Tuesday 11 June 2019 7:30 am

What the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse can teach you about crisis communications


Chris Calland is head of crisis and issues at Ogilvy UK.

Chris Calland is head of crisis and issues at Ogilvy UK.

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IF YOU know your biblical stories or are simply enjoying the joint BBC-Amazon TV adaptation of Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s Good Omens, then you will be familiar with the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: Pestilence, War, Famine, and Death.

But rather than heralding the end of the world, how could this quartet of characters help businesses with managing reputational risks?

The answer is that the Four Horsemen are a good mnemonic for knowing how to anticipate and deal with the types of crisis that an organisation can face.

Look after your health

Take the first Horseman, Pestilence. Think of that as anything that could go viral – for example, an outbreak of food poisoning or a communicable disease, which could well happen to large campus-based organisations, or those located in extreme environments. Alternatively, it could be a computer virus, or the rapid spread of false information online.

Interestingly, in Good Omens, Pestilence is renamed Pollution – a reminder of the potential for and salience of environmental crises.

Essentially, Pestilence represents something that you might not have much control over and will be playing catch-up on. So you need to have the right protocols and teams in place that can be activated quickly in order to make the right decisions.

Prepare for a fight

The second Horseman is War. Many organisations nowadays face the threat of cyber or even terrorist attacks. Businesses can also come up against protests and disruption from pressure groups.

That type of action is not just a communications issue, but an operational one. So organisations need to have holistic crisis plans in place.

For example, if your property is targeted, do front-of-house staff know to alert the press office? If all landlines and emails go down, do you have a way of contacting relevant teams? Are there protocols in place for how to handle the media door-stepping you?

Appropriately enough for the War analogy, the military provides a good point of reference. Armies not only plan for multiple eventualities, but they rehearse. There are two reasons for this: first, you get to stress-test your plans, and second you build organisational muscle memory so that when it happens for real, it’s familiar and you’re not thrown off course.

So if you’re an organisation for which the threat of some sort of attack is real, you need to do likewise – plan, but then rehearse.

Don’t starve


The third Horseman is Famine. By that I mean a lack of resources. Organisations should ask themselves honestly, “what are the things that we could run out of?”

Be it products, spare parts, electricity, water, parking spaces, entry passes for events, or on-call staff, businesses should plan accordingly.

Read more: Business lessons from Hargreaves Lansdown’s founder

The final destination

The fourth and final Horseman is, of course, Death.

This could be due to an industrial accident, but it could also be the death of a founder or leader of an organisation. Even if their passing was expected, it can raise questions about succession planning.

And even if the person who has died had already left the organisation, it can still focus the media’s attention on you. Have you thought about what you would say (and to whom) when that happens?

Critical to all these instances of crisis management is having the right people involved. In all the risk-assessing, planning and rehearsing, you need to include the people who would actually be the ones making decisions in a real-world crisis.

If you don’t, then you (and they) won’t be properly prepared.

And make no mistake, if you employ people and sell things, one day at least one of the Four Horsemen will pay you a visit.

So be ready for them.

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