Who should be spokesperson in a crisis?

The best person to be an organisation’s spokesperson in a crisis is its leader. Unless, of course, it’s not. Expertise, empathy and credibility are key factors a spokesperson needs to possess if they are to be effective. And if the big kahuna lacks these qualities – aren’t you setting yourself up for failure by using her?

You can lead a horse to water...but CEOS?

Expertise is needed to be able to discuss all relevant crisis issues. Without this expertise, the leader will come across as unprofessional and insincere. The lack of sincerity perception stems from them being seen as not caring enough about the situation and the impact it is having through his lack of knowledge, especially if human lives or the environment are involved.

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It has been observed time and time again that unless an organisation’s spokesperson in a crisis is perceived as empathising with those being impacted on,s then she will be failing in her role. Empathy will manifest itself in a number of ways:

  • The way in which language is being used. Are people, for instance, being referred to in a caring enough manner? Are their families being referred to?
  • Actual physical presence. A leader who is able to locate herself physically at the actual site of the crisis, or within close geographical proximity, will be perceived as having more empathy with the situation and those involved than a leader who is on another continent or who is, for instance, in a capital city miles away from a mine disaster in a distant rural area
  • Clothing. Would you agree that a leader who is in high vis workwear, at the site of a mining crisis, is more likely to be perceived as having empathy to the situation than a leader who is in a corporate office set up for a media conference office wearing corporate suit and tie?

Or, on the flipside, is a corporate leader normally seen in a suit and tie going to be perceived as ‘try-hard’ and insincere by, all of a sudden, donning the gear of the ‘common man’?

The credibility factor in crisis spokespersons

The issue of credibility is relevant to both expertise and empathy. Credibility is rarely won overnight. Like reputation, it’s built up over years. And a challenge with this is that different groups of stakeholders may perceive totally different levels of credibility within people.

The CEO of a mining company, for instance, may be credible to employees and business media, but may not be credible to environmentalists, politicians and environmental media.

It would seem patently obvious to me a public relations/corporate communication etc employee should not be the spokesperson for an organisation in a crisis.

Despite PR professionals being adept at proactively communicating key messages, responding elegantly to difficult questions and effectively positioning the organisation, I would argue there is no way known stakeholders will perceive this as positively as the organisational leader putting himself out there.

What were we saying about sincerity? If an organisation doesn’t care enough for one of its leaders (if not the leader) to take the time to lead from the front in difficult times then, really, does it care at all? And if it doesn’t care – then why should I?

Being practical, however, there are subtleties to this situation. It may simply be that there is so much media wanting information, an organisation’s corporate communication leader may well need to respond to media with a smaller, and/or less geographically relevant, readership etc as the organisational leader simply can’t tick all the boxes. That would seem an appropriate use of resources to me.

Desire – impacting on the credibility of crisis spokespersons

One challenge it is not unusual for anyone leading corporate communication for an organisation to face is having a CEO who does not like being interviewed by the media. Escalate this to a crisis situation and, um, it’s only human nature that this dislike turns just a little bit more passionate.

At the end of the day, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.

If the CEO is someone who isn’t normally the organisational spokesperson as a matter of course (e.g. for good times), then there is a strong argument for her not to be the spokesperson in a time of crisis:

  • She won’t have done the hard yards of consistently dealing with the media, so will probably come across as clumsy and lacking in expertise and empathy – not to mention she may well not have done the requisite media training, so won’t have the technical skills to adroitly manoeuvre her way through difficult lines of questions
  • Stakeholders may not attach credibility and relevance to the CEO as she isn’t normally seen in the media. Whereas they may attach relevance and credibility to the spokesperson who does normally represent the organisation.

Whilst without any doubt whatsoever there is a very strong argument for any CEO or CEO-equivalent to be adept at dealing with the media, there is a difference between what should be occurring and what the reality is.

And, yes, whilst having the desire or passion for communicating to important organisational stakeholders should be a default, considering the profound importance stakeholder relationships and organisational reputation are, sometimes it’s just not a happening thing.

So if this passion and desire does not exist, I think there is a strong case for using a senior organisational employee who does have this passion and, just as importantly, possesses the expertise, empathy and credibility to do the job well.

