Ignoring it won’t make it go away!

Very few companies are ready for the worst case scenario

The pale look on his face says everything. Heinz B, Managing Director of a medium-size engineering company from South Germany [all names anonymous for confidentiality reasons], is sitting in an emergency meeting with his closest advisors: the PR spokesman and the company lawyer. Heinz B has just discovered that his company has obviously been the victim of industrial espionage for years. A brand new product just launched by the competition is an exact replica of a product the company had been developing behind closed doors.

Nobody dares say it. But everybody is thinking it. How many times has security been on the agenda at meetings? Take the computers in the development department. All equipped with CD burners and USB ports. Perfect for copying data. What about all the placement students and interns? They hang around the building for weeks at a time, but nobody really follows up where they actually came from. Then there was the head of development who suddenly handed in his notice six months ago. Only days before he left, wasn’t he still burning the midnight oil? Everybody noticed it, it was definitely captured somewhere, but the boss never thought it would come to this.

There are two facets to this disastrous scenario: industrial espionage on the one hand, the potentially massive image loss on the other. What will we do if the press finds out? What if it becomes public knowledge?

What will our customers think? A “right fiasco”. Worse still, the financial impact could run into the millions. At his wit’s end, the PR spokesman turns to the Steinbeis Transfer Center for Communication, Safety and Security (CSS) for a safe route out of this nasty predicament. Professional troubleshooters take on the case. A risk analysis. An internal and external investigation. Eradicate all security leaks. And, first and foremost: crisis communications.

Nobody is immune to disaster. Companies, politicians, trade associations, private individuals. If you ever stand in the public eye, there is always a risk of being shot down in flames. Intrinsically, the bigger you are the more likely you are to be affected – as German giants such as Siemens, VW, Daimler and Vattenfall all know. The media watch them like a hawk, especially when they go through one crisis after another and management is obviously flagging.

Does this happen because big companies have more fixed and rigid ways of working? Or is it because of the chasm between decision makers “at the top” and workers at the grass roots, who are more likely to have their finger on the pulse? Or does a crisis instill so much panic at the top that, when push comes to shove, there’s no more room for “sensible PR”? Say or do the wrong thing during a crisis and you can cause lasting damage to your image. This has a domino effect on your brand, and with this the entire company. Almost always, this affects the bottom line.

Stephan Schlentrich, who heads up the Steinbeis CSS, knows what happens: “When trouble’s brewing, lots of bosses would rather stick their head in the sand.” Next thing, they do a disappearing act, try to sweat it out, or make desperate attempts to keep mistakes away from the public.

The only problem is that the media are so complex and multifaceted these days that almost everything “comes out”. Fires, accidents, product recalls, corruption, blackmail, food scares and even feuds – typical crisis catalysts guaranteed to capture public interest. Journalists hanker after such stories and love putting culprits under the microscope. “Time and again people try to deflect press attention or lay a false trail,” says Stephan Schlentrich. But once a journalist has “smelled a rat”, it is only a question of time before hard facts makes it into the public domain.

Schlentrich knows the ropes from personal experience. He worked as an investigative reporter for German television channel ARD for 23 years, including current affairs and politics programs. He also reported on crises for news programs, visiting places such as Baghdad and the Middle East, and also areas of Thailand affected by the tsunami. Schlentrich’s colleagues included a variety of leading experts.

In the case of the machine maker from southern Germany with a mole in its ranks, the first task is to “bolt down the hatches”: no more knowledge must be lost. Easy targets such as computer networks and communication centers are then checked by experts for manipulation or signs of attempted break-ins. Every access point to the factory and company offices is put under close scrutiny. The experts also take a close look at the former head of development as he is suspected of wandering off with secret drawings. Within a short time the company has a new security concept, also encompassing the setting up of an in-house crisis management team. Working closely with the customer, the experts from Steinbeis pinpoint individual crisis management and communications strategies. “There are plenty of off-the-shelf solutions on the market. They’ll work for everyone – or no-one at all!” says Schlentrich.

The experts at the CSS Steinbeis Transfer Center believe not only in a fundamental analysis of existing company systems and potential risk, they place emphasis on prophylactic crisis management. The CSS approach is particularly effective when customers call in the experts to prepare for worst-case scenarios and set up protections. Their security maxim: crises, especially communications crises, shouldn’t happen in the first place!

How to deal with stubborn journalists, how to ward off unwarranted attacks, and how to “maintain a brave face against all adversity” can be learnt on media and crisis communications courses offered by the CSS. Running through life-like simulations – involving “real” journalists and camera teams, in the atmosphere of a mobile television studio – company bosses, managers and PR professionals can be “given a grilling”.

The transfer center has also been offering “hostile environments training” to German managers since January 2008. These courses are targeted at companies and organizations with dealings outside Germany. The aim is to provide managers, engineers, journalists, and NGO workers with a professional grounding on working overseas in international high-risk areas. Lasting five days, the course covers aspects such as: introductions to foreign cultures, first aid, what to do at military checkpoints, recognizing risky situations, evacuations, and even preparing psychologically for extreme situations like kidnappings. The permanent coaching team includes cultural experts, instructors of elite police and military units, doctors, psychologists and experienced experts on security and safety issues.

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