Is crisis communication going the way of the dodo?

Dodo, as in bird. The one that went extinct in the seventeenth century. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately so don’t think this is just a manipulative ploy to get crisis communicators interested in reading this. I really do believe the ground is shifting under our feet and crisis communication as it has evolved in the past decade or so is on its way out.

In a nutshell here is why. Because as companies and organizations shift from a mass mediated engagement with their audiences, to a far more direct engagement, crisis communication becomes simply a part of the on-going, direct conversation that they have established with the people important to them.

Imagine this first on a small scale. Let’s say you are a company with a hundred customers. They are all you have and all you ever will have. You discover that you can converse with them directly–by phone, in person, by email, Facebook, whatever. And so you have that on-going conversation–about anything and everything of interest to them and the services or products you provide them. Price changes, new models, little problems with scheduling, and so on. Then something goes wrong. The conversation continues, with the only real change is that there is an increase in the volume of interaction and the necessity for speed in addressing areas of concern. So you have a product recall–you let them know in a big hurry, you tell them what happened and why and what you are doing to take care of them. For a service company, let’s say a top-level account manager suddenly dies, you do the same thing. Talk to them, each and everyone personally, directly, openly, honestly–like they were real people.

What about the media? In this small scale case, who cares? Remember, you are already talking directly to the only ones who really matter–your present and future customers. If they trust you because you have established your golden standard of credibility, what can the media do to you and your relationship with them?

Sure, you say, but how does this scale up to large, mega-global corporations? There the media attention will be far more intense and their ability to influence the opinions of others much greater. Yes, true, but the media’s impact will be determine largely by whether or not  you have previously established a conversation and a relationship of trust with the people who matter most to you. In other words, if you could communicate with everyone directly who was important to you and your future, the impact of media inflammation about your problem would be minimized.

The truth is, that ability is getting closer all the time. The more you engage in on-going conversation with those who are most important to your future, the less impact the negative stories in the press will have. Providing–and this is big–providing you have earned their trust through credible, open communication.

Organizational communication is becoming more and more like an on-going conversation. In a crisis, the event that occurs becomes the dominant topic of conversation. But it is just seen as a continuation of the conversation–faster, more intense, more important–but not substantially different from the day to day conversation you have been having.

The biggest obstacle I see to this happening in a natural, easy way, is the silos that are inevitably created in organizations. The ones conducting the day to day conversations are not the crisis management people. It’s the sales, marketing and public relations people–often those at the lowest levels. They have their hands on the marketing distributions, the Facebook and Twitter accounts, the conversations coming through the Call Centers. Crisis communicators, on the other hand, still rely on their traditional tools: media releases and press conferences, and to some degree the corporate newsroom. We saw this in the Qantas/Rolls Royce situation where Qantas did a pretty darn good job of getting crisis information out via website and traditional media, while their Twitter account continued to offer fare discounts and promotions, oblivious to the way thousands or millions were using Twitter to find out about the engine problems.

I wish I had captured it, but I remember an article about President Obama’s upcoming 2012 election campaign and their planned reliance on social media with the intent of circumventing much of the mainstream media. I’ve blogged before about major organizations not even including MSM in major announcements due to the effectiveness of social networks. I do not think we are far from the day when some companies or organizations will simply refuse to talk to the media in the midst of a major crisis. That seems to violate all the rules of crisis management today: “Never say no comment!”  But whether that hurts them or helps them will depend largely on the on-going conversation they have with the people whose opinion about them matters most for their future.

Crisis communication as we have known it is still with us, but I’m counting dodos and they are getting fewer.

3 thoughts on “Is crisis communication going the way of the dodo?”

  1. So piece work will replace mass production. Still room for the latter from time to time but this is really a great post to start some out-of-the-box thinking about crisis communications. So will each contact be called to tell them the product is defective?

  2. Good points, Gerald. However, I disagree with your title/conclusion. Here’s why:

    Crisis management pros should be constantly advising the day-to-day PR/communications/social media people to see the world through our “paid pessimist” POV. I see this as an ongoing part of our responsibility — not just providing counsel when the stuff hits the fan. We have to teach these groups how to fish…not provide the fish…when we do our jobs well.

    This requires ongoing training, testing, adjustments to plans, etc.

    I think our profession is alive and well and is poised for tremendous growth, in that context.

    – J.D.

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