Navigating the changing landscape of crisis comms

A leading anchorman changes his role in the wake of a fact-checking scandal.

A leading anchorman changes his role in the wake of a fact-checking scandal.

CEOs and CFOs "resign" over accounting irregularities. Even PR firms are under fire for everything from spokesperson deals to billing practices. You can't open a newspaper today without reading about some type of a corporate crisis situation. While this might not be anything particularly new, there is an important distinction between the textbook cases of corporate crisis management and the situations that dominate the headlines today. That difference resides in the concept of accountability.

During the past several years, corporate accountability has become a mantra for all key stakeholders, including investors, staff, customers, and media. In an interesting adjunct phenomenon, the quest for accountability often evolves into a war cry of culpability. This new focus on "casting blame" rather than "accepting responsibility" changes the fundamental "rules" of crisis communications. Following traditional crisis protocols - admitting error and presenting a game plan and timetable to resolve - might no longer be sufficient in scenarios ranging from drug recalls to restatements of financial results. The new paradigm requires someone to pay a price, except in truly blameless crises like natural disasters, which continue to receive a groundswell of support.

Consequently, we as crisis communications professionals are faced with new challenges stemming from this trend toward extreme polarization between clearly blame-free tragedies like the tsunami and the broader category of "everything else." With respect to the latter, while high operating standards and willingness to assume accountability is still a company's most solid defense, we can no longer assume that it will be enough to protect a corporate reputation that is under attack.

First and foremost, considering the new crisis landscape, it is even more critical than ever for communications executives to have a seat at the table. However, we must remember that the flip side to increased access and input is responsibility. Interfacing with the C-suite is a privilege, not a right, and communications professionals must always be prepared (as in every other aspect of PR) to prove our value. This means understanding our company's and our client's business and keeping our fingers on the pulse of industry trends, as well as on the sentiments of various constituencies in real time. Realistically, without this kind of engagement and commitment, we cannot contribute to a meaningful discussion.

Second, if you have not reviewed your client's crisis protocol in the past six months, you should do so immediately. After 9/11, many developed new response mechanisms to manage situations where data is unavailable or irretrievable, either temporarily or permanently.

However, in light of today's environment, we must re-evaluate crisis plans holistically. This requires assessing processes to ensure they are effective in a fast-paced media environment, adaptable to myriad possible circumstances, and, most important, aligned with today's focus on accountability. Contrary to the old "tunnel vision" approach of scenario-driven response that relies on prewritten statements, new crisis protocols must consider the potential impact on every building block of corporate reputation and might need to incorporate unconventional ideas. The traditional scenario-based plans, with prewritten press releases and predesignated spokespeople, must give way to process- and philosophy-driven protocols that can be easily applied and adapted to various scenarios and account for the ever-evolving climate or mood of the company's constituencies. This is what enables us to make the right decisions at the right times and for the right reasons.

Third, it is imperative to recognize that various stakeholder groups do not exist in a vacuum. The convergence of any company's various constituents has evolved beyond simple information sharing into active coalition building and is often facilitated by class-action litigators. A strategy that either does not account for the full panorama of stakeholders or is structured to contain a crisis among a specific constituent group is short-sighted and will often result in a negative outcome.

Finally, to provide cogent communications counsel in crisis or otherwise, it is incumbent upon communications professionals to serve as a resource for real-time intelligence on the rapidly changing attitudes among the public and particularly the media, which play a key role in shaping and influencing public perception and reaction. In fact, the only way to ensure the effectiveness of a crisis response strategy is to regularly monitor the shifting dynamics and adjust messages and approach accordingly, where necessary.

In order to provide the best possible results for our clients in the new era of corporate accountability, crisis managers must be prepared to address a unique and diverse set of issues and challenges. Successful crisis planning and response requires consistent and meaningful interface with the C-suite, updated crisis protocols, and tools capable of mitigating and managing a broad array of scenarios quickly.

  • Carreen Winters is SVP of corporate communications at MWW Group.

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