Editor’s Note: This piece is part of Ragan’s Crisis Communications Guidebook, 2020 Edition. Get your copy of the full book here.
Modern crisis management and mitigation have become exceedingly complex.
With the evolution of the media cycle, social media and consumers’ demands for direct access to brands and organizations, crisis preparation and reputation management have become high tech, day-and-night, expensive endeavors.
According to some experts, that’s a relatively new reality.
“When I started in this business in 2000, after practicing law for nine years, crisis was purely reactive,” says Harlan Loeb, chair for crisis and reputation risk advisory services at Edelman. “Proactive crisis planning based on data and analytics simply did not exist. Something had to be ‘in play’—and only then did we activate. Engagement was highly tactical, because there was not a strategy proposition when one of the largest oil and gas companies in the world had one most destructive and consequential spills in history. It was all damage control.”
Changes have been dramatic given the rapid rise and global proliferation of digitally driven content in which citizen “journalism” has dramatically and permanently outpaced traditional news coverage in all of its forms.
“It’s truly something to behold just how radically the information and content ecosystem has evolved and diversified in just 10 years,” Loeb says. “We’ve moved at warp speed from the 2008 financial crisis to the crises of 2010s, in which every industry experienced a major crisis that took years before financial and reputational recovery was even near complete.”
Drop your bats, and grab your gloves
If crisis management and risk mitigation require such a wide range of skill sets, does it make sense to split your crisis response into two separate teams? That’s what Stagwell’s Ray Day advocates for, comparing it to offense versus defense.
Your “defense team” includes those managing the current crisis. Day recommends this team be comprised of the most resilient—those who are quick to take action, are the voice of calm and reason, and who survey the business landscape and adhere to the facts as they manage the crisis.
At the same time and with just as much energy, Day recommends building an offensive team that looks to the future and is not involved in the current crisis. Those best suited for this team are curious and self-starters—they veer away from comfort zones, are competitive and strategic, and can see at least six months down the road.
That’s a viable model for many industry insiders.
“You should have two teams—one that manages the actual crises and one that manages the public perception,” says Pete Smolowitz, vice president and director of reputation management for Mower.
“Even before a crisis hits, the communications team should meet regularly with leaders from all divisions to discuss smoldering crises and ‘what-if’ scenarios,” he says. “If you do a good job on offense and prevent crises from happening, you won’t have to play defense and manage them.”
Others break it down in terms of seniority and strategic thinking.
“It’s really as simple as senior management versus the rest of the agency,” says David Gwyn, president and principal of French/West/Vaughan. “We have daily leadership team meetings where we operate under a daily, military-like ‘OODA Loop’ scenario: We observe, orient, decide and act, with each of us going off with assignments that include both short-term (today) ideas as well as long-range, forward-thinking initiatives that can be developed and presented to clients over time.”
That doesn’t mean that junior pros aren’t strategizing.
“While our leadership team determines what is important, we ask our associates to come up with client or new business ideas that will make a real difference in the future,” he says.
Strahan Wallis, Porter Novelli’s managing director for Los Angeles and a lead consultant on reputation management, says the mindset has to be adapted depending on the life cycle of the crisis and when a team is brought on to advise.
“Usually, if we are helicoptered into a new crisis situation, we do so with seasoned senior counselors who know how to hit the ground running and are available 24/7,” he explains. “From a client point of view, this provides reassurance and value at make-or-break moments when they are most in need of deep expertise and senior-level counsel. Once a major crisis is under control, that same team of senior counselors begins preparing for what comes next—beyond the crisis—to develop short-, medium- and long-term plans.”
Wallis says the details of the crisis at hand necessitate what tactics will be used: “It truly depends on the circumstances, as some clients may need ‘purpose’ expertise, planning, digital, creative or strong media relations folks to keep the earned media narrative going. Oftentimes it is some combination of these skill sets, and we lean on our specialists for advice throughout the high point of the crisis anyway.”
Wallis adds it helps to have well-rounded experts on your team, because crisis management requires so many different disciplines. “Our crisis counselors are not working full time on crisis work,” he says, “so they all have strong expertise in ongoing reputation management, which is an important skill set to have during a crisis anyway.”
Seeing the big picture
Allison+Partners breaks down crisis response into the long view as well as the minutiae of
different response tactics.
“An effective reputation management team will be able to address any crisis from a 40,000-foot
perspective while also crafting responses, addressing immediate client needs and directing
support teams,” says Barbara Laidlaw, global reputation risk + public affairs at Allison+Partners.
“While this is true at all times, it is especially important during a time of crisis to be able understand how the tactics fit within the overarching strategy.”
Laidlaw breaks down reputation management into three P’s:
- Prepare. “To prepare, we explore multiple “what-if” situations and possible outcomes,”
she says. “In this phase, we identify many possible ways to make the client ready ahead
of a potential occurrence.”
