How Crisis-Ready Are New Zealand’s Manufacturing Brands?

With health and safety laws focused on holding senior managers accountable in the event of a workplace injury or fatality, manufacturers can find themselves defending themselves on multiple fronts. NZ Manufacturer business advisor and Impact PR reputation consultant Mark Devlin looks at how companies can proactively prepare to manage brand risk in the face of a crisis.

Despite an ever-present array of events that may form the catalyst for negative publicity, for most companies brand and reputation risk management remains elusive – until an incident or crisis occurs. 

We have all seen examples of a reactionary approach to crisis management played out in news media – where an event that could have been contained has led to significant and unnecessary damage to a brand.

From the perspective of a manufacturer, a crisis can be anything that has the potential to damage the company’s brand. 

Some years ago a small aircraft had experienced mechanical difficulties and crashed into the side of a warehouse. Staff were evacuated to the footpath while managers stood inside inspecting the damage. 

In the meantime, TV reporters arrived at the scene and sought out someone to get a comment from for their evening news bulletin. As they were also kept behind the cordon they interviewed the closest and most accessible company representative which happened to be a worker – whose job just a couple of hours ago had been loading trailers. 

Free of any constraints and excited to be on TV, the staff member answered the questions candidly and without the normal checks and oversight process that might have been expected from one of the executives. 

The interview aired on the TV news at 6 PM that night and was subsequently followed up by national news media.

While this scenario was unlikely to have been prepared for, a proactive planning process would have ensured that only designated company representatives would speak to media.

A lack of crisis planning is the equivalent of trying to find your way out of a smoke-filled room without an illuminated exit sign – you might get in there in the end but not without sustaining some long-term damage.

In our capacity as reputation consultants, my agency has supported companies through a diverse range of crises. These have included everything from manufacturing fatalities and injuries through to, United Airlines during 9/11, Virgin Galactic’s test space flight crash, marine oil spills, food recalls, errant behaviour by company-sponsored athletes and executives as well as factory closures and redundancies.

While too often we are called at the eleventh hour to support organisations during a crisis, there are however proactive steps that manufacturers can take to protect their reputation. The first is spending some time understanding what incidents present the highest risk for New Zealand manufacturers. 

According to latest WorkSafe data, over the past decade, a worker or member of the public has died as a result of a workplace accident in the manufacturing sector on average every four months. 

Most often this is as a result of being hit by a moving object (58%), a vehicle incident (21%) or a fall (16%).

The manufacturing sector also has the second highest number of notifiable injuries, where someone becomes seriously ill or is seriously injured as a result of work – averaging 44 per month over the past year.

The challenge for a manufacturer resulting from a workplace injury or fatality is navigating the very public subsequent investigation process and legal action that can follow under the Health and Safety at Work Act.

Understandably the legal framework of the Act focuses companies on adherence to guidelines that protect the health and safety of staff. But what about protecting the brand’s health and longevity? A poorly managed crisis can be devastating for a company and its future financial performance. Ultimately this puts jobs at risk.

At the same time, when a company is not seen to manage a workplace accident well, this can impact on its ability to attract and retain staff. 

As part of the preventative model, the circumstances and prosecution proceedings around an injury or fatality in the workplace are designed to serve as a clear directive to others in the industry and are often published in the media. 

During an investigation individual directors under the spotlight may act first to mitigate their personal liability, with less concern for the long-term impact on the company brand.

In an attempt to shift the perception of responsibility for an incident, legal advisors acting for the senior managers may also provide advice that is not well aligned with the needs of the company that employed them. 

Lawyers for the manufacturer may also advocate for saying the least about the case publicly. The challenge from a brand perspective is how to maintain the integrity of the brand when you are limited in how transparent you can be.

With the immediacy of news and social media it is essential that a business takes the time to create an issues management plan, much the same way they would a marketing plan. 

This Crisis Management Plan should be drafted by a public relations professional who will conduct an audit of your current practices, identify any potential issues and establish guidelines to assist you when things go awry. 

At the very least this plan should also include key personnel who are media trained and have the authority to speak on behalf of the company with updated contact details including after-hours numbers. 

Your PR consultant can also advise on utilising real-time media monitoring tools to track mentions of your brand in the news or on social media platforms.

This article was published in the May 2024 issue of NZ Manufacturer magazine.

Having owned food manufacturing and distribution businesses for a decade, Mark Devlin now runs Auckland public relations agency Impact PR. Mark consults to several New Zealand manufacturing firms including wool carpet brand Bremworth, aircraft exporter NZAero and cereal maker Sanitarium. Mark can be reached through Impact PR’s contact page.