Tag Archives: future of crisis communication

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.

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.

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.