The first thing that you notice about Robert Wilkerson is that his large besuited frame and smiling face is surmounted with a long grey-flecked ponytail. Bob Wilkerson is no cowboy in either sense of the word, but a native American descended from the Seminole tribe of central Florida.
Wilkerson is something of a crisis management guru - his life has taken an inexorable route towards his present position, as head of an emergency/crisis management company. The only non-PR member of the global PR network IPREX, the Corporate Response Group deals with the full range of crises that can impact on any organisation at any level. Its core philosophy is that a crisis management programme must be driven from the perspective of a company chief executive officer, board of directors and other senior management.
This makes a lot of sense. Having a well-practised team that is prepared for any contingency is vital in maintaining business continuity. When an incident attracts the rabid attentions of the media there is obviously the need for communications to play a frontline role. However, most crises arise from and impact on the many levels of a corporation, so Wilkerson highlights the need for crisis management to be driven from the boardroom.
It is a good time to be spreading this message. PR is in the boardroom at last, and corporate reputation is increasingly perceived as a crucial aspect in the sustained success of a company.
Wilkerson's background is colourful. Military experience provided a solid foundation for the development of his crisis and emergency management skills. The 1960s saw Wilkerson serving in south-east Asia, where for a period he was responsible for the movement of large numbers of refugees.
During his time in the military he was temporarily assigned as a trouble-shooter for organisations that were experiencing severe management problems.
For example, he had to address problems with products or equipment, substance abuse by employees and logistical problems.
After ten years of military service, during which he did three tours in combat and was decorated, Wilkerson retired in 1976. After the services, he pursued post-graduate study. Older and married and with two children, he found himself in stark contrast to his fellow students. Part of Wilkerson's course on business, urban and regional planning saw him take a three-month internship with the State of Florida. Drawing on skills he researched and wrote a 250-page disaster plan for Florida, which included formulating strategies for natural disasters such as hurricanes. This plan is still largely in use today.
After completing college Wilkerson started and headed a small consultancy that focused on forming national evacuation plans. This included investigation into the issue of behavioural factors. 'We developed a methodology on public attitudes and reactions to a disaster'. This was in pre-computer days, or during the days when computers were the size of a house and so not generally in use by companies. The company used mathematical logarithms and transportation models that could estimate how long a programme would take. This methodology was first put into practice in the late 1980s when a hurricane hit Florida and led to the Florida Keys being successfully evacuated.
A year later he became director of public safety for the State of Florida, a job he did for four years. During this period there were incidents of rioting in Miami. Wilkerson had to co-ordinate local and state personnel and draw up a response plan and follow through a recovery plan. This involved working closely with businesses across Florida, understanding how and the extent to which natural and other disasters impacted economically.
Wilkerson was one of three spokespeople for the state. This period of his life provided him with what he calls his 'most intensive training on the PR side of crisis management'. It led him to comprehend the dynamics of dealing with a crisis - forging a close working relationship with the media and understanding their needs and temperament.
In 1984 Wilkerson moved to Washington's state department to become director of technological hazards for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
He was responsible for safety programmes for potential nuclear disasters.
Nine months after joining FEMA the Union Carbide Bhopal disaster in India occurred. Wilkerson authored recommendations for the US government. Following this his responsibilities were broadened to include chemical plants. Working closely with corporate executives and managers highlighted the need for emergency management at CEO level.
In 1987 Wilkerson set up the Corporate Response Group. Its tenet is that crisis management should be an integrated management tool rather than a reactionary communications process.
Wilkerson has had a strong relationship with fellow IPREX network member David Watson, Key Communications London MD, for almost 12 years. They have shared ideas and approaches and introduced methodologies that can measure changes in public attitudes to corporations. Watson is enthusiastic about Wilkerson. 'Bob tends to work in a very rarefied and specialised field. He is very well versed in areas that front onto PR - the way that crisis management impinges on communications.'
Wilkerson explains that 'there are different models that companies fit into,' in crisis management. For example there is crisis management driven from the external communications' part of a company. When disaster strikes then it is dealt with from a communications perspective. However, as Wilkerson says: 'It follows the school of if a tree falls in the forest and there's no one around to hear it then does it make a noise? If the press doesn't make a fuss then is it a crisis or should it be treated as one?' The answer is of course 'yes'. Press attention accelerates the process of a crisis but it is the actual incident that causes it.
A second model is of a company in which you are likely to find a crisis management programme in place at all times. This is particularly common in the security industry.
For Wilkerson, all crisis management plans should be headed by a company CEO: 'It is expected that the CEO be an overt and dynamic leader, a public figure that symbolises the corporation. This has been true of family corporations for a long time.'
Crisis management is increasingly being taken seriously by companies of all sizes, but Wilkerson goes a step further than having a crisis management plan in place. He believes that the crisis management department of an organisation should be created specifically for that very purpose: 'There is a dramatic difference between a roster and a team.' One of his reasons for this is that a company will not continue to do business if it focuses all its resources into sorting out a crisis: 'The corporate PR department can't drop everything. Each function should ask itself 'how do I maintain the day-to-day while dealing with a crisis?'.
He adds: 'Crisis management should work through an organisation's entire command structure, from board level down to site level.'
Wilkerson also makes the important point that what the public recognise in a crisis is the brand, but that if the crisis isn't dealt with promptly that damage can be caused to the parent company. If there were a problem with the brand then the parent company has to be aware that potentially the crisis can roll back to the parent company or holding group and affect other brands.
As an example of successful crisis management Wilkerson cites Johnson & Johnson's analgesic brand Tylenol which was at the centre of public concern in 1982 when capsules were poisoned resulting in fatalities.
The product was immediately recalled from the market, and redesigned and relaunched in a tamper-proof form. This resulted in a strengthening of Tylenol's market share.
Wilkerson comments: 'Rather than arguing the issue the company withdrew the product in a decision that took two minutes. In the health business if there is any hint of a health issue then the product should come off the shelf'. It's all about how to get the product back in the market with a credible image and business continuity.
The Tylenol example clearly illustrates that crisis management is not merely a communications related discipline but often needs to involve areas of a business such as administration and logistics. The CEO would have had to be brought in on the decision to withdraw the product.
Wilkerson adds: 'A good communications programme can tell a great story if it's got a good story to tell, but if it's a bad story then there's not a lot it can do with it'. As a firm you have to make certain that you have a good story. This means taking positive action promptly and from a very senior level of the company.
Watson sums Wilkerson up: 'Bob brings tremendous drive, humour and character to what he does.'
Wilkerson's view that companies need dedicated crisis teams seems pessimistic.
As companies become increasingly aware of the need to protect their reputation, however, and the potential damage that can be done by rumours spreading on the internet becomes clear, it might not be long before his ideas are taken on much more widely.