Is there a future for crisis communication?

That may seem a very strange question, but hold on. The answer may not be as obvious as you think.

Let me ask the question this way: is there a future for encyclopedia writers in the age of wikipedia? It used to be that encyclopedia publishers would engage the skills and knowledge of verified experts to provide the content for everything from how quarks work to the history of the bowling ball.  They needed those experts because there was a demand for the kind of arcane or specialized knowledge that only a few people held and there was economic value in providing a summation of all that kind of knowledge. But, I don’t think there are very many people employed today in writing The World Book (I grew up on that great encyclopedia!) or the Britannica. In part because the knowledge that people seek is so readily available through the internet, and in part because the new form of encyclopedia, wikipedia, has engaged the assistance of millions and millions of experts rather than just a few. Of course, they don’t pay those experts.

If you are quick to say, yes, but the Britannica is to be trusted but wikipedia is not, I’m afraid you are wrong. What this new form of knowledge sharing has demonstrated is something now called “collective intelligence” where individual people may make mistakes, but if enough people participate those mistakes are most often quickly rooted out and corrected. So wikipedia has been demonstrated to be as credible as “professional” encyclopedias.

What does this have to do with the future of public information management or crisis communication? A crisis communicator was needed because crisis events typically involve vital information only available to a few. For example, an industrial accident happens and a whole lot of people want to know who was injured or killed, what the current status of the event is, who is to blame, what is being done to protect people now, etc. There are certainly some events, maybe a lot of them, where much of the vital information is behind closed doors. But the more I think about it, the more I realize that in one way or another, those witnessing the event have access to much if not most of the vital information. And now, for the first time in history, they have the capability and clear willingness to share in what they know. They do it instantly and it is spread and shared instantly.

So, a flood hits the county. Where is hitting, how bad, how high is the water, is it rising, etc. All that info used to come from the emergency response folks. Now it comes from social media–from all those tweeters sharing info about the event from their own little perspective. A broad survey of hundreds or thousands of eye witnesses will pretty soon give you a pretty accurate picture of what is going on. In the meantime, what are the officials doing to get the information? They are busy on their cell phones and radios talking to the people in the field who had to be called from their homes, get in their pickups, try to get to the scene, call in, report, gather the info, prepare it for public release, get approval to release, send it to the media, who broadcasts it to the homes–about four hours after everyone has already gotten everything from the tweeters.

The poor Public Information Officer or crisis communicator thinks he/she is the encyclopedia writer with everyone breathlessly waiting for the latest release. What they don’t seem to realize is that by the time they get their release out, everyone who doesn’t have a smart phone has been talking to those who do and four different information cycles have already been completed in the time it took to get that one release out. Information is like a flashflood. It will take the route of least resistance. The first water to get there is what matters if you are caught in one. The millions of gallons that my wash over you an hour later is pretty darn irrelevant.

I do believe we are already in an era when the vast majority of vital information of interest to the public is going to come through non-official channels. That includes reputation crises as well as emergency communications. Those of us in crisis communication who think that we are encyclopedia writers and that the world desperately needs our well-crafted and fully approved releases, will soon find that the mountain simply will not come to Mohammed. The wikipedia process of collective intelligence and willing sharing of first hand information will diminish our significance. Will we be unemployed? Not ready to go there yet. But I know what I would say to an encyclopedia writer about his or her future prospects.

7 thoughts on “Is there a future for crisis communication?”

  1. Hello Gerald … another good discussion starter …

    On this one, I’m not ready to go as far as you do. I really don’t see the role of the PIO or crisis comms consultant as that of an “encyclopedia writer” … but more as the orchestra conductor …

    it’s not about generating content as such but managing or certainly trying to be aware of the different flow channels and how/when best to put your boat into the waters …

    What we can bring to the table is not only empirical or technical knowledge, but also experience and most importantly, options for our clients (command or an actual firm) based on existing plans, current incident, audiences, types of comms channels available and so on …

    Emsuring that every key stakeholders in on the same page … playing from the same song sheet … that’s really our role … arranger more than composer …

    What do you think ?

  2. Wonderful post and wonderful comment. Yes, something is going on and you seem to have sensed the pulse of this new creature! Not sure the old one is completely dead but we better make sure that both the parents and progency survive in a manner to make sure no crisis communication gaps.

    What does worry me is the MSM pushing the White House to be the encyclopedia! I hope at least Brittanica survives as a calibration point for future examination of the human past and where it was when the last Brittanica was published in its knowledge base. Perhaps the next mission outside our solar system will have a virtual Brittanica added just to make sure that when ET arrive or learn of our demise they understand how primitive we were on planet earth at one point n times. Yes, Carl Sagan we are all stardust.

  3. I cannot but disagree with the premises of the original posts and the commentators.

    A crisis communications expert is valuable less for cranking our encyclopedic or telegraphic releases than for sage advice to the very highest levels of the organization.

    Organizational leaders tend to be operations or financial experts with an occasional lawyer thrown in. Not surprisingly, they do not think like communicators and seldom focus on the fact that the organization’s reputation is ultimately more important than this or that lawsuit, the urgent restoration of production capacity or next month’s stock price.

    The crisis communicator’s job is to remind them of this and to assure that authoritative, repeat authoritative, information and context are made available to all relevant audiences with the greatest possible speed.

    All relevant audiences is an important phrase. Too many think notifying the media takes care of it. Big mistake! Board members, suppliers, employees, vendors, regulators and others feel entitled (justly or not) to here either sooner or more than what is in the newspapers.

    Yes, much information comes out through non-official channels. But it was that way long before Twitter. Well before the digital age, AP knew that they could often get victims’ names by calling funeral homes. Additionally, Twitterers, mobile phoners, digi-camera transmitters and all the others know no more than can be learned from where they stand. They cannot give the big picture and cannot provide context, background or tell their audiences what is planned but not underway.

    If most of the information is coming from digitized bystanders you have failed as a crisis communicator or the CEO has failed by not paying attention to you.

    In short, a crisis communicator is much more a counselor than a writer/editor. He or she should be there as a peer of the general counselor and the rest of the C-Suite.

    There may not be a future for crisis communications, but there should be.

  4. If the crisis manager is one who only shares information, crafts messages and writes releases, then the future has already passed him by. Perhaps a decade ago. And perhaps that was Gerald’s point?

    Most of us do so much more, including counseling on how to manage crises through dialogue with newly empowered publics.

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