Managing a crisis depends on your ability to anticipate it. It’s not voodoo, it’s science, you just need to listen properly
One of the greatest values in a good comms team working from a sound comms strategy is navigating the tricky situations where things don’t turn out as one had hoped. Another way to think about it: crisis comms – where your PR guys earn their money!
It’s always a funny thing to think about; there are so many poorly handled crisis comms moments that quickly come to mind, but so few first-class ones! It’s not irony as much as an alternate definition of intelligent design! The first faux pas that pops into my head is the BP CEO who didn’t quite think through his response to the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. Boy, did those remarks have you squirming in your chair! These times where it all goes pear shaped are the exact reasons people fear dealing with the media, yet it was hardly the media’s fault that these comments caused such a stir, so what is the real issue?
The problem for most individuals and organisations that mishandle a crisis comms scenario is they don’t understand their audiences. This is marketing 101, but so often it is a principle lost in the flurry of excitement when the mess hits the fan. This highlights a fundamental breakdown in an organisation. Usually it is as simple as when those responsible for managing communications don’t have the ear of senior leadership. This is the fault of the executive and the comms team. Respect is earned. It comes from consistent delivery of intelligence that makes a difference to the every day operations of an organisation. A senior leader’s attention is not a light switch that you can turn on and off at will. They listen when you prove you are worth listening to. When it comes to mopping up the after effects of a crisis comms event gone awry, it’s really too late.
So now we know crisis comms doesn’t start when something goes wrong, what are the best ways to handle these situations? Certainly putting your head in the sand is not an option. No matter who you work for, at some point as a communications professional you will be presented with this challenge. The key is this: you need to be telling your story in an authentic way and you need to build relationships with influences that can help you share it. And of course you need to have a Plan B and failing that a Plan C. Further to this last point, planning is a collaborative exercise. If you work in comms and don’t have a good working relationship with HR and Sales as well as marketing (at the very least), how on earth can you expect your staff and partners to get on board when you need them – and believe me, you do need them. If you don’t have good allies it’ll be like fighting a forest fire with a water pistol.
Getting in the line of sight of the boss:
Be their eyes and ears. The more senior you are the more likely you are a spokesperson. Some people are naturally good at performing the duties associated with this role, others not so much. Regardless, you need to give them as much as you possibly can so they can perform. It’s near impossible to have a normal life and be across all the micro and macro issues as a senior leader, but as a comms pro, you should be giving them the key bits of information on a regular basis so it appears they are. This means analyst snippets, social media sentiment, competitor coverage – highlights of the positive and negative. It includes the movements of key talent around the industry. And it encompasses things like staff satisfaction results and CSR campaigns. You can’t assume they know.
Attend the sales meetings. What better chance to hear what deals are on the table and what challenges the front line of the business is confronted with. The boss isn’t only concerned with revenue and profit margins if they want to captain their ship through seas fair and stormy. Customer reference development starts at the beginning of sales engagement, not as a bolt on line at the end of the contract that is too easily glossed over and quickly dismissed. Your boss will need these positive customer stories on the tip of his tongue when he has to deal with negative ones.
Introduce them to key thought shapers. This isn’t just about setting up meetings to push out the positive spin. Thought shapers don’t just want to know about what you do well, but what you think about the market as a whole. When they can rely on you for honest perspectives, they are far more willing to go into bat for you, or at least not stick the boot in, when day turns to night. Show me a boss that doesn’t care for his professional network!
Show some heart. Your boss isn’t always going to agree with you. They aren’t always going to green light your campaigns, no matter how brilliant you think they are, but this doesn’t mean you get disheartened and disenfranchised so that the relationship becomes fractured and you stop pitching your ideas. If you want to do crisis comms well, get a thick skin. Learn to dust yourself off on a regular basis, pick yourself up and go again!