Crisis Management: Much more than effective communications

By Terence Fane-Saunders

Chris was in New York for the weekend. On his first evening, in the lobby of his Murray Hill hotel, he fell into conversation with one of the most beautiful girls he’d ever seen. They went for a drink, then took a lazy, aimless walk, until they found a little Italian restaurant. It had candles on the table and romance in its garlic-laden air.

For the rest of the weekend they were inseparable. Susie was amazing. It wasn’t just that she looked like an angel fallen to earth, it was the way she talked – funny, wise, sympathetic, kind. Chris thought he might be falling in love.

On their last morning, Susie had to leave very early to catch a flight. She gave Chris a kiss and a “Hshhhh”, and told him to go back to sleep. She dressed in the near dark, with only the street light filtering around the edge of the window blind. And then she was gone.

Two hours later Chris finally climbed out of bed, yawned, stretched and looked around him. And that’s when he discovered that his money was gone. And his wristwatch. And his phone. Now he knew the truth about Susie.

Chris learnt a lesson that day which a lot of companies still haven’t learnt. Looking great and talking sweetly just isn’t enough, if the way you behave is dishonest or harmful. Very quickly, there will be no trust, and without trust your relationship’s as good as dead.

In my experience in crisis management, well over half the crises that arise do so not because of a failure in communications, nor because of an image problem, but because of something that organization (or that individual) has done. If your actions (or inaction) lie at the root of the crisis, then before you even begin to think about protecting your image, you need to take a hard look at those actions, consider the implications on reputation and relationships and decide what actions you may now take to protect those relationships.

Of course effective (two way) communications must be central to the great majority of crisis management processes, but in the same way that professional public relations is now rightly recognised as being about more than just communications and much more than media relations, so crisis management needs to encompass a range of PR skills and disciplines beyond the simple communications and media relations functions.
Communications Played No Part

Here’s an example. A few years ago, I had a call from the CEO of a well-known manufacturer. He told me the firm had decided to withdraw from a sector of their market, and, therefore, would be closing down the subsidiary that operated in that sector. We both realised that the PR challenge would be exaggerated by the fact that this particular subsidiary had by far the highest profile of any in the Group.

But there was worse. “There could be quite a PR backlash, Terence”, he explained in a worried tone. “We’ve decided not just to close it down. We’re making it insolvent”. This, effectively, meant that, with the full protection of the law, the Group could walk away from any debts incurred by their insolvent subsidiary. Unsecured creditors, including their many subcontractors, would find themselves badly out of pocket. “The Finance Director has done the math, Terence. The insolvency route will save us more than five million. BUT… ” He raised his voice sensing I was about to interrupt, “we realise that this will be a real PR challenge. A lot of people will be very angry. We’ll need first class crisis comms”.

“No you won’t”, I said. “You’ll need first class crisis strategy. And as a first step in that strategy, you need to change your plan. Insolvency just isn’t the way forward”. So we argued the point. Although I could not spell out the precise costs with the detailed precision of his Finance Director, I argued, the reputation costs would be just as real and just as great. Probably greater. “Reputation isn’t just a warm glow in the pit of the chairman’s stomach”, I told him. “It’s hard business. It’s contracts. It’s new business. It’s licence to operate. It’s employee morale and recruitment quality. If you as a Group walk away from your debts, just because you can, your name will be mud. Business will leave you. New business you should have coming, will give you the swerve. There will be a real cost, in hard cash, not just warm feelings, and that real cost will be a great deal more than the five million the FD says he’s going to save.”

The CEO was sympathetic. He had instinctively disliked the insolvency route, but the five million saving had been hard to argue with. “Look, can you do me a paper on this? Spell it out like you have to me. The Board are meeting at the weekend, and I’ll table this as a Board paper”. So that’s what I did.

On Monday morning the CEO rang me. “We’re still closing the business. But we’re standing behind our debts. The insolvency plan has been dumped. But you’re not the FD’s favourite person”.

So, here we had an intensive and successful crisis management project, and communications had never featured. It was all about strategy and behaviour, and the effect of that behaviour on reputation and relationships.

So, in crisis management, the first step always is to understand the implications of what you have done, and of what you are going to do, even before you begin to communicate. But there are a couple of other messages to be drawn from this story, too.

First, it’s the “prophet in his own land” message. Sometimes it can be very difficult for anyone within an organisation to challenge the consensus. Group Think prevails. When this is the case, often only a respected, expert, external dissenting voice will have any impact. This may be a lawyer. It may be a senior PR consultant. It might be a non-executive director. But it’s wise and important for any organisation under attack to ensure that it has access to this kind of external support and perspective, otherwise it will be navigating through the hazards with only tunnel vision to see it through.

Second, it’s the credibility of counsel. In many ways, PR is a young person’s profession, demanding energy, enthusiasm, imagination. But in crisis management, grey hairs come into their own. It’s not enough to be brilliant, knowledgeable and committed. When a management is under attack, it needs to know that the advice it’s getting is from someone who has been around the track many times before. It’s not enough just to be right. His or her opinion needs to carry weight. And that weight will have had to be earned.