Multiple media spokespeople for organisations

In a crisis, to help with consistency of messaging and positioning, by default it is best to have a single spokesperson as much as possible. An assumption in this observation being that the spokesperson is doing a pretty good job!

Outside of the crisis situation, however, I am an advocate of there being multiple organisational spokespeople. As long as the organisation’s brand and positioning has been clearly defined, which includes the tone it should use in its spoken, written and visual communication, then multiple spokespeople achieves multiple organisational benefits.

Having multiple spokespeople achieves a number of outcomes:

  • It helps external stakeholders and employees understand talent is recognised and the organisational leader, for instance, is humble enough to recognise this and not want all employees to operate in his shadow
  • In enriches and humanises the brand
  • Employees operating in a specific area of the organisation will have a deeper degree of expertise on topics than employees from outside this area. By allowing them to speak on behalf of the organisation, it builds awareness of the depth of capability of an organisation
  • The ownership the various spokespeople have of certain areas of the business and the frequency with which they deal with the media, for instance, will make them more attuned to issues in the media and amongst stakeholders. This gives them enhanced capability to be an early warning issues management detector for an organisation
  • It provides ‘insurance’ for the brand if the leader or other spokespeople leave the organisation. If all media commentary is centred in one person, if she walks out the door so does a great deal of brand equity.

So, one spokesperson for one crisis. But business as usual? Multiple spokespeople is the way to go

What war stories can you share of working within a crisis and facilitating organisational spokespeople? Do you think there should be one organisational spokesperson or a number of them – in both the crisis situation and a business as usual setting?

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Crisis management approaches for small business

The principles of crisis management are similar for small and large businesses. What’s different are the economics – the cost of preparation, including the time it takes, for instance – and the resources of small businesses.

Well-Spun-PR-Ideas-for-Small-BusinessA pragmatic way for small businesses to prepare a crisis management plan is to, firstly, scope the five worst case scenarios you could face; those which would have the most significant financial impact on the business and/or which are most likely to happen.

Then it’s about doing everything you can to prepare for these crises, including how you would react to them. This includes:

  • your attitude to them
  • mechanisms of communication you would use to mitigate crisis impact (e.g. media statement; phoning some key media)
  • strategic approaches you could apply including asking trusted, credible and influential stakeholders to speak out on your behalf.

So even if these situations never occur, your business has developed the processes and the muscle to deal with a crisis.

Aspects of this post have been used in the recently published book, Well Spun: Big PR and Social Media Ideas for Small Business, by Amber Daines, Director of Bespoke Communications and an experienced professional communicator.*

Preparation is critical for effective crisis management

In the words of former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani in relation to the September 11 terrorist attacks on New York, “When I was first at the site, I said, we don’t have a plan for this but we’ll do the best we can. Afterwards, I realised that by over-preparing for other things like terrorist bomb threats and blackouts, we had indeed prepared.”

Preparation, therefore, is the key to any business dealing satisfactorily with a crisis. Importantly, it’s not a matter of if, but when, a crisis will occur because it will happen to every business.

As soon as a crisis occurs, make sure you get all the facts. Without all the facts you can’t make educated decisions. Changing decisions and approaches as facts come to light in a crisis is the reality of how these situations transpire, but minimising the surprises also minimises the ‘nightmare factor’.

The responses a business will have in relation to a crisis can vary from complete denial to complete acceptance and apology – and everything in between. It’s important to get legal advice if you are involved in a crisis.

But consider how your response will impact on your reputation and the achievement of your business objectives long-term. Once, it was de facto for lawyers to get in the way of organisations trying to communicate relatively transparently in a crisis communication situation, enflaming the situation and profoundly deteriorating stakeholder relationships.

This is not as common these days, but it remains a risk. Just as, of course, communicating without prudence and rushing to admit fault entails risk. There is a balance that needs striking and, generally, experience is the telling factor in getting it right or wrong. Which doesn’t help SMEs much, but there you have it!

