Stakeholder Engagement

This is a topic that is already high on the list of senior executives and communication managers at many of the world’s largest companies. I intend to write my next book on this subject because I think it is one of those situations that bubbles under the surface for a long time without many of those most affected by it really understanding what is happening. Then suddenly, it feels to them as if the ground has shifted under their feet. The ground is shifting, folks. It has been for a number of years but it has been mostly obvious to those who deal in the arena of public issues. I am thinking that the new internet-based forms of communication are about to make this shift far more significant in the lives of companies and organizations. 

The change I am talking about is the sense of ownership. Who owns what? Who owns the company you work in or run? Or the non-profit you work for? Who has the right to say how it is run, what its future is, how people should behave in it? In this global village we live in, we all who are the public have somehow gotten the idea that what is mine is mine and what is yours is mine too. We think we have the right to say where a new plant should be sited, how much emissions are too much, how CEOs should behave, what direction a company should take, how a non-profit should direct its resources.

One of the key differences for managers is to understand the expectation of those who engage them. It is easy for the managers to think, well, they have a right to their opinion. We’ll listen to them and then do what is right. No, those engaging them don’t really think they have a right to their opinion. They do think they have a right to decide, that it is their judgment that should matter above all. So if and when you listen, and if and when you don’t respond, there’s hell to pay.

Of course, I’m overstating it but the principle is what I am trying to get at. My premise is this: those affected by your or your organization have very high and increasing expectations about your response to their concerns. Their ability to put pressure on you is directly related to the way in which the world is now connected and how it communicates. That power to influence will increase. That expectation about your obligation to listen and respond will increase. The demand for transparency, honesty and accountability will continue to increase. The price paid by those organizations who cannot adjust or who will not, or who simply don’t get it will be very high.

I’ve tentatively titled my new book, “It’s Everybody’s Business: The new world of stakeholder engagement.” But this time, I’d like to engage as many people as possible with interest in this topic to assist in the writing of this book. Please send me your examples of what I am talking about. If you think I am full of it, please let me know but tell me why. If you think this is old stuff and there is nothing new or interesting in it, tell me. But engage, please. Because, you are my stakeholders. And what you say is important to me.

Planning Basics

"You need a crisis communications plan." That's what crisis communications consultants like me are expected to say. And I do and I do believe it. But I am getting more sceptical lately about the kind of boilerplate one size fits all that seem to the stock in trade of this tiny profession. A detailed written crisis plan is undoubtedly helpful and most helpful when the scenarios it envisions is closely matched by the crisis that occurs. And that's the problem. Frequently a crisis occurs that the management team has never really envisioned.

That's why crisis plans in my mind have to be so basic. They need to answer a few key questions. I put those questions into the Four Ps; Policy, Plan, People and Platform.

What is your policy? This can be a multiple page document in excruciating detail. But the best one I ever heard came from the Coast Guard, arguably the best in the crisis communications business. His policy: the best the first and best source of information about the incident. The only thing I would add to that basic policy statement is identifying what kind of information is inappropriate to provide–such as names of individuals injured or deceased. Notification of families. Investor relations considerations. OK, I guess it can't be kept completely simple, yet the further away it gets from the basics the less helpful it will be in guiding the communication team during a crisis.

Plan–who is going to do what first. This largely comes to who are the people who are most important to your future and how and when will they be communicated with.

People–from the CEO, to the attorney guiding the legal response, to the communication team, to the organization structure and role of various managers involved. Understanding the team, evaluating the fitness for service in a crisis, evaluating spokesperson capabilities–these are critical. Then drilling them. Worst case scenarios, surprise scenarios.

Platform–here is where most planning fails the team. What platform will be used to communicate from. Most that are depending on–office LANs, Outlook, internal contact databases, PR Newswire for distribution, customer service centers–these are very inadequate and complicated for the communication team to manage. There are solutions designed specifically as team platforms for crisis communication–and the tops on the business are using these.

Non-profits and crises

Writing this post from my son's apartment in LA. He's in the tv film business with numerous credits on major documentaries and recent tv shows. Currently shooting for Intervention on A&E.

Non-profit organizations have some unique vulnerabilities to crises. Maybe it just seems that way to me due to a recent spate of work for non-profits. But there are some unique characteristics. This has to do with:

– typical dependence on a relatively few but very significant donors whose relationship may be tenuous but very important for the agency

– typical strong leadership that has much longer length of service than the typical CEO of a company–which creates a whole host of issues relating to personality, leadership styles, personal moral vulnerabilities, etc.

– mission orientation–which creates higher expectations of moral behavior and greater vulnerability to personal moral failures

– volunteer board–people who do this out of the goodness of their hearts, who have limited time, who have been asked to join the board by a dynamic and strong leader, who only want to play a part in an organization that is working well and accomplishing a high value mission.

This last part is the real concern. Typical non-profits don't have the level of accountability that is now expected of boards in the corporate world. If they did, how could you attract a quality board? This is a very significant issue and will be explored more.

For now, if you are involved in a non-profit as the strong dynamic leader or as a board member, it's a good time to think about vulnerabilities. Bring up the issue at the next board meeting. What is your worst case scenario? What would put the relationship with key donors, or relationship with public funding sources at risk? What is the crisis management plan you have to respond if things really do go sour? What do you do if the issue involves the strong leader? Now is the time to think about it, because when it happens, Now Is Too Late.

Brand values

Reputation protection and enhancement is what crisis management is about–particularly crisis communication. And that means brand value. From a corporate standpoint, potential impact on the brand value is what keeps CEOs awake at night as they contemplate the bad things that can happen.

If you are interested in a quick and easy way to check on brand value, go to www.yougov.com. This market research firm tracks measures of brand value on 1149 brands in 32 sectors. They say "all brands" but mine isn't on there and chances are yours isn't either. If it is, clearly your organization has brand recognition and therefore crisis exposure of a pretty high level.

