Louise HarrisLouise Harris

Looking ahead at 2016, it’s worth taking note of what occurred in the world of crisis management during the last year. An increased response time, a pronounced role of data, a need for companies to commit to change, and a penchant to plan for the unexpected will all play greater roles next year.

In 2015 we saw prominent CEOs lose their jobs, stocks plunge and reputations left in tatters. Airlines, banks, car companies, retailers, restaurant chains, pharma companies, dating sites, fantasy football and even the governing body of international football found themselves under attack. What’s especially astounding is how so many companies — even those aided by crisis veterans — found themselves caught badly off guard.

O'Dwyer's Jan. '16 PR Buyer's Guide and Crisis Communications MagazineThis article is featured in O'Dwyer's Jan. '16 PR Buyer's Guide and Crisis Communications Magazine

This also meant grappling to respond in real time to questions and threats from activists, internal whistleblowers, cyber hackers, disgruntled employees, outraged customers and government watchdogs all under the glare of a relentless 24/7 global news cycle.

So, what lessons can we learn from this and what can we expect in 2016? Here are six top predictions:

Scenario planning will need an overhaul

Who could have predicted the Volkswagen emissions cheating scandal? Was that ever a factor in VW’s scenario planning? Crisis managers will need to re-examine their potential vulnerabilities and think carefully about not only what could happen, but also what couldn’t possibly happen. It’s time to consider highly unlikely scenarios and prepare for the unexpected. It is uncomfortable to consider the possibility of your CTO involved in fraud or your retailer putting a cheaper, fake product on shelves, but managers will need to get comfortable with the uncomfortable and trust no one person fully.

Crisis manuals will live on and offline

Recently, crisis management plans have moved away from manual versions, to shorter, increasingly mobile plans, accessible anywhere, anytime and housed on the cloud. This makes sense in the always-on crisis world, where timely response is critical.

So, what happens in the event that your entire network goes down? When Ted Koppel asked Janet Napolitano, former secretary of homeland security about the chances that someone will knock out a significant part of the power grid, she responded, “Very high — 80%, 90%.” The possibility of a cyber-attack on any company’s network is highly probable. At a minimum, having a printout of key contacts and steps to take on-hand will be critical.

Data analytics will increasingly be used to track and predict threats

We hear a lot about “big data” and “predictive technology,” but corporations today really do have some ability to look around the corner to forecast what’s going to hit them and deflect the punch. Imagine if you could see a social media spark and stop it from becoming a fireball. The amount of data available is staggering. With the rise of Natural Language Generation, we will be able to make sense of all that data, create reports in minutes and respond more quickly than ever before.

Consumers will become less trusting and more fearful

According to a New York Times/CBS news poll, Americans are more fearful of a terrorist attack now than any time since just after 9/11. With recent world events, people will be increasingly fearful of riding the subway, handing over their credit card or buying a car.

On top of that, there are growing alarms around everything from processed food and antibiotic-resistant bacteria, to spontaneously combusting hover boards. Brands will need to work even harder to build and maintain trust and credibility through clear, transparent and authentic engagement. And when things go wrong, the ‘mea culpa’ apology will no longer be enough; corporations will need to show that things are genuinely going to change.

Comedy will feature more in crisis

Just a few months ago, on Last Week Tonight, John Oliver managed to use humor even when he covered the horrendous Paris attacks on his show. Comedians, such as John Oliver and Stephen Colbert as well as YouTubers and other Internet influencers, will continue to poke fun at corporate and personal misdeeds for entertainment. But, brands can also look to use humor to provide perspective and prevent issues from escalating.

Response times will need to be on steroids

According to a recent Freshfields study, the majority of crises were visible within 59 minutes, whereas it took an average of 21 hours for companies to respond. This means that for 20 hours, these companies’ reputations were being shaped by others and rarely favorably. As the virality of the Internet speeds the spread of information, companies need to respond to allegations and developments within the first twenty minutes to ensure their voice is heard.

Speed and good judgment are essential to have any control over a story with updates shared almost in real time. Silence will very rarely be golden in 2016. Chances are that others will have the facts at the same time as — if not before — you. Think of the first responder, the government official, your receptionist and the bystander filming on his phone and posting to Twitter — how can we be one step ahead?

Getting the response to a major issue “wrong” in 2016 could have enormous repercussions on reputations as well as on a company’s bottom line. The same Freshfields study showed that 53% of corporations who experienced a crisis had not seen share value recover to pre-crisis levels even a year after their initial problem.

So what is going to drive a successful response to a reputational threat in 2016? In the words of veteran TV journalist Ted Koppel, we need think the unthinkable. And plan for it.

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Louise Harris is Chief Global Strategist at Ruder Finn.