It is difficult to evaluate the state of readiness for a crisis among our local businesses and organisations. It is known that the multinationals operating in our local energy sector, spurred on by parent-company experiences and resources, tend to give this issue substantial attention.

Amongst local energy companies, the big state-owned players are probably most advanced in their understanding and planning for crises. Petrotrin, for instance, may have started a bit slow in their handling of the oil spill at the beginning of 2014, but quickly learned the main elements of good crisis management as events unfortunately reappeared over the course of several months.

However, for other local entities, there is very little hard data about their readiness for handling a crisis.

Casual observation suggests that their readiness level might not be too high, even amongst organisations that you would expect to be better-prepared. An example involving the University of the West Indies can be used to illustrate the point. UWI’s handling of issues around the death of a baby boy at the Mount Hope Maternity Hospital (MHMH) on Carnival Saturday in 2014 can at best be described as saying the “right thing” (i.e., factually accurate) by addressing the facts surrounding the incident, but the “wrong thing” in light of media coverage and public perception over the general level of competence at the specific hospital and the emotional content of the story.

As a three-time graduate of the UWI, I am a huge supporter of the institution, but I believe the institution’s handling of that matter was not one of its finest moments.

So how does an organisation say the “right thing” in a time of crisis? As with all good crisis management practices, it requires work done well ahead of any crisis. In this case, the work to be done is specific to understanding the “context for action” that will shape the public “representation” of any incident.

That is to say, all organisations should always have a current understanding of the key public issues pertaining to their products and services generally and their company specifically.

In the case of UWI above, the media’s use of such sensitive and emotion-filled events to support a wider narrative of incompetence and poor service at public health institutions might have resulted in a slightly different first response from UWI (which, incidentally, was to affirm the competence of the health professional involved). In basic marketing terms, an organisation needs to “know their audience.”

Contextual awareness needs to extend not only to the media, but to all key stakeholders who will be impacted in a time of crisis: employees, fence line communities, customers, competitors and regulators. Having a good grasp of the issues that each of these critical stakeholders thinks are important in relation to your organisation is imperative if you are the say “the right thing” (i.e., a response aligned to the concerns of the stakeholders) in the time of crisis.

This “issue management” process should be a key risk management activity of any firm as part of its reputation management — and should serve as a key foundational activity of a business’s crisis management preparation.

There is another contextual frame that shapes the “how” of crisis management: the role of social media. Social media impacts the speed at which a crisis spreads in modern business. Twitter allows for user-generated perspectives to quickly frame the way an issue is understood. It can also amplify the scale of the “crisis,” since pictures and video about any incident can reach an unlimited audience.

The reach of these social media platforms into the local population should not be underestimated. I have seen some private studies in which around 20 to 25 percent of local respondents state that they get their news mainly from social media sources. Such a level of penetration is only going to increase.

So while social media will shape the impact of your next business crisis, the extent to which local businesses are ready and able to integrate these technologies in their crisis response process is less clear.

Many businesses have a limited Internet presence, and what online presence they do have tends to be a static website with very little interactive functionality. Business accounts on Twitter and Instagram are very rare beyond those businesses in the entertainment sphere in which a youthful consumer base makes such platforms imperative.

Local firms need to quickly improve their performance in this area — since these are no longer merely “nice to have” but “business essential.” An established Web-based presence allows for a rapid deployment of the company’s perspective, undiluted by the media voices — you have a greater chance of “managing the message” and getting the company’s voice heard.

Maybe these sound foreign to your business, but in most instances, a quick-and-dirty role-playing exercise of “if this happened, how would we respond?” will help sharpen crisis-time thinking and will help get consistent messages out quickly when a crisis does occur. Having an up-to-date social media presence can be a great first step in establishing a crisis communications framework for your business.

Of course, the issues addressed here comprise only one aspect of an effective crisis communications capability. The need for proper crisis procedures, tabletop exercises and media and crisis training for senior staff are other key components.

Crisis management should have a more prominent place on the agenda of our local firms, especially those that are directly involved in the energy sector, where high-risk activities occur as a matter of course. Being well-prepared enables a firm to respond humanely in times of crisis while at the same time minimising losses to the firm’s business value and reputation.