President – Corpen Group
Much has been written on the topic of crisis communications and the related disciplines of issues and reputation management. Theories and principles have been espoused, phases of action have been delineated and all types of message structures have been proposed. These are all good things. These are all important. But, none of these are the true ingredients for success when it comes to critical communications.
The key to safeguarding your reputation in times of trouble – the single, overriding, ‘Caramilk secret’ of success is, simply, how you think about communications.
There it is, it’s that easy. The right mindset during crisis will focus a company’s priorities, will motivate employees, will inspire stakeholders and will impress the media.
Nothin’ to it, right? Not so fast, communications practitioner extraordinaire!
If, after the pedantic planning is complete, all we need in order to effect great crisis communications is a mindset that is predicated on honesty, responsibility and accountability, then why are those traits often so hard to find? I’m glad you asked. There are two main reasons, both of them unintended, maybe even unrealized.
The External Environment
When most organizations are propelled into crisis they instantly – and almost automatically – get defensive. They think the world is out to ‘get them,’ to judge them. But, actually, most of the judging comes later, usually after a perception has developed that an organization hasn’t reacted appropriately. We need look no further than the relatively recent Enbridge spill or the earlier Maple Leaf Foods listeriosis outbreak to recognize that audiences can, and often do, give companies the benefit of the doubt. In fact, with the right mindset, companies can actually manage a crisis and its related communications in a way that garners compliments, advocacy and support. Assuming that the world is out to get you – a counterproductive state of mind – is also a cop out! People are a lot more willing to forgive an accident, even a tragedy, than they are willing to forgive a company’s reluctance to be forthright about the incident and its effects.
The Internal Environment
It is a lot easier – especially in times of crisis when everything seems to be happening at warp speed – to do things the way they’ve always been done. And let’s face it… those corporate processes won’t work when the pressure is on. It’s easy to say that we need to wait for multi levels of approval, because “that’s the way we always do it.” It’s easy to suggest that media advisories or news releases can’t be issued quickly because “we don’t have the resources.” It’s easy to rationalise holding off on media engagement because “we’re waiting for that next piece of important information.” This is when people need to adapt, to move beyond the status quo, and to embrace the art of the innovative.
So, what can be done to move beyond these restrictive mindsets in times of crisis? To begin with, step back. When trouble begins many people have a tendency to jump right into the middle of everything. Reject that impulse. Step back, get a firm sense of what is happening around you, and ask specific and measured questions to determine the core issues at play, the public value sentiments, and where the priorities lie internally. Also, and this lies beyond the communicator, an effective crisis communications approach (one that sheds the trappings of defensiveness or abiding by cumbersome status quo approaches) needs strong leadership - from the communications lead, to ask the tough questions; from the incident commander, to respect the reputational imperative; and from the CEO and executive team, to be honest and forthright in their external dealings.
Effective crisis communications is a mind game. Get that right and you’ll be much closer to success.