The sub-text of this is, yes, it is important to know where you stand legally on a range of crisis-related issues, including public statements. Equally, however, don’t let lawyers force you into speaking about the crisis in a manner which will unnecessarily undermine your reputation, or your ongoing ability to achieve business objectives.

Sometimes, for instance, it’s best to accept responsibility, apologise and move on, even when the crisis is not entirely your fault because the public perception that the business was responsible for the crisis can be more ‘real’ than the actual facts.

In the fog of a crisis it can be hard to see this, but sometimes it’s best to take the hit and in five years the crisis will be seen as a glitch. If you don’t manage the situation effectively, however, you may not be in business at all in five years.

Speaking clearly, consistently and credibly in a crisis

Doing media training will help you articulate yourself during a crisis and will also have benefits in addition to media liaison. Without media training, unless you are already experienced talking to the media (or are some sort of natural genius) you will screw it up.

Media have very specific needs and they need to receive information in short, sharp and very articulate bites. You need to be properly trained to be able to do that.

You also need to consistently use positive language and stick to your key messages. It can be a challenge to get your key messages across and at the same time acknowledge and answer questions. Try hard not to say no comment or ignore a question, particularly now social media commentary has the potential to rip an organisation apart.

There are times when “no comment” (or an equivalent) is the only viable option, but it’s not a good look and you should prepare other options and, where possible, bridge the answer into one of your positive messages.

You also need to use a consistent spokesperson, which in a small organisation is usually the boss. If the boss is not good at public speaking, go for someone senior who can articulate calmly and consistently and in a likeable manner.

Also remember just because a journalist calls, it doesn’t mean you have to answer them then and there. It’s nearly always possible to promise to get back to them:

  • Find out what the journalist specifically wants to know about
  • In the interim, think about your the questions, their underlying issues and your messaging
  • Consider the ramifications of your answers and further questions built on your answers which could blindside you.

Crisis and communication: opportunities

Any crisis will draw value out of the reputation bank the business has built up, emphasising the importance of ongoing, proactive and positive stakeholder relations, which is what public relations entails.

It is imperative a review takes place following a crisis and lessons learned are incorporated into standard business practice. And don’t forget to consider how the crisis has opened up opportunities to more proactively build relationships with stakeholders you have not engaged effectively with before.

Have you had experience in helping SMEs manage a crisis? Do you have a story to tell? What way do you think SMEs should prepare for a crisis?

*Well Spun: Big PR and Social Media Ideas for Small Businessis by Amber Daines, Director of Bespoke Communications and a 16-year-veteran of all things media. Amber’s goal is to help small to medium sized enterprises boost their media profile without making the usual pitfalls such as bombarding journalists with irrelevant stories, investing too heavily in social media activities that don’t fit your business type or being unprepared for a media interview.

13 issues management early warning tools to help protect reputation

There are many ways in which reputation-threatening and stakeholder relationship-threatening issues can be identified. Early identification and strategic action are key to dealing with issues successfully. So having tools in place which make it easy and intuitive for a public relations professional to identify issues are a boon for reputation protection and enhancement.

Barbeque as PR issues management tool

It is true the profoundly important role issues management plays in the strategic communication portfolio sometimes seems a little out of reach to all PR practitioners. Yes, thoughtful strategic responses are required in issues management which may be the domain of those with a few years experience and wisdom under the belt.

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But all PR pros can be involved in the process from the very beginning of their career through being aware of issues management identification processes.

Market research

Evidence-based data delivered through market research will always provide the most scientifically reliable means of identifying issues and, very importantly, quantifying how widely spread the issue might be and, perhaps, even its impact.

Most research will not be done more than annually (if that), however, so this is a bigger picture type approach for most organisations. Undertaking market research also frequently manifests itself in large programs that can be somewhat unwieldy (especially including the sign off process in getting the questions and methodology approved).

Small market research programs and economy of scale

Solid, scientifically credible, evidence-based market research need not be cumbersome, however.