Common Sense and PR Skills May not Get Through, Either

But if crisis management demands more than effective communications, it also requires specialist, professional understanding of the particular, sometimes counter-intuitive rules that apply during crisis or disaster. Here, sound common sense and professional public relations skills may no longer be enough.

Imagine that you are head of marketing for the market leader fizzy drink in a particular country, state or region. Over the past year, one of your competitors, perhaps second in the market, or even third, has been making inroads into your market share. One morning, one of your sales force reports back to you in great excitement about a rumour doing the rounds concerning that competitor. The rumour is that a worker has fallen into a vat of syrup overnight, dissolved, been bottled, and is now on sale on supermarket shelves across the area.

The word is, the salesman tells you gleefully, that your competitor’s sales are beginning to slide as the rumour gains traction across schools and playgrounds. You may feel an uncharitable but understandable rush of joy. Bad news for your competitor has to be good news for you, you might think. But you would be wrong. It may seem counter-intuitive, but this bad news for your smaller competitor is even worse news for you. You need to know your crisis management rules, and one of these is that rumour gravitates to the market leader. If on a Monday morning a rumour popped up concerning, say, Wendy’s Burgers, you can be sure that by Friday it will have become a rumour about McDonalds.

In crisis or disaster, you need to understand that things often work differently, and that the public relations techniques that serve you well in normal times may not be right for the special conditions you are now facing.

Look, for example, at information overload. In a crisis or disaster, the affected public may be swamped with information: complex, detailed, sometimes contradictory. For many, it may be more than they are willing or able to process. They are often desperate to find coherence and shape a narrative, but the tsunami of information pouring over them from all sides makes that very difficult. What do they do? It’s important you know this. They simplify, often to the point of distortion.

Knowing that this is what happens, the effective crisis manager may want to adjust his or her communications strategy if there is a threat of information overload. Instead of pushing out rich content, full of detail and validation, it may be better to simplify messages to their barest bones – to a level far simpler and more basic than might be appropriate in normal times.

Similarly, it’s important to understand the tendency to information shortcuts. There’s a famous example dating back to 1976, cited by political scientist Samuel Popkin, where Mexican American voters decided that they distrusted Gerald Ford as a political candidate when he showed that he didn’t know how to eat a tamale. That one, simple, symbolic image was all that was needed to fix an entire political persona. In crisis, the tendency to information shortcuts can be very much greater, creating both threat and opportunity. There is also the tendency, as Popkin pointed out, to irrational escalation. Having taken the information shortcut, the response to later, contrary information is often in fact to commit even more strongly to the initial perception.

If this indicates the value of the “first mover” position, creating the first narrative to be adopted, this is reinforced by a wealth of academic research into the process known as “stealing thunder”; that is, when bad news about an organisation is broken by that organisation, rather than by a third party. There has been mixed research as to whether this reduces the quantity of publicity, but it has been convincingly demonstrated that it significantly improves the balance of positive to negative content. Sometimes management facing the implications of a serious and damaging development will hunker down, hoping somehow the story will pass, until eventually it leaks out from a third party. It may be useful for crisis management professionals to be able to advise early disclosure, not merely because this seems the right and sensible thing to do, but because there is a weight of researched, academically validated, empirical evidence that stealing thunder, breaking the news yourself, will significantly improve the way you are treated in the media.


Crisis Informatics 

Dr Christine Hagar, the Crisis Informatics pioneer, has done some important work looking at issues such as information overload, and the particular way that social media function in a crisis situation. One aspect that comes through very clearly in her writing is the understanding that in crisis, you will often have to work by different rules. Although a US-based academic, Dr Hagar has done some ground-breaking work on the UK’s Foot & Mouth Disease crisis, and the impact this had on Britain’s rural communities. One of the important areas of research she covered was the role of rumour and gossip.

For most PR people, rumour and gossip have not featured as areas of studied or serious communications discipline. But perhaps they should be. Professor Robin Dunbar has pointed out that normally around 65% of speaking time is devoted to social topics which might, loosely, be described as gossip. So, this is a hugely important information vector, anyway, and one that merits real attention. But in a crisis, as the affected audiences wrestle with incomplete or untrusted sources of information, the role of rumour and gossip intensifies. A crisis management professional will have considered and planned how to monitor rumour and gossip among key stakeholders in time of crisis, and also how to intervene and inform those processes.

In passing, Christine Hagar also points out how men and women tend to gossip in different ways – men largely focussing on news and developments, whilst women show greater interest in feelings and emotional responses. Here again, understanding the science can inform the strategy. If the crisis or issue you are managing is of significantly greater female interest, you may plan your interventions and communications to reflect the needs and tendencies of that audience. But if your target is mostly male, you may structure your content differently.

