Stakeholder mapping in a crisis: A make-or-break opportunity

Every period of turmoil is frightening. It challenges the status quo and threatens our comfort zone. Turbulent times, uncertain times and crises all call for focus and steadiness. Perhaps the clichéd navigation metaphor can never be too relevant: To ride out the storm, one must hold the course.

Statistics from the Institute of Crisis Management’s 2017 annual report show that 68 percent of business crises worldwide are non–event-related, or smouldering, crises, with the main crisis category being mismanagement.

Often the problem or issue exists long before it goes public, yet little is done to address and resolve it—or worse it is covered up—before it escalates. A single trigger—a rumor, a leak, a stakeholder action—can catapult an organization into crisis in a very short time, with devastating effects.

Therefore, with the majority of crises today being slow-burn, much can be done in advance to anticipate, prevent and mitigate issues before they spin out of control. Proactivity in crisis management is the name of the game and being prepared to respond effectively is no longer sufficient.

Crisis management is a strategic discipline that is embedded in the organization’s corporate culture, driven from and by the top echelon, and implemented across all levels and across all functions in the organization.

Communication teams’ traditional focus on media relations during a crisis is no longer enough. They are now taking on a wider strategic role in the organization, including stakeholder mapping and engagement and scenario-planning to help management teams anticipate crises and alleviate their impact.

Recognizing the obvious and the not-so-obvious stakeholders

Globalization and the increasing interdependence of our societal systems are generating multiple levels of stakeholders that are a challenge to engage with in normal times but that become a nightmare to manage in a crisis. Besides employees, regulators, politicians, victims, customers and shareholders, organizations now also have to reckon with other stakeholder groups that become involved through social media networks. The multitude and diversity of these intertwined stakeholder groups are compounding the intensity of crises. Overall, we are witnessing more stakeholder outrage at corporate and institutional misbehavior.

Internet-based news sources allow individuals worldwide to follow such situations. Social networking sites, blogs and online news sites can play a big role in the unfolding of crises and scandals in the public and private sectors; the popularity of Twitter and Facebook, for example, has led to the light-speed dissemination of information and misinformation alike.

There is no clearer sign that stakeholder mapping must be high on the priority list of any well-trained professional communicator today. To anticipate, prevent and mitigate crises, business leaders and communicators must have a solid grasp of the climate in which they are working, as well as the stakeholder scene surrounding any emerging issue. Yet stakeholder mapping is not an improvised task. It requires skills and a process.

Stakeholder mapping consists of identifying all audience groups with a stake in the crisis and categorizing them in at least three groups: allies, neutral and opposition.

“Stakeholder mapping identifies stakeholder expectations and power and helps in understanding political priorities,” write Gerry Johnson, Kevan Scholes and Richard Whittington, Ph.D., in their book Exploring Corporate Strategy. “There are different ways in which stakeholder mapping can be used to understand stakeholder influence. It underlines the importance of two issues: (1) how interested each stakeholder group is in impressing its expectations on the organisation’s purposes and choice of strategies, and (2) whether stakeholders have the power to do so.”

A major manufacturer in the automotive sector building its largest plant in India found itself thrown into the maze of a highly complex stakeholder scene, with the potential of derailing the entire project as well as other safety and environmental risks. The management team recognized that they needed to build a solid strategy and appointed a team to be trained in stakeholder mapping skills. This team embraced the approach and have been managing the issues proactively ever since with great follow-through and results, including a very effective response and engagement during a couple of incidents that had the potential to quickly escalate to crisis level. The plant is now built and operational, the most negative and opposing stakeholder groups have now by and large been made neutral. Of course, issues continue to flare up and some stakeholders are more active than others, but with a methodology in place and a team trained to manage the process, the organization is able to be proactive and prevent deterioration.

Stakeholder mapping steps

  1. Identify all audience groups, no matter how small or remote to the crisis situation, that have a stake in the crisis.
  2. Categorize audiences in at least three groups: allies, neutral and opposition.
  3. Define each audience group’s specific issues regarding the situation, whether a group is likely to take any action, and whether the organization has any influence on this group (and if not, focus instead on the ones that can be influenced).
  4. Define the desired outcome, the strategy for reaching it and the key messages to use. Stakeholder mapping is a continuous process, being reviewed, adjusted and fine-tuned as the situation develops and more stakeholders come onto the scene.

By contrast, last year’s United Airlines blunder and its CEO’s initial response highlight complete disregard for stakeholders’ perceptions and sensitivities, clearly escalating a bad situation to global outrage and hitting the company’s reputation and stock value.

