Crisis Communications: Tackle the Toughest Challenges
By Lauren Tran
From scandals and misconduct to branding gaffes, crises are certainly dominating today’s news cycle and paving the way for major changes across nearly every industry.
But what’s it like behind the scenes of a major public crisis? For an inside look at how communications experts prepare for potential issues and navigate through challenges when they arrive, NYWICI invited leaders to share their best tips at a Cocktails & Conversations event, held March 13, 2018, at Mediacom headquarters.
Moderated by Stephanie Fierman, Chief Marketing Officer of MediaCom, the panel featured: Dawn Dover, Managing Director of Kekst and Company; Pamela Gill Alabaster, SVP Corporate Communications & Corporate Social Responsibility with Revlon Inc.; Kerry Golds, Director with Finsbury; and Davia Temin, CEO of Temin and Company.
Here’s what we learned, starting with a few crisis basics:
Pamela: When you’re very successful at managing issues and crises, people don’t see it. You don’t know it’s happened because it’s behind the scenes. So if you’re the kind of person who likes recognition and praise, when you’re best at this job, people don’t know that you’ve done anything.
Davia: I believe what we do has a social responsibility to it. I believe we have to help organizations become truth tellers. Not stupid truth tellers—you can spin the truth, but you can’t lie. I believe that this profession actually has a higher calling: In the world we’re living in today, truth seems to mean nothing, trust seems to mean nothing and manipulation and nastiness seems to be everything. In the breach of a moment of crisis, you have some moral obligations.
Dawn: The most important thing is honesty—honesty with yourself and with everybody else. The other important thing is having some humanity and being outwardly focused. In an organization, it’s all too easy to think about yourself and about winning, selling and beating the competition. The language of crisis is very different. It’s about owning humility, it’s about humanity, and it’s about putting yourself in another person’s shoes.
Can you plan ahead for a crisis?
Kerry: So much [of crisis communication] is preparation and getting those muscles flexed before you need them. There’s still a good chunk once the crisis hits. Depending on the breadth and depth of the issue, you need to be able to sustain momentum and keep people focused over a long period of time. It can take months or years to get through some issues, so keeping focused and disciplined during that long tail is important.
Dawn: I’d say it’s 95 percent before. Companies do not want to understand their risks because they’re afraid. There are always skeletons in the closet. What crisis preparation helps you do is identify what those crises are. They can be unpredictable, but you can prevent a lot if you have a comprehensive way of looking at crises.
Davia: In today’s world, the unpredictability is such that it is significantly more than 50 percent where you can’t plan for it. If you think you have a crisis plan and you use that, you’ll be taken off track because you’re going to be trying to keep to something that doesn’t respond to the realities of what that specific situation is. In that right moment, you have 15 minutes to respond to something on social media, otherwise someone else highjacks it and you will lose control.
What kind of crisis response is heard the loudest now?
Davia: These days, somebody who’s guilty and somebody who’s not guilty could be saying the exact same thing with the exact same emotiveness and we couldn’t tell. It used to be that with corporate-speak, responses would not be that resonant. But people now have gotten it. So they’re giving a resonant, authentic kind of quote, but they still could be lying.
Davia: It’s seen as a legitimate profession now. I think about it as communications, and I think about it as strategy and management. There is real power to change. For me, that positive impact and the ability to have it is the most positive thing there is.
Pam: Having a CEO who really wants to take a stand on important issues, issues that are important to society and reflect the values of the company, and really leaning in. I find that really exciting and very different from the old days, when CEOs were barely brought out in public to talk to analysts.
Are social media a friend or foe in crisis situations?
Dawn: It’s a great early warning system but we see a lot of companies trip up because they’ll think something’s a huge issue, when really it’s only been 12 tweets. We have to be really careful with social media. It is something you think about with crisis management and PR across the board that you don’t want to get into a tit-for-tat with everybody who doesn’t like you. It has to be a really smart strategy, which includes third-party validators and really smart content on your website that you can link to.
Kerry: In terms of planning, it’s more and more integrated. Writing tweets for different scenarios, different messages for Facebook and LinkedIn, having them approved ahead of time by legal counsel and others so that when something happens or there’s a milestone, you’re prepared to respond to comments as appropriate.
Pam: From a branding communication’s perspective, social drives the day now. It’s always-on content. We can barely keep up with the amount of content we need to generate across brands, across platforms and channels. For crisis, every time we do a scenario, it’s how many characters for that, what’s the voice and tone for that. It’s very much part of our planning and strategy.