More on the future of crisis communication

A month ago I commented that the future of crisis communication may be dim. My basis for saying that was that when organizations engage in on-going in-depth conversations with the people who matter most, then crisis communication is not a change from that, but merely an intensification of that conversation.

Maybe some thought I was suggesting that the future for those people with skills and experience in crisis communication was limited. Actually, the opposite. Because what is most needed in that on-going conversations are the very thought patterns, strategies and instincts that makes great communicators and great crisis communicators.

To add to this thought, I want to expand on the idea of the “right few.” I actually wrote a book about this topic of strategic relationship development a number of years ago–now out of print. But in this era of media inflammation, social media, heightened vulnerabilities, brand tippyness and all that, the subject of building and maintain relationships with the right few is more relevant than others.

What do I mean by “the right few.” When I wrote that book (called Friendship Marketing, by the way, and a handbook called “the SALT Principles”) I did quite a bit of speaking on the topic including some INC magazine conferences. Every opportunity to meet business and organization leaders I asked this question: How many relationships does your business rely on? To further define “strategic relationship” I suggested it was the kind of relationship that if you were to lose it would cause you to lose sleep at night. Insomniacs aside, I found a remarkable consistency in answering the question of how many. Think about it for a minute. OK, now I’ll give you the “right” answer: 5-7. Yes. The magic numbers was 6. For the most part it didn’t matter how big the business or even the type of business even though there were some major variations.

The point was and is that most businesses and organizations have a remarkably few number of people who are absolutely vital to their future. The way I ask the question in crisis communication is: who are those people whose opinion about you matters most for your future?

If you are a business, it is natural to think of major customers. But don’t forget key suppliers, or industry consultants or analysts who may be very influential in your market. Chances are on that list would be some very important employees–but not necessarily at the top.

For organizations, it may not seem so easy, but it really is. Organizations have “customers” too–anyone who helps you pay the bills is a customer. So who would be “strategic” to some one like the Coast Guard? I’d start with who pays the bills. No, the taxpayers don’t. At least I as a taxpayer have very little to say about whether Coast Guard has the funds to pay the bills. But there are some people who do have a lot to say. Members of Congress who sit on the Appropriations Committee or whatever committee decides their budget. That is only a few, and clearly some on that committee are more important than others.

But, if you want to go beyond that, who do those few listen to? Who influences them the most when it comes to decisions about appropriations for different agencies? Taxpayers? I sure don’t have a lot of clout over mine. But I know some people who do. Their staffs. Other than their own opinion, the opinion of staff members–perhaps presented as staff research–matters a lot. Then who would be next? My guess is that the next level of influencers would be friends and associates of the member of Congress both in DC and back in the home district. I would guess that some major donors to their campaigns may have a little to say about issues like the reputation of an agency being funded.

The point of all this is to make clear that even for a federal agency, it is not that difficult to walk down the trail of figuring out who the truly strategic relationships are. And to name those people. And to get their contact information. And to engage them in conversation–directly and through all the forms of digital communication available today. If they are truly important to the future of your organization and you have the capability of direct communication with them, why would you not?

You might say, well, those people get all the information they need about my company, my agency, my organization through the media. Youch. You are willing to put the future of your organization in the hands of people whose primary concern it is to draw as big of an audience as they can, in direct competition with thousands of others who are doing the same thing. An industry which in recent years has demonstrated that its desperate fight for survival means that it matters little who and what are destroyed in the fight for eyes on the screen? You are trusting your future to them?

Conversely, imagine you have a fully open, honest, transparent conversation with those few who really matter. You have been clear with them about issues of concern. You have earned their trust and your credibility is high. Now something really bad happens. The media goes nuts with stories, not just about the bad thing that happened, but how you conspired to withhold the truth, how you made a series of bad decisions that led inevitably to this disaster, that your management “puts profits ahead of people.” In the middle of this media maelstrom you are continuing, as you have already, to converse directly with those people who matter most. You continue to be forthright, open, honest. You call it like it is. You tell them when the media reports are accurate and when they are maliciously false and misleading or when they simply and innocently got it wrong. You answer all their questions–quickly, directly and with your credibility always at the top of your mind.

For those people who matter most, what or who will they believe? It may cause some conflict in them, some cognitive dissonance, but if they test and find out that you are trustworthy and the media is not, what will this do to your reputation? But, you say, what about the rest of the world. Yes, that is a problem and I wish I could fix it. But if the people most important to your future are inoculated against the kind of media attack you can expect, then do the rest really matter? And if you have to go to them to argue your case through paid media or a massive social media effort, who better to engage in that process than those with whom you have built trust?

That, in my humble opinion, is the future of crisis communication. That’s why I think those that think crisis communication is about trying to spin the media while you are in a disaster are barking up the wrong tree. That’s why I think if you are not doing the right work now, if you are not putting brand equity in the bank right now, if you are not building strong relationships with the right few, if you are not engaging them in on-going conversation, then you are destined to lose the crisis management game before it even begins.

Crisis management as we have known it as gone. The future is direct engagement that has been firmly established well before the crisis hits.

One thought on “More on the future of crisis communication”

  1. Gerald! You have identified an important and significant issue.
    The problem of course is the tendency to propagandize those who may well control your organization’s fate and future. But I think you have the key. Finding the decision makers and explaining to them [painfully sometimes no doubt] why your leadership and organizations has made the decisions it has or will have to make. The Pentagon is captured often by the briefers, those skilled with power point e.g., and often they obtain high rank. The problem of course is that briefing is not decision making. The decision makers often are faced with the lesser course of two bad choices. But explanations of why and how they make or will make their choice can help others of understand their organization and be supportive even during a crisis. The threat of litigation clearly puts a damper on some disclosures but that argues for tight coupling of legal advice long before the crisis to various types of decisions. I would argue the courts give a fair amount of discretion in a crisis to decision makers if they can demonstrate their decisions were made on a rationale and reasonable basis at the time of the decision. But this argues for continuous creation and updating of a record that all must understand probably will be reviewed by others. Including judges. But people often forget that the tort system even in the US rests on a decision tree of sorts. First is there a standard of care? Second, was that standard of care violated? Third, why was that standard of care violated? Fourth, did the violation of the standard of care cause the damage or loss? And fifth, what portion any or all of the losses or damages were due to the violation of the standard of care? This decision tree must be followed before legal liability occurs and often it is the first question that is the most important. For example, does a statutory scheme create a standard of care? Is there a national or even international standard of care? What training and integration of the standard of care if it exists was adopted organizationally.

    The importance of crisis communications is that others may well rely on the accuracy of the information for making their own decisions. Is this reliance justified? Is there a prevailing standard of care in crisis communications? Actually I think not for private organizations but some may differ. My point is to argue for the complexity of the analysis not the simplicity. So hoping you post more on the underlying issues before you write off crisis communications although I get your point that the key issue is to have communicated to certain decision makers long before the crisis. The hope of course is to convey not just knowledge but understanding! Good luck not an easy task.

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