The same can be said about BP’s Tony Hayward during the 2010 Gulf of Mexico crisis, with his notorious quote, “I’m sorry. We’re sorry for the massive disruption it’s caused their lives. There’s no one who wants this over more than I do. I’d like my life back.” That quote, coupled with his decision to go sailing, turned an already really bad crisis into a complete reputation meltdown.

So stakeholder mapping before, during and after crises is possibly the most critical skill corporate and business leaders need if they are to save the day during bad times.

Preparing for the worst—from stakeholder mapping to scenario planning

During business-critical times or when facing an escalating issue, management teams can use stakeholder maps to develop scenarios, build strategies, think freely and generate solution-focused approaches. In the typical scenario planning exercise, the management team simply asks, What if? Some scenarios are optimistic and some are pessimistic. The group then develops strategies and plans to cope with each.

No crisis manifests itself the same way as another, and no one can predict exactly how long a crisis will last, how it will twist and turn, and how it will end up. What is always almost certain, though, is that the situation will get worse before it gets better. Yet in any crisis, however long it lasts, there are periods of intense activity with information overload within very short time spans, and other periods of virtually no change or development and senseless waiting.

In a crisis, considering time pressures, building different worst-case scenarios is invaluable. Instead of remaining reactive, the team can be proactive and keep its spirits up during the inevitable downtimes.

Under the high-pressure conditions of a crisis, scenario planning helps the team pursue a dominant strategy related to the likely worst-case development. This is not a matter of gazing into a crystal ball to predict the future, but rather a fast and powerful methodology to be ready for the worst.

“The great virtue of the scenario approach to planning,” write Charles Hill and Gareth Jones in their book Strategic Management Theory: An Integrated Approach, “is that it can push managers to think outside the box, to anticipate what they might have to do in different situations, and to learn that the world is a complex and unpredictable place that places a premium on flexibility, rather than on inflexible plans based on assumptions about the future that may turn out to be incorrect.”

The ability to mitigate the impact of a crisis is a key skill that every business leader should possess. Leaders who are able to communicate effectively with both internal and external stakeholders are generally good at mitigating the impact of crises. With their understanding and experience of stakeholders and grasp of complex issues, communicators are well placed to help management face the challenges and opportunities of change and to steer the course out of crises.

When an organization faces a crisis, taking stock of where you stand is a good place to start. It will help you determine your stakeholders’ position and the areas you can influence, and define a strategy based on worst-case scenarios. By taking the lead in this process, you will likely emerge in a stronger place than where you started.

5 steps to managing a crisis

  1. Steer the course. In addition to projecting strength, management must take a number of steps to successfully steer the organization through the crisis and toward recovery. Thorough training to undertake each of these tasks can help any executive prepare for even the worst crisis situations.
  2. Make sense of the crisis. Crisis leaders must carefully sort out a crisis before they can truly address it. They must understand what happened and why. Failure to understand the anatomy of a crisis will seriously impair recovery efforts.
  3. Craft a mission statement. For an organization to emerge from a crisis with minimal adverse effects, its leaders must craft a strong mission statement at the onset of the crisis. Perhaps one of the strongest examples of such a statement in modern times comes from Johnson & Johnson CEO Jim Burke during the Tylenol crisis in the early 1980s. Burke had worked hard to meet the company’s credo and was able to address the public’s worst fears while projecting a positive image on behalf of Johnson & Johnson.
  4. Map the stakeholders. Executives must understand who is affected by a crisis and how they should be addressed. Carefully plotting stakeholders’ positions is one of the most useful tasks. Armed with this strategic insight, crisis teams can develop resilient action plans to proactively protect the organization’s reputation.
  5. Plan for the worst. While management is naturally reluctant to think of worst-case scenarios, it is necessary to do so. Anticipating the next level of deterioration or escalation allows crisis teams to generate strategies that will hold up during the toughest times.

Learn more from Caroline Sapriel in her session “Prevent a reputation meltdown and manage stakeholder communication” at the IABC World Conference, happening 3–6 June 2018. Register today

About the author

Caroline Sapriel is founder and managing partner of CS&A International, a global crisis management firm servicing multinational clients. With 30 years of experience practicing, speaking, lecturing and writing on crisis management, she is a recognized leader in her profession. A member of IABC since 1987, she most recently served on IABC’s ethics committee. She is fluent in five languages.