No business likes a crisis. But those that fully prepare for crises ahead of time, and that have experienced communications leaders who aren’t afraid to call it like they see it, are most likely to emerge with minimum damage to their brand reputation.
These were some of the takeaways from a March 27 PRClub program entitled, “Managing a Crisis in a Minute-to-Minute Newscycle.” The panel discussion, which featured Melissa Mahoney, Senior Vice President at Version 2.0 Communications; Gary Sheffer, Professor of Public Relations at Boston University and former VP, Communications at GE; Dan O’Neill, Vice President and General Manager, Strategic Partnerships at Iron Mountain; and moderator Derek Delano, Senior Vice President at Tier One Partners, shared observations and best practices from their decades of experience helping organizations navigate a variety of crises.
A few themes stood out from this lively and well-attended discussion:
Today’s Climate of “Normalization of Crisis”
The group acknowledged that businesses are operating in an environment today where, thanks to our daily (even minute-by-minute) doses of news out of Washington and the business world, crises have been somewhat “normalized.” This has resulted in low trust in business, alongside a rise in populism and anti-elitism. All of this has had a “numbing effect” on the public that requires a new approach to how communications pros respond and message to crises.
The Value of Preparation and “Predictable Surprises”
There’s no overstating the value of preparation when it comes to crisis management, the group agreed. Scenario planning, including the creation of mini crisis plans to address likely crisis events and pre-developed template materials, are must-have elements of any crisis plan. Plans also need to include basic information, such as clearly identifying the members of a crisis team, details about how individuals should reach one another, and how a crisis should get escalated within an organization. Teams should conduct practice sessions ahead of crises so that they know how to respond with speed and accuracy. Panelists also pointed out that assessing potential crises has become more challenging over the past decade because the variety of potential threats – whether they’re internal or external – has grown exponentially. One panelist referred to these threats as “predictable surprises.”
Be the “Corporate Conscience”
During a crisis, one panelist observed, things don’t happen normally and you can’t expect people, including senior leadership to behave normally, either. This means that communications pros need to get their leaders mentally prepared and practiced for a crisis. You also can expect legal, finance, sales and other departments to all have various opinions about how best to manage the crisis — and all of these potentially conflicting voices will be in a CEO’s ear. The opportunity for the communications professional is to be a trusted voice for the CEO and senior leadership team, helping to synthesize information, frame the problem and create a response that takes various stakeholders’ needs into account. However, the group pointed out, communications recommendations can sometimes be unpopular since our profession often counsels greater transparency than, say, legal counsel might prefer. This is where communications pros need to rely on their knowledge, the trust they’ve built with senior leadership, and their knowledge of the situation. One panelist says he asks himself, “When do I spend the ‘trust capital’ I’ve established” when offering a particular piece of counsel to a senior leader? Another panelist referred to her belief that communications pros need to act as the “corporate conscience” during a crisis and counsel accordingly.
Crises are a test of resilience for any company, but with the appropriate guidance and preparation, organizations often can emerge stronger. As Colin Powell once said, “There are no secrets to success. It is the result of preparation, hard work, and learning from failure.”
-Kathy Wilson, Managing Partner, Tier One Partners