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How to remain in control of a crisis: however strange the cause

Occasionally a business will be hit by an incident so unusual that it would have been almost impossible to predict. Jen Horsman uses the case of Italian restaurant chain Zizzi, which was impacted by the Salisbury nerve agent attack, to show how preparations can still be made.

Can you imagine being on the receiving end of a call that mentions the words ‘spy’ and ‘attempted assassination’ in relation to one of your restaurants? Or perhaps seeing your brand suddenly thrust into the spotlight, caught in the cross-fire of heightened political tension? This is the situation that Italian restaurant chain Zizzi faced in March after an ex-Russian spy and his daughter were found slumped on a park bench in Salisbury after being exposed to a nerve agent. Later, traces of the chemical were found at a nearby Zizzi restaurant where they had just eaten. It’s a story that continues to reverberate, now feeding into wider tensions between Russia and Western countries.

Although the specifics of the case were arguably unpredictable, at a macro level it represents the scenario which we hear most often keeps senior executives awake at night – major business disruption due to circumstances outside of the organization’s direct control.

Building business resilience is all about putting the right culture, processes and resources in place to allow a business to stay in control of those elements most integral to its ongoing success – such as its values, priorities and stakeholders – even when it doesn’t have control of the overall crisis.

How do those elements relate to the unusual situation that Zizzi was forced to deal with?

  • The principles of crisis response can be applied to every situation. Once you strip away the sensational James Bond-esque elements of this incident, you can see that the fundamental pillars of effective crisis response (strategic decision-making, operational response and crisis communications) remain the same.
  • But how you apply those principles will vary. With immediate intervention from the emergency services, forensic investigators and the UK Government (to name a few), the degree to which Zizzi had control over the strategic decisions and operational response in this situation was limited. Therefore, crisis communications, which is directly linked to reputational impact and a priority for any consumer facing brand, was where Zizzi appears to have focused its efforts.
  • When you do communicate, do it well. In a crisis you need to communicate with your stakeholders as soon as possible, even if it’s just to say what you do know, what you don’t know and what you’re doing to find out. Being visible and engaging with your stakeholders during the early stages of an incident is essential in helping drive the narrative – even more so when you don’t have direct control over the management of the crisis. The statement that Zizzi issued on its website and other social platforms was comprehensive, demonstrating concern for those affected, commitment to helping ongoing investigations and control over its material elements. To ensure a fast response proactively develop communication templates and agree a distribution strategy prior to an incident, considering things that could be an obstacle such as who has the log-in details to your social media accounts, whether your website is flexible enough to be updated at a moment’s notice, and how this would be done out-of-hours.
  • Collaboration will help drive results. To help fulfil the outcomes that crisis communications demand – in this case, issuing potentially life-saving advice – you will nearly always require a dialogue with other agencies to gather accurate information. Encouraging a culture that makes collaboration easy will build a foundation for an effective response.

The uncomfortable truth is that you will never be able to foresee or plan for every scenario, but this in itself shows the importance of building and embedding business resilience throughout the organization. Only by taking a proactive approach to risk, managing issues effectively and preparing for reactive crisis response can you be sure that your business is agile, adaptive and able to respond to immediate threats, no matter how they arise.

The author

Jen Horsman, consultant, Instinctif Partners Business Resilience.



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