“We have to remember that reputations are won or lost in a crisis”, said once American Express CEO Ken Chenault. This is also why it is extremely important to react quickly, sparing not even a minute when a crisis breaks. This is one of the most important principles of crisis management, states Doorley and Garcia in their 2011 book Reputation Management.
The now on-going case of unfortunate flooding in England and the Environment Agency might be a great example to show the reputation of an organisation “is determined less by the severity of the crisis – the underlying event – than by the timeliness and quality of its response to the crisis” (Doorley & Garcia, p. 307).
Today Lord Smith, Environment Agency chairman, paid visit to the most affected area, the Somerset Levels, first time since the area was slipped under water more than a month ago. He was not welcome. He received harsh criticism that made leading headlines in the British media. Local farmers refused to answer reporters of what they think of Lord Smith because “it would be inappropriate to say in front of the camera”. Local Conservative MP Ian Liddell-Grainger called him a ’coward’ and said: “I will tell him what I bloody well think of him – he should go, he should walk…This little git has never even been on the telephone to me. When I find out where he is, I will give it to him.” Journalists and locals present at the visit suggested he should have resigned for mismanagement of the flooding crisis.
So why is this extremely harsh criticism? From a crisis management perspective, It could be a good move that Lord Smith went to the Somerset Levels to show care and to reassure locals that the situation is in control and to ensure residents everything possible was done to tackle the crisis. However, the problem is clear. He absolutely missed one of the two basic principles: timeliness. And so the incident-driven crisis developed into an issue-driven one.
The Somerset Levels are under water since late last year. Since then local residents and local authorities (including MP Ian Liddell-Grainger) got exhausted by the series of flood surges and had time to identify the Environment Agency and notably its chairman as the scapegoat for the extensive flooding. They feel “let alone” by Lord Smith who worked mainly behind the scenes since floodings started.
Public opinion seems to be that the Environment Agency failed to dredge the rivers and that caused water levels to rise (despite independent experts state that dredging the rivers hadn’t had a considerable effect because we are talking about a too huge amount of water). No proper communications effort was made from the Environment Agency or Lord Smith to stop this view spread. And voila! For now it escalated to a stage that anything Lord Smith says is regarded as wrong by the public and they want him to resign.
My anticipation is that it is unlikely he will be able to turn back time. We have to remember that reputations are won or lost in a crisis…