- Preempt. “To preempt, we forestall or actively look to take action to prevent (an
anticipated event) from happening to a client,” she says.
- Protect. “To protect, we examine long-term responses and reactions that will have the
client’s mission, its customers and best interests in mind,” she adds. “We identify ways
to help the client maintain its status and integrity.”
Laidlaw says that the crisis has revealed weakness on crisis preparation for organizations around the world.
“If nothing else, the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed global unpreparedness,” she says. “We have reputation management and crisis communications around the specific industries and specific client issues, but not so much in terms of a global pandemic that infiltrates through industries and sectors far and wide. It has shown us how imperative it is to have the ability to quickly pivot our strategies, plans and communications, and it has reinforced how important internal communications are in crisis situations.”
What traits must be nurtured?
What makes a communicator particularly attuned to crisis response? What skills are needed, and are they different depending on where you are in a crisis life cycle?
Edelman’s Loeb says organizations must nurture respectful dissent.
“There is a very substantial behavioral component in play,” he says, “for companies in which reporting up is incentivized, a collaborative engagement is woven into the culture, and constant and dynamic improvement is rewarded, you know you’ve hit the gold standard.”
Loeb stresses that when teams don’t feel empowered to dissent or go against the grain, dangerous groupthink can rear its head.
“There are many operating environments in which reporting can have immediate and, in some cases, permanent consequences,” he says. Instead, he advises crisis managers and business leaders to embrace uncertainty and not stake their response on absolutes.
“When organizations are seeking certainty and predictability in the wake of a crisis, outcomes can be poor to disastrous,” he says.
For French/West/Vaughn and David Gwyn, there is a clear dichotomy between short-term and long-term crisis management traits.
For the immediate response, Gwyn says, “patience, a clear head, a thorough education and understanding of what we are dealing with, and effective communication skills” are the foundation of effective work. For the future? “Creative thinking, vision for where things will land, how well you manage your relationships now, and more patience.”
Smolowitz couches the needed skills in terms of battle readiness.
“When a crisis breaks, you need a team of battlefield commanders empowered to act quickly, getting answers about what you know at that moment and what you’re doing to learn more,” he says. “This information must be communicated immediately to all stakeholders—employees, customers, investors, the public, etc.—and those answers will determine what skills might be needed down the road. Throughout the process, though, the communications team must be kept updated, so they can keep stakeholders updated, reducing the uncertainty that erodes trust.”
Many traditional PR skills come in handy for Porter Novelli’s team, but Wallis says nothing beats on-the-job experience.
“Many of our crisis counselors have developed skills across multiple areas, which could include media relations, planning, social and digital,” he says, “We often have more-junior consultants supporting crisis work, starting with monitoring and analysis, as well as joining senior consultants onsite with clients as we navigate these challenging situations.”
Generalists or specialists?
Loeb says every crisis response team needs specialists in key roles: a subject matter expert, a crisis strategist with extensive experience, and a digital expert for risk sensing, research and data-based measurement and tracking.
For Loeb, the subject matter expert should know the industry and the specifics of the current crisis inside and out. “So for example, if it’s a restructuring, you need somebody who’s done considerable restructuring work,” he says.
The crisis strategist? A senior executive with the experiential intuition to drive scenario-based planning and response.
“You need somebody who’s a senior strategist and senior advisor that understands, holistically and dynamically, the many issues and potentially permanently the consequences of poorly managed crisis,” Loeb says. “The behavioral psychology of the organization many times contributes to a broader set of risks.
“This strategist should have directional instincts on how best to counsel the C-suite, recognizing stakeholder interest will often diverge significantly, and yet all of these interests must be addressed.”
The digital expert contributes significantly to the development of the content strategy and the channels through which positive influence and impact will drive market recovery quickly.
‘Fast access to whatever you need’
Other industry experts call for a mix of specialists and generalists on your crisis team.
“In a crisis, you want fast access to whatever you need,” says Wallis. “This could be paid-media specialists, creative, social and digital folks, but primarily the client counselor will be a seasoned senior consultant.”
Smolowitz agrees. “It’s not an either/or,” he says. “The most important thing from a PR perspective is to have a communications team that works closely with the people handling the actual crisis, gathering facts quickly and sharing them immediately with clarity and credibility.”
Here’s how Gwyn breaks it down: “As we typically operate, our senior leadership and some account managers represent our team of generalists, while our various public relations executives, digital media experts, social media managers, media content producers and art directors make up our deep talent pool of specialists. Our generalists ‘think’; our specialists “do.’”
For thinking about the complex nature of crisis management and response, Loeb recommends envisioning the task as akin to health care.
“You’re obviously treating the patient now, but you’re also looking for the outcomes you’re seeking,” he says. “So it’s not different. Take the time to manage it well, and invest early in the outcomes you seek to restore health and vitality of the organization.”