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There is no place to hide

Corporates need to deal with today's interplay of politics, business, consumers and media.

There has never been a time when the economy and business have so dominated the media and political landscape. Business stories are now headline news.

With the economy in the state it is in, you might argue that this is no surprise. But it's a trend that pre-dated the financial crisis.

Big business has increased its role in society. Brands have become part of everyday life with companies spending vast quantities of time, money and energy to be front of mind.

But it isn't one-way traffic. We expect corporates to be more than just profit-making machines; we demand that they have social responsibility policies.

This is set against a consumer environment that has been revolutionised by the internet. The digital world has provided a window into a business world that had previously been hidden from view to those not in it.

More importantly, it has given consumers a voice allowing anybody to become a journalist or activist attacking any company at will.

Exacerbated recently by a disastrous economic backdrop that restricts political freedom of manoeuvre, business has become the hot political issue.

Politicians, not just prolific but highly effective communicators, have mastered the art of packaging and delivering messages on the topics that matter to their voters.

And the issues that are increasingly on those voters' minds are related to business and the economy.

The result has been not only greater prominence for the business world, but also a much broader understanding of it. Good companies have recognised this as a huge opportunity. But from a crisis comms point of view it obviously has important implications.

Corporates cannot avoid the spotlight. Politicians are under constant pressure to be seen to be keeping a cynically perceived business world in check. The media are actively hunting for business scandals with a hunger that used to be reserved only for politician and celebrities.

The result is that high profile crises are not the preserve of mega-brands. Even the most obscure business-to-business company can suddenly be put under the sharpest public and political scrutiny by a corporate crisis.

In today's comms environment, the transition from business issue to political maelstrom to online consumer boycott can happen at lightning speed. Businesses need to understand the impact of an issue on Westminster, on Fleet Street or on the high street, but more importantly they need to understand how those three affect each other. It takes a new type of crisis comms team to understand the interplay of politics, business, consumers and media.

Corporates need to change style and keep pace to avoid conspicuously being the odd one out, but all too often they are failing to do so. They can sometimes appear slow to react, out-of-touch and even condescending.

In this new space businesses are communicating with less knowledgeable audiences and have less space to do so - precise and concise messaging is more important than ever.

This trend is irreversible. Even when the economy recovers, business will continue to increase its prominence. Smart companies will learn to provide integrated responses to issues, and reduce operational silos and long bureaucratic lines of sign-off.

They will aim to be fluid and operate more like the NGOs and citizen groups that are attacking them.

Others will be forced to cope with the toxic mix of consumer backlash and political grandstanding.

Adrian Warr is partner at Portland.

VIEWS IN BRIEF

Which company's response to accusations of tax avoidance has been the most impressive?

Businesses are caught between the demands of shareholder obligation and societal responsibility. While many have handled it satisfactorily, none has been able to manage it impressively.

What is the best way to keep employees informed during a crisis?

Channel depends on the nature of the business. Content depends on the nature of the issue. Spokesperson and process depend on both. The universal requirements are for communication to be regular, open and constructive.

From PRWeek's Crisis supplement, June 2012

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