THOUGHT LEADER: In times of crisis, the best defense is a good offense

Communicating in these difficult times can be thought of like a title fight. First you need to be able to defend and deflect. Then you need to counter-punch. Finally, in order to win, you need to attack. But for a lot of companies in today's skeptical and challenging business environment, communicating probably feels more like a barroom brawl, where you must duck and block, defend more than attack, and not know where the next hit is coming from.

Communicating in these difficult times can be thought of like a title fight. First you need to be able to defend and deflect. Then you need to counter-punch. Finally, in order to win, you need to attack. But for a lot of companies in today's skeptical and challenging business environment, communicating probably feels more like a barroom brawl, where you must duck and block, defend more than attack, and not know where the next hit is coming from.

The result of this perceived embattlement is that, unfortunately, high-profile companies are holding back on their proactive communications for fear of having to address the negative news that their companies may face, which can include layoffs, plant or location closings, state or federal government investigations, and earnings warnings. (We define high-profile companies as market leaders whose brands are seen by investors, analysts, regulators, and the general public as representing their particular industry and, to a lesser extent, the general economy.) While it is understandable to want to keep your head low in the face of negative publicity, this approach simply does not work. Because these companies are high-profile and industry-leading, and because the media is hot on the trail of corporate troubles, keeping a low-profile has little impact on whether or not these stories are covered. Let's face it. If a major brand lays off thousands of employees, we'll find out, and people will talk about it. What the strategy of maintaining a low profile really does is give someone else the ability to determine under what context your company is being seen. If there is bad news, reporters will cover it and will approach you for comment. In turn, you, rightly, will respond. Of course, when doing so, you will incorporate positive messages about your company. But given the general public's increased skepticism and distrust of corporations and executives, incorporating your messages into your responses is simply not enough to instill trust and excitement in what you are doing. If you are not, at the same time, pursuing an aggressive, proactive communications agenda that addresses your vision and expertise, and provides context, the only time your audiences will hear your voice is when you're responding to negative news. In effect, you'll end up talking to them only about those subjects you'd rather not address. And that is a problem. If your audiences - be they investors, consumers, analysts, or board members - are only hearing you respond to negative news, they will assume that only bad things are taking place at your company. At best, if you've done a good job responding, your audiences will recognize that the status quo remains unchanged and that you're good at dealing with these sorts of issues. Not exactly the confidence-inspiring reaction that your company needs or that your communications should aspire to. The reality today is unmistakable - consumer and investor confidence is at its lowest point in recent memory. Not only is the economy suffering, but the reputation of scandal-plagued corporate America is also in question. As communications pros, our single most important job right now is to make the people that matter feel good about our companies and confident about their futures. In these challenging times, your audiences are looking to you for leadership. Responding and reacting are critical and unavoidable but should only represent 20% to 30% of your communications efforts. (Obviously, this number goes up during a crisis , but only for a controlled and limited amount of time). The rest of the time must be spent aggressively discussing the positive aspects of your business and people, and offering insightful commentary. Doing this requires a vision of where your company and the industry are headed, comprehensive strategic planning, strong messages, concrete examples, thorough preparation, and a thick skin. Being proactive in the midst of controversy is not easy, and we are all understandably hesitant to put our CEOs in a position of vulnerability. But we have no choice. We must be prepared to answer the hard questions in order to get our messages across and inspire our audiences to believe in and support what we are doing and where we are going. Just like a boxer cannot win his title fight by simply blocking his opponent's punches, we will not be able to win the fight for reputation, investment, and market share by simply covering up and deflecting attacks. Like the fighter, we need to come out swinging and attacking to win. Sure we'll take some bumps, but the championship belt is well worth the bruises.
  • Jack Gutt is founding principal of Vistance Group.

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