Informatics experts like Christine Hagar have also paid a lot of attention to what happens when normal or traditional sources of information transmission are interrupted or become dysfunctional. When the 7/7 bombings in London occurred, famously, the phone networks were paralysed. Crisis communications strategies that depended on normal contact processes just didn’t work. In fact, it takes a great deal less than a major crisis to take out the phone systems. In one British city recently, a tree fell across the main road leading out of town. Nobody was hurt, but it was rush hour. The sheer weight of numbers of people calling to say they’d be late home was enough to paralyse the networks. If your crisis management plans depend on normal communications systems and strategies, then you are probably dangerously exposed.

Constantly, in crisis and acute issue management, you have to be alert to the fact that you are working with different rules which are often counter-intuitive. Bad publicity, for example, can be good news, if you have the guts and imagination to work outside your normal comfort zone. In the UK recently, a campaign promoting awareness of pancreatic cancer ran a series of ads showing sufferers of pancreatic cancer, under the slogan “I wish I had breast cancer”.

This campaign caused widespread outrage. Radio call-ins, newspaper leaders and letters to editors were jammed full of protests and condemnation. And yet…..and yet….

The fact is that people know far too little about pancreatic cancer. But they know a great deal about breast cancer, and almost every protest, every condemnation, actually helped correct that imbalance, because in every case it had to address the core message : why does this person wish they had breast cancer? The campaign may have been roundly condemned. But it actually did a great job for the pancreatic cancer cause.


Behavioural Psychology;  At the Heart of Crisis Management

If crisis management draws you into a strange Lewis Carroll world where normal rules may not always apply, then it’s important to develop an understanding of the differences. Here, a basic knowledge of behavioural psychology has to be a requirement for any crisis management practitioner. For example, take the process known as fundamental attribution error. Put (perhaps a little too) simply, this reflects people’s tendency to place emphasis on internal characteristics rather than external causes when judging others’ actions. The example normally cited is when we see a fat person. We tend to assume that they are fat because of personal characteristics – greed, laziness, a weakness for doughnuts. We tend not to assume that a medical or genetic cause is at play.

But, when we judge or explain our own actions, we tend to do the opposite, pointing to external causes, rather than personal characteristics. Carry this over to crisis management, and the professional crisis manager will gain a useful insight into the different characteristics of internal and external perspective. There is an explosion in a factory, and three people are killed. Management will want to explain in terms of external causes – the heat of the day, a blocked pipe, a problem with fuel mix. But the external audience will be thinking in terms of the characteristics responsible – poor management, cheapskate tendencies, other shortcomings.

Recognising these different needs and perspectives, the professional crisis manager can steer management into communicating in a way which addresses likely external responses, rather than simply and unproductively explaining from the internal perspective.

In fact, behavioural psychology is becoming a hugely important discipline in the business of crisis management. An external adviser working with a Board who are under extreme crisis pressure needs to understand the group behaviour patterns that typically emerge – famously, Groupthink, but also a range of other characteristics such as narrowed information processing (the threat-rigidity effect) excessive optimism, and collapse of sense making. Recognising these changes, and knowing how to manage them must be a central responsibility for any external crisis consultant.

But equally important may be the understanding of group behaviour among key audiences and stakeholders. The heat of crisis impact can create patterns of group behaviour – tribal loyalties, herd response, fresh patterns of danger processing etc, which will directly impact on how these stakeholders respond to the organisation’s crisis management strategies. And all of these are hugely increased and accelerated by the arrival of social media, allowing the digital herd to be formed and informed with breathtaking speed. If the organisation has no understanding of this, if its crisis management capability is blind to the science of crisis management, then it’s seriously at risk.

If you are working in crisis management, it’s essential that you do know the science. Time and again it will help you shape strategy and decide tactics. Take, for example, the research that’s out there on attention decay. Studies show that stories on the Net which offer breaking news decay in attention shortly after they are published. But analytical pieces continue to receive attention. So, if you’re thinking about the balance of your on-line crisis communications, this information can help you decide. In the same way, your tactics may be better shaped if you know about the research following Hurricane Katrina which showed that, in crisis, interactive information is preferable to static. People affected by the disaster were drawn much more than normally to interactive information sources, and made less use of static ones (web site information etc).

If you browse the Internet for articles and blogs about crisis management, you will find a couple of characteristics. Firstly, the content is dominated by discussion of communication. Secondly, the insights offered are largely common sense allied to standard professional public relations practice. There is very little attention given to crisis management beyond the comms role, and little understanding of the growing body of scientific study setting out the particular, often surprising characteristics of crisis behaviour, both within the organisation and among its external stakeholders.

Of course, professional communications must always be a central plank in any crisis management strategy. But it’s vital to recognise that crisis management is about much more than communications. In the same way, it’s also essential to understand that effective crisis management is not simply the urgent application of normal PR techniques and strategies.

When crisis strikes, the rules change.

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