motion study showed that nine out of 10 people would not hesitate to publicly shame a brand they support if it steps out of line — and social media has given them the platform to do so. When it comes to the chances of a business running into trouble, the saying ‘not if but when’ has never been truer.

Embracing change and fighting fire with fire

For communications professionals engaged in crisis and issues management, these changes have posed myriad challenges. Traditional transactional or ‘incident response’ approaches too often seem akin to locking the door once the horse has bolted. Whether it’s the flashfire of consumers on social media or the slow burn of a regulatory investigation daily splashing the front pages of the mainstream media, increasingly, the result can seem a bit too little, a bit too late.

As a professional with a 20-year history of guiding clients through some of the worst of times, the question for me and my colleagues at WE has been: how can we best adapt and evolve the crisis management function to better suit clients in this new environment?

For us, the best place to start was with a ‘physician, heal thyself’ moment.

We constantly counsel our clients not to fear change, rather, to anticipate and embrace it; to grow, evolve and use it to their advantage. In the crisis and issues context, this means we need to follow our own advice, positioning our expertise in risk management squarely at the centre of the corporate executive rather than at the outer reaches, because we know that’s where it’s most needed.

It means fighting fire with fire; making intelligent use of precisely the same data, digital analytics and communication platforms that have given rise to our new reality. It’s an always-on approach where we use data to identify potential issues and then monitor and track them, allowing for early intervention, ongoing management and a much deeper understanding of the sentiment and motivations of an individual or community.

In so doing, our goal is to build corporate, cultural and business resilience that can help an organisation anticipate, avoid, mitigate and ultimately, withstand, the mounting risks they face, despite increasing challenges.


Missing red flags and the essential 360-degree crisis communications lens

We need to look no further than recent Australian events to see why this approach is needed. Our example is the devastating reputational damage and massive consequential financial losses to an entire industry following a recent national judicial inquiry (known as a Royal Commission) into misconduct in banking, superannuation and financial services.  

Over more than a year of hearings, a host of C-suite executives from some of Australia’s largest, richest and most venerable financial institutions were hauled over the Commission coals, revealing an excruciating litany of misdeeds and wrongdoing. Heads rolled. The industry will take years to recover and compensation cases in the order of billions are still racking up.

The Royal Commission was accompanied by unprecedented legal, regulatory and public scrutiny. In some cases, unconscionable and illegal practices were revealed. In many others, it was apparent that individuals had zero knowledge of bad behaviour, or the issues were historical. In others, it seemed that certain questionable practices had become culturally entrenched.

Viewed in isolation through a financial, operational or marketing lens, such practices, being commonplace, were perhaps seen as acceptable. Viewed through a 360-degree crisis and issues lens, the picture was very different. I would most kindly describe it as high risk.

Of course, and most important of all, was the view through the lens of the Royal Commission and millions of customers. It was downright damning.

‘Always-on’ risk management as part of organisational culture

We don’t have the space to explore the many lessons of the Royal Commission here, and certainly the U.S. and U.K. have had similar experiences. I would, however, like to focus on the way it illustrates the need to build resilience by embedding risk management at the heart of company culture as an ‘always-on’ function rather than a series of one-off incident responses.

Time and again the Royal Commission experience showed how, with the benefit of hindsight, the worst outcomes could have been avoided. The red flags were all there: inadequate, failed or no responses at all to issues and complaints, failures in communication, failures in sharing information and, perhaps what will prove to be most ultimately damaging, failure to listen to customers and the community.

A key problem was that, in many cases, there was no single view able to recognise those red flags for what they were. And that is why a resilient business needs communications professionals at the executive table. Our 360-degree view of all stakeholders and wider issues, both internal and external, means we can advise on the full picture, with expertise way beyond the tactical.

So, how do we step back from managing only the crisis to focus instead on building the kind of resilience that can protect clients, even as issues can, do and always will continue to arise?

Building a resilience framework and a positive outlook for the future

The resilience approach is pervasive, incremental and dynamic. In practice, it means being prepared for the unexpected. It requires listening to anticipate and track potential issues, and planning to allow active mitigation and recovery when issues persist — all in real time and with minimal disruption to everyday operations.

Organisations, like people, build resilience by learning from past experiences and incrementally improving the way they address them in the future. To put it simply, building a resilience framework requires building organisational culture and systems that enable the anticipation, recognition and constructive response to every red flag, every day.

While this relies on buy-in from business leaders, it is at its heart a deeply cultural issue that touches every employee. Any internal practice that empowers employees to understand and respond appropriately in this context is a vital part of a resilience framework, giving a company the elasticity to deal with issues at their earliest genesis and the capacity to recover quickly.

The good news is that the necessary mindset shift is happening.

Recently, I accepted my first board appointment on an Australian Securities Exchange-listed company. The reason I am at the table is because the company values my understanding and navigation of risk and the power of communication in effective mitigation. It’s an experience I look forward to sharing with many fellow professionals as more and more organisations commit to safeguarding reputation by building resilience.


The author

Rebecca Wilson, EVP, Singapore & Australia, WE Communications.  


Rebecca Wilson







author"s portrait

The Author

Rebecca Wilson

Rebecca Wilson, EVP, Singapore & Australia, WE Communications

mail the author
visit the author's website

Forward, Post, Comment | #IpraITL

We are keen for our IPRA Thought Leadership essays to stimulate debate. With that objective in mind, we encourage readers to participate in and facilitate discussion. Please forward essay links to your industry contacts, post them to blogs, websites and social networking sites and above all give us your feedback via forums such as IPRA’s LinkedIn group. A new ITL essay is published on the IPRA website every week. Prospective ITL essay contributors should send a short synopsis to IPRA head of editorial content Rob Gray email


Welcome to IPRA


Follow IPRA: