Wikileaks is probably best known for casting light onto the activities of the intelligence services or of American diplomats. Recently, though, it got its hands on the crisis management manual for Marriott hotels.

These massive folders are treasured by big PR agencies – sorry, reputation management consultants – as big fee earners with even bigger profit margins. As you will see from the Marriott one, most of it is copied almost verbatim from one client’s manual to another but clients are often charged as if every banal piece of advice and every dull press statement had come fresh from the brain of an agency director. On the back of the manuals, the agencies organise trainings and endless monitoring projects which bring in even more money. And, of course, there’s the annual update of the manual.

Three of the problems of the approach are obvious from the latest unauthorised upload onto Wikileaks

  • All it takes is one disgruntled employee and the manual finds its way into the public domain along with cringe-making quotes (in Marriott’s case a schoolboy code book which recommends referring to kidnapped female employees as “potted flowers”)
  • No-one ever reads them as the multiple typos, literals and non-sequiturs demonstrate
  • The whole world (including every Marriott employee now turned advertising salesman) gets a complete list of mobile and home telephone numbers and addresses for every senior executive

 

If this manual weren’t so bad, it would illustrate the other problems of the big binder approach

  • Handling crises requires a series of decisions which are impossible to set out in the abstract
  • Good corporations spend the most time on the really terrible things that they know actually might happen, even if most of them are quite unlikely. A good Marriott manual would talk about handling press coverage of an outbreak of Legionnaire’s Disease or about one of the right wing political groups funded by the Marriott family being linked (probably wrongly) to a new Oklahoma City Bomber. These super sensitive issues should not be set out in a folder left in the back office of a Residence Inn

Marriott is a pretty well run company so they may, by now, have a decent issues management system. If so, this is probably what it looks like

  • A participatory exercise to set out every kind of issue that might arise (probably a series of workshops)
  • A company-wide system for deciding which issues pose the biggest threat to reputation and which are most likely to happen (probably using an online market research tool with a global sample of managers)
  • A comprehensive list of stakeholders and why each matters to the company
  • A stakeholder management plan (with personal relationship managers for the most important of the stakeholders)
  • A grid linking the stakeholders to the issues that they are likely to care most about
  • A clever market research plan that finds out what stakeholders might feel about some of the issues without alerting them to the possibility that any of them might arise
  • An online system that gives employees statements and contacts add they need them, in response to an issue that has arisen (along with a few practice areas of the system filed with dummy problems and fake statements and contacts)
  • A clear set of steps within this system for responding to the first few steps of every issue ranked as severe or moderately severe and moderately likely
  • An agreed way of deciding how the issue is evolving
  • Defined steps for how subsequent decisions are made
  • A measurement plan to assess the damage to the corporation’s reputation and permission to operate freely