If there’s one thing that the events of 9/11 have taught us, it’s to take nothing for granted. This is just as relevant for market researchers as the big corporate players.

Just take the London bombings in the summer of 2005. How many of us, for example, found ourselves in a tricky situation? Maybe we weren’t able to get to fieldwork, or were left wondering how to handle the situation sensitively with participants.

There are no handy guides as to whether it is best to carry on interviewing, or call it a day, given that market research could be deemed an irrelevance in such situations.

Yet it is precisely because our world is so precarious that we should plan for the unthinkable. ‘Crisis management’ is not the exclusive preserve of the Enrons or Wal-Mart of this world. It is, as the Institute of Crisis Management defines it, pre-empting ‘problems or disruptions that trigger negative stakeholder reactions that could impact the organisation’s business and financial strength’.

Crisis, too, has many definitions. It need not be a major catastrophe, man-made or environmental. It could just as easily involve a lawsuit, discrimination, financial damage, a hostile takeover, mismanagement, sexual harassment or white-collar crime.

Crisis management’s main function is to be proactive in forecasting potential crises and planning how to deal with them.

Potential problems

How, for example, would your company cope if your computer or telephone system failed? Could you function if your building burnt down or flooded?

If you work on your own, what would you do if you were mugged and had your laptop, mobile phone and all your research equipment stolen?

Should the direst predictions prove true, and Avian Flu or another contagious disease prompt mass quarantine, how would you conduct field work?

If energy stocks cause power failures, how are you going to cope?

Scenario planning

The time to draw up a crisis management plan, identifying likely scenarios that could impact on an organisation, is long before the crisis hits. The most effective are devised when individuals have the luxury of time and resources to plan.

Be a company large or small, and the crisis man-made or an act of nature, a management plan has real benefits. These include:

<li>Identifying the real nature of a current crisis<li>Intervening to minimise damage<li>Helping an organisation to recover from it<li>The use of effective internal and external communications to allay stakeholder fears.

So why, if crisis management is just sensible planning, do most people look to the skies when the term is mentioned? Is it fair to label anyone who champions it a ‘nerd’ or an ‘anorak’ rather than a true ‘creative’?

The sad truth is that most companies — and the market research industry is no means unique here — are too busy dealing with the daily grind to plan for something that might never happen.

All responsible businesses do, however, need a plan. It’s like insurance: just because you have it doesn’t mean that you will need to use it. Conversely, the lack of one could be catastrophic.

Common procedures

There are several simple procedures that should be planned for, some applying to all businesses and others specific to research. A short list will include:

<li>The appointment of a crisis management team<li>The drawing up of a crisis management plan<li>The communication of the plan to all staff<li>Informing clients and key sub-contractors

The crisis management team needs to have its function spelled out and to re-visit its responsibilities regularly. It will need to be empowered to make decisions for its area or location when a crisis arises in accordance with the CMP. It will also be responsible for implementing its part of the plan.

Drawing up the CMP should involve the crisis management team and the board. The plan will need to be tested before it goes live across the organisation. Once it does gain board approval, it needs to be communicated to the staff and should be rehearsed.

The crisis management team should ensure that there is adequate information during a crisis, that staff are given clear and concise directions and are kept informed as the situation unfolds.

Communication alternatives

Good communication is vital in a crisis, but it needs to be controlled to minimise panic. Communication cascades can take the form of a chain where one person contacts the next, but this risks each person embellishing the information, thus altering it as it moves along the chain.

Another option is a pyramid. Here one person is responsible for informing a certain number of people, who in turn inform others, and so on. Key to this is the knowledge of just where all members of staff should be during working hours, so people don’t endanger their lives searching for John from accounts who’s gone to the dentist.

It is essential that the client communication plan keeps key clients informed of the situation and any impact this may have on on-going or potential projects and how your organisation can continue to work with them. They need to be updated without the situation being sensationalised.

Key sub-contractors are likely to be computer support people, telephone handset and line suppliers, utility companies, managing agents for the office building, lawyers, surveyors, designers, etc. This includes anyone or any company that is essential to re-building your business. The board and the crisis management team should have all these details to hand and the CMP should be clear who should contact whom.

Common crises

One of the most likely crises is a complete loss of IT, either through flood, fire, theft or even corruption via viruses. All companies or organisations should make a daily back-up of computerised data files and these should be stored off-site to enable fast replication of your IT needs. Some companies guarantee new systems up and running within 24 hours!

If a building is lost for a long period of time due to flood, fire, or damage from any other source it may be necessary to find an alternative working space. In the meantime, people may be able to work from home, or from other sites within the same company. Ensure people have the contact details of other sites they are to report to. The crisis management team must know where people are supposed to be and have their contact details to hand.

With the increased use of technology we are all totally reliant on electricity for everything we do in the office. Even a power cut for a few hours can throw businesses into disarray, so a CMP needs to include what to do in the case of failure. Torches will really come into their own, as will mobile phones.

One of the most threatening things that could happen to the qualitative research business is the restriction of the general public’s movements, either due to fuel rationing, extreme weather or a global disease outbreak.

What would we do if quarantine controls meant travel was restricted to essential journeys or banned entirely? Would it be as harmful to our industry as the foot and mouth outbreak was to farming and the rural economy?

If people were not allowed to move freely there would be no respondents to talk to, no moderators to do fieldwork or attend client meetings. We could be talking of a virtual shutdown.

What could we do? One potential solution is to beef up our technology so that as many people as possible could work from home. Another is to invest in video conferencing or web cams so that, if quarantining does happen in specific regions, those outside it can still communicate. Think of ways to interview people via the telephone and the web.

Market research is, above all else, a ‘people’ business and as such communication is key. The hope is that we won’t again have to deal with the after-effects of terrorism, but if we have learnt one lesson, surely it is organise a system so that people know who to ring when they’re stuck, and that helps them make the necessary decisions.

We can call it ‘crisis management’, effective planning, or just plain old ‘being prepared’, but surely it’s better than chaos?

The following websites may act as useful sources for further information.