Neil Martinson: Very few crises cannot be prevented

The crisis at Toyota has thrown into the spotlight why organisations, when faced with an obvious disaster, keep on going until they crash and burn? This is not a problem that is confined to the private sector. Indeed, there are plenty of examples in the public sector, some very tragic, where the internal perceptions of what was right were stunningly out of tune when the public spotlight was shone on them.

Neil Martinson: people trigger crises
Neil Martinson: people trigger crises

There are very few crises that cannot be prevented. Why? Because most are caused by people or management failure and most, including natural disasters, can be foreseen. In fact, most crises are known within organisations before they happen but are either not recognised or there is a culture of denial.

There are some common triggers to a crisis and they all involve people. Management could say it is not serious or take a view that nobody will find out. The latter view is always worse as two stories develop: the problem and the cover-up with the latter being absolutely toxic to reputation. Once the issue is recognised, and assuming there is enough time, an independent assessment can help gauge the seriousness either technically or in relation to reputation.

In the public sector taking a hit on reputation can adversely affect productivity and the effectiveness of public service delivery. As there’s no bottom line it’s difficult to measure, but the impact can be as devastating and costly. For example, the much publicised problems on child protection have contributed to a shortage of social workers and additional costs for recruitment and retention.

That’s why reputation has to have a place at the top table and be represented by a corporate communicator. Reputation can be a vital indicator when assessing corporate health. Inevitably, organisations always have a tendency to be inward looking and our job is to bring an external perspective to the issue. That can be very uncomfortable. It doesn’t solve fundamental problems that may exist but it does provide an insight that can be critical to helping solve the problems for public facing organisations.

There are always three critical questions: What did you know? When did you know? What did you do about it? How much better to have them asked and solved internally rather than by the media.

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