An algorithm for crisis management

Most CEOs want as much data as possible to make critical decisions. Crisis management should be no different.

One of the most common challenges communications executives face during times of crisis is when and how to calibrate the proper corporate response.

At its most basic, the conundrum is often this: Does engaging early increase the likelihood of greater media interest and reputation damage than would otherwise be realized? At a more advanced level, the dilemma is determining how real-time judgments are made beyond the informal collection of data points and marketplace anecdotes.

In a digital world, corporate communications professionals need to start demanding more data-driven insight into how to deal with crisis management.

I'm a big proponent of developing standard, quantitative ways or issues-escalation indices to manage this new information over time and provide empirical data for issues management.

The first step in each potential crisis or challenging issue is to consider what variables you would want to track to understand the intensity of the issue. For example, you may want to consider:

•Volume of customer service complaints (both via phone and online)
•Sales patterns
•Social commentary (e.g. influential blogs, Twitter engagement)
•Industry analyst commentary
•Financial analyst commentary
•Stakeholder polling

From this data it is possible to create an algorithm that gives appropriate weight to each data point based on the judgment of the communications and company-leadership teams. For one issue, influential Twitter commentary may be given greater importance than trade-press coverage. For another issue at the same organization, the inverse may be true.

Each data point can then be boiled down to a single number – on a scale of 1 to 100 – that can be tracked over time and explored more deeply in the face of significant or unexpected changes.

If you were to stop there, you'd find immense value. In my view, however, it's the next step that really makes this sort of initiative valuable.

The real key to success is identifying what communications levers would be pulled at each point on the index. For example, if the issue only scored a 27 based on the algorithm computing the various data points identified above, our plan (considered well in advance) may only call for engaging employees. If the issue escalates to a 62, the index would indicate it's time to pull additional levers, perhaps shareholder communications, customer outreach, and so on. If the index score was above an 80 and you're in a full-blown crisis, the road map is clear and the index provides the objective input to help your company's leadership be confident in the decision to move aggressively forward.

Such an issues-escalation index will never fully replace good, seasoned judgment. However, what this index can do is equip you with better, more reliable information upon which to make those judgments.

Most CEOs want as much data as possible to make critical decisions. Crisis management should be no different. A well-developed issues-escalation index can equip you with the tools you'll need.

Bob Feldman is cofounder and principal of PulsePoint Group, a digital and management consulting firm. He can be reached at His column focuses on management of the corporate communications function.

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