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Corporate Communications

Interrogative on Crisis Communications

The crisis communications industry is good business. Triggering events seem to occur in lockstep with the tech and services made available to discover and share them. People have learned to expect the worst of businesses and institutions; trust in authority is low and suspicions of nefarious purposes are high.

So, while these circumstances serve as full employment act for PR people and their specialized crisis response plans, it begs a simple question:

Does it do any good?

The cynic in me says no. Crises that are truly unexpected are incredibly rare. Aside from a meteor made of an undetectable mineral crashing into your factory, most crisis events are the result of decisions that could have been made differently.

In other words, every crisis other than a truly Black Swan surprise is a self-inflicted wound.

Businesses are run on balancing the probabilities of risk with the financial implications of addressing them. Data are protected with layers of security defined by regulation and past experience and then considered against the potential liability of a hack. Oil pipelines can withstand the most ardent animal bites and even a minor earthquake, but those tolerances are chosen based on cost to implement and sustain.

Filling a car cabin with Jell-O might cushion passengers from some one in a million crash incident, but it would cost too much to put in every vehicle.

Crises reveal the decisions made by businesses and institutions. They’re interruptions of fact in the face of promises, assumptions, and sometimes benign neglect.

Crises, like political gaffes, are when stakeholders get a glimpse of reality.

There are three questions that will help you manage crises:

First, does company leadership grasp the PR downside to their decisions? You could spent ten minutes and come up with a list of, say, a dozen crises that are on your company’s horizon, and then work up communications scenarios if they occurred; not your blah blah statements but frank assessments of what company policies and actions will be blamed or questioned (i.e. the causes, or at least the set-ups, for the crises), including what the coverage might look like and what it could lead to, thinking beyond media to impacts on suppliers, lenders, employees and new recruiting Then, push it in front of your company’s senior leadership (and board, if possible) and challenge them to face their complicity and risk exposure. Hopefully, they’ll choose to preempt the worst possibilities through changes in operations.

The best way to manage a crisis is to make it less likely.

Second, are your customers prepared? I’m reminded of those mouseprint data privacy contracts that we sign before activating some silly smartphone app. Business are happy that we don’t read them, because we’d be scared if we did. Yet by tolerating this disconnect — and encouraging our happy ignorance — they prime us for disappointment and potential damage to the brand when a hacking crisis occurs.

It’s the same on most other issues that customers care about, or would if they knew about them.

Are you telling them the truth about your activities and responsibilities when it comes to combating climate change, or just producing slick content that positions you as “a leader” in meeting some far-away goal that sounds great and has no meaning?

Do you disclose the reality of the gender and ethnic diversity in your company, or have you simply hired a spokesperson to represent what is an outlier effort or simply perpetuation of the status quo?

Will you educate your customers about the challenges and trade-offs your company makes on sourcing, security, and any other activity, or do you rely on the grandiose and outdated nonsense of branding to promote it?

Can you acknowledge that customers have relationships with your company and not some artificial construct from your marketing Brahmins?

The second best way to manage a crisis is to deal with informed stakeholders, not surprised victims.

Third, are you ready to fix the problems? This is another business operations activity and not something that arises and lives in communications: crises need to be addressed and resolved as quickly as possible. It’s the only real response to questions from the media and other stakeholders. Even the finest holding statement can’t hold a candle to reports of real action and insight. Every minute that passes in which your company doesn’t know something is a minute somebody else fills with their own assumptions and accusations.

This means that those dozen crises on your list need detailed operational frameworks that are focused on swift, all-hands-on-deck solutions to crises, and your associates in other areas of the company need to understand their roles and responsibilities. Keep repeating this mantra to them (and to yourself):

Crises aren’t communications events, they’re real.

Also, don’t get distracted by all of the silly and ephemeral “crises” that might pop up because somebody Tweeted something or a social media influencer decided your shoes chafe instead of fit. Much of the corporate reputation industry (along with the brand gurus) have gotten horribly distracted by this content and its purported effects, mostly because there are shiny computer dashboards that can track them…until they evaporate a day later, if not sooner.

The third best way to manage a crisis is to, well, manage the crisis. For real.

In a real sense, businesses and institutions are always in crisis, only to different degrees of intensity and impact. The more you recognize it — and work to bridge any explicit or implicit divides between what your leadership is willing to tolerate and what your stakeholders believe to be true, rightly or wrongly — the next blunt revelation of such disconnects will be less damaging.