Gavin Megaw, Hanover - Take a virtual reality check

You can't control the uncontrollable but you can identify potential threats to your reputation.

Gavin Megaw, Hanover - Take a virtual reality check

Let's take a reality check ... there isn't a PR agency or comms professional in the world that can ensure an organisation will not face a comms crisis. It doesn't matter how much you plan, or how well you manage threatening issues, no one controls the news in the internet age.

Today's flowering 24/7 multi-platform news cluster means there will always be at least one issue that takes on a life of its own and has a negative impact on an organisation's reputation. Once PR practitioners learn to accept that, they can start to understand the threats and opportunities modernday issues bring to an organisation.

Today's news environment is different from that faced by the generation that wrote the original crisis comms rulebook; social media are becoming more dominant, driven by the increasing accessibility of cheap smartphones globally. Anyone following the recent events in the Middle East will have seen Twitter emerge as a source of stories in its own right. News consumption has changed dramatically, with most people now following news online in the workplace, thus reducing the day to one continuously changing news cycle. Rapid rebuttal has never needed to be so rapid.

The new digital world has led to a retrenchment within the traditional print and broadcast news industries. Comms practitioners are now starting to come to terms with a world that requires them to fight back against an increasing number of aggressive opposition voices within an austerity-centric news environment that, as Wikileaks has demonstrated, loves to challenge the 'establishment'.

Modern media consumption trends should not see the traditional rules of crisis comms thrown away. They become even more important and comms professionals must redouble their efforts to identify new threats and react with an increased speed and skill. They must begin to show leadership beyond their traditional comms boundaries. That means having their voices heard at the top of their organisations, to challenge existing managerial practices that threaten their team's ability to protect and defend reputations.

It is unacceptable for an issue to arise within 'another department' without comms teams being aware. Yet most organisations still operate through a heavily siloed business model and steadfastly fail to audit their digital activities and understand how those could assist their 'issues management' approach.

Who owns and manages social media, and how deep within their organisation it functions, are questions every PR practitioner must be asking. Marketing, product development, HR and customer relations are all likely to be using the latest flavour-of-the month social media tool to communicate and engage, but does the comms team have sight of that activity, as well as the authority and ability to monitor and direct as required?

This is a vital challenge for PR in the internet age. Comms professionals must adequately answer those questions and integrate the results into their crisis communication plans. It should be a clear managerial objective for any organisation to ensure there has been an internal audit of its social media channels and approach.

Just as social media should sit within every part of an organisation for real impact, so should 'issues management' if comms teams are to effectively defend and protect reputations. Their voices should be heard loud and clear within the c-suite, with a learned case being made for managerial teams, not just comms teams, to champion an integrated approach that puts both social media and 'issues management' at the heart of an organisation's DNA.


Which crisis did you learn the most from working on?

Helping the Egyptian Tourist Authority when a bomb exploded in a Red Sea resort, threatening a tourist-friendly image, vital to the country's economy.

What were the important lessons?

It is vital to gain the support of the ultimate decision-maker and, if required, to take charge. Never assume an organisation understands how to react in a crisis. I was informed that keeping the phone 'off the hook' was a key tactic of the crisis comms plan. Battling through the internal bureaucracy was challenging. Very little would have been achieved without the full support of the media-savvy minister of tourism.

Gavin Megaw is a director at Hanover

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