Folks in the PR industry (See PR News, April 24, 2006) are using Yougov brand index as a means of evaluating whether or not a companies PR efforts are effective. This issue highlights the considerable difference between the social conscious brands of The Body Shop and Tom's of Maine as they managed their mergers with corporate giants. Very interesting.

A quick view of the headlines on Yougov's site also provides a good indication of brands under stress. I'll be using this to comment on some of these companies in trouble and what those responsible for protecting that brand value are doing right or wrong and what they could be doing better.

It's not about blogging

I noticed that my posts on this new blog about crisis management were mostly about blogging. In part, because this is a new and fascinating area of crisis management and in part because when I think about posting to my crisis blog, I am thinking about blogging.

What strikes me about most of the crises I am currently involved in or have been involved in as they normally revolve around a failure to communicate. Should not surprise, I guess. When a marriage fails, what is it about. When a teenager gets isolated, what is the problem. 

Take one problem. An organization is in deep turmoil because of the leadership style of one key leader. In hindsight, the problem is obvious. In hindsight, the volcanic results were highly predictable. The resentment and anger only natural. But it took years for it to build to this point. Most of all it took the complicity of an awful lot of people who saw the problem, worried about the problem but did little or nothing to head it off. Perhaps they didn't feel they were in the right position. Perhaps they feared for the repercussions on themselves (rightfully so). Perhaps they kept a positive eye on all the good that was being done and the success of the individual.

The point is, much of the pain now being experienced by literally hundreds was, in hindsight, avoidable. But it would have taken strong, courageous action. Wise action. Proactive and risky action. It was easier to let sleeping dogs lie–and the consequences are very great.

I'll bet right now you can recognize such a situation. Perhaps it is in a close personal relationship, or in your office, or in your company or organization. Left unchecked and unchallenged, such situations can be devastating. Sleeping dogs wake up and when they do, they can make a huge mess.

The best crisis management style of all is crisis prevention. Do it now. 

What do executives think about blogging?

Not much apparently. That despite the fact they seem to spend a fair amount of time reading them. Just came across this interesting article on executive attitudes to blogging in Industry Week (thanks Jon N.) The article titled "Unconvinced: Corporate Blogging" by Jill Rusko says that only 5% of executives were convinced "to a great extent" that blogging is growing in credibility as a communications medium.

I say, go out and get a copy of Naked Conversations by Scoble and Israel.

Here are a few other interesting facts from this research done by Harris Interactive:

-three quarters don't have anyone doing a corporate blog

– one quarter of these execs read business related blogs once a week (apparently most feel they are a waste of time giving they don't consider it a credible communications medium)

– twenty percent have some formal process for monitoring blogs written about them

Here is the most stunning factoid (again given the perception of insignificance), 12% say they have taken legal action or other in response to a blog. Wow, wasting a lot of time and corporate resources on something that doesn't really matter.

Of course, blogging does matter and more and more companies and organizations are finding that it matters an awful lot. I'm now convinced that "blogwars" is already and will be the fastest growing area of crisis management. But clearly, executives have to connect the dots that are right now pretty disconnected.

Welcome to Crisisblogger

If your company, agency or organization is in a crisis, could be in a crisis or was in a crisis that could happen again, this blogs for you. I'm talking about those things that happen that threaten the future of the organization. Especially those things that involve public opinion or the opinions of people who are important to your future.

Blogging and the Clash of Cultures

Today's story about Egypt cracking down on activists and dissidents, some of who are blogging, raises a very important issue about the clash of cultures that blogging often creates.

This is true not just of places like Egypt, other Mid-East nations, China and others with repressive governments. It is also true in the US and the rest of the leading world. The US's history is one of being the most open governmet systems and cultures in the world. Yet, there is much that is very closed. A lot of it for good reason. Not everything is everyone's business. It seems stunning to us now that a president as recent as Kennedy could be so protected by the press in his indiscretions. Now we would consider that a grevious violation of the press duty. There is less that is private–even while we scream for privacy. In fact, many that scream loudest for the protection of privacy are the very same ones who scream loudest for openness, transparency, accountability, etc.

This clash of cultures between control of information, putting a lid on dissent, protecting the party line–all in the face of bloggers and "its everybody's business" world is right now creating some very interesting discussions at the highest levels in some very big companies. As Naked Conversation authors Scoble and Israel point out, the PR industry more than anyone may have a hard time with the blogging culture. It just doesn't fit the careful messaging, the multiple inputs, the legal vetting, the controlled and limited distribution that now drives the issue and crisis management approach.

Where will Egypt's attempts to control blogging end up? China's attempts to control the internet and Google? If you think you know the answer to that, chances are you are pretty convinced that the corporate culture of control is on its way out.

Blogwars 1

I'll be writing a lot in here about blogwars because that is one area of crisis management that is keeping me busy and I suspect a lot more of us in the wild business. The blogosphere is wide, wide open with little to no controls and with an established culture that celebrates the angry activist, the loud screamers, the axe-grinder willing to do anything and say anything about a person or company who has ticked him or her off. And that means lots and lots of companies and individuals involved in those companies are finding themselves the topic of blogtalk. Not so much a problem except when the target is high profile and blogger knows how to get traffic–partly by picking on a high profile target.

Companies are suddenly finding that this kind of activity can have a direct and terrifying impact on their business. People do go to the web for information these days, you know. And when they read info negative about the company, and not being in the best position to separate truth from fiction, they can make unfair judgments based on what they read. At that up a few hundred times, thousand times of hundreds of thousands of times and you can have serious impact on a business.

I call it blogwars. And there can be some very interesting battles.