You can have any number of questions, starting from one, included in an ‘omnibus’ research program many reputable market research firms periodically carry out. An omnibus survey typically includes questions on a range of topics paid for by a range of organisations:

  • The sample can be statistically reliable and the methodology sound
  • You can repeatedly ask certain questions over an ongoing period of time at different junctures to help in picking up on issues of relevance to your organisation
  • The more questions you ask and the more frequently you do it the greater the economy of scale there will be for your investment

An omnibus approach provides an example of running a small market research program. It can deliver quantitative and/or qualitative research results. There is value in both.

A further option is running surveys/research through your own organisation using a platform like SurveyMonkey:

  • It’s best to have some sort of reasonable database you can email the survey to
  • It can piggyback on top of any proactive electronic direct mail (e.g. e-newsletter) marketing you may have
  • You can generate a pop-up or lightbox each time someone visits your website  prompting them to do the survey (probably annoying but loads of research points to the fact they, um, work!).

An incentivisation approach (e.g. a number of prizes) will help generate responses.

Some of the questions you ask can be overtly or subtly designed to pick up on emerging issues salient to you organisation’s reputation. It’s a cheap approach. It won’t be perceived externally as entirely credible or reliable because an organisation is running it itself and the methodology won’t be as excellent as it can get.

But the important outcome is it will greatly help in identifying issues you might want to invest more time, money and care into investigating. In essence, this is a terrific way to run an issues identification campaign more qual than quant in nature which you can take further if you feel the need.

Media monitoring

Would you agree there are three ways you can undertake media monitoring to identify salient issues to your organisation’s reputation?

  1. Formal media monitoring which you generally pay through the nose for and constantly wish you didn’t have to make the investment as the results are consistently inconsistent, don’t pick up on issues you wish it would and you spend an inordinate of time, ultimately, needlessly trawling through the results
  2. Informal , free media monitoring through sources like Google Alerts
  3. You and your colleagues’ checking media yourselves.

We’re in PR so you should obviously be undertaking at least options 2 and 3. Whether you undertake 1 depends on your budget and the nature of your organisation.

Of course, you can also refine the media monitoring brief to make your monitoring results as targeted and as useful as possible (e.g. do you really need mentions on certain topics from regional media, especially when most of it is sourced through AAP etc?).

Community and NGO meetings; protest marches

For some organisations local communities and NGOs will be stakeholders. They will often hold public meetings. Why not go along, listen in, identify any moans relevant to your organisation; follow up as necessary?

You can also attend any protests stakeholders arrange. Listen in.

Are you eavesdropping? Is this ethical? I have two answers to this.

Firstly, whatever! You are gaining information about your stakeholders and if they are bitching and moaning about you best to hear it directly through the horse’s mouth rather than mediated by the media and social media sources which may have their own axe to grind.

Secondly, as a public relations professional it is your job to truly understand what your organisation’s stakeholders think about the organisation. That way you can provide intelligence to your organisation on how it can adapt to meet stakeholder needs and/or communicate more effectively with them.

Listening at events

The point above goes to the very important attribute PR professionals need to have, that of listening. The same skill can be applied in an issues management identification approach at events which your organisation sponsors.

Whether it is a community, local council, school or other event, one of the most valuable outcomes of sponsorship is it allows you to interact with stakeholders. You get to converse with them. You have created a common ground. People will let their guards down. Free and frank dialogue is likely to occur.

Listen. Leverage. Learn.

Key stakeholder meetings

It is important for most organisations to have periodic meetings with local, state and/or federal politicians. Or industry association leaders. Or leaders of peer companies.

Often, this is undertaken informally as a courtesy. Whether formal or not, this should be a habitual program and in these meetings an effort should be taken to ask for views on your organisation and any issues relevant to it for the stakeholders concerned.

Best to ask, and know, early in the issue development process rather than do it after the fire has razed the surrounding ‘goodwill vegetation’ and there is only your ‘house of reputation’ (hopefully not a house of ill-repute) left to be put to the torch.

Are your employees listening as well as advocating?

Employees are your number one brand ambassadors. We know that. If they aren’t, there’s the first issue you need to address!

They are also an absolutely invaluable listening tool.

There is this well known cultural event enshrined within the Australian way of life. And in the USA, too, I believe. Maybe Argentina as well. Possibly it’s a meat and men thing. But don’t quote me on that.

It’s called a barbeque. And it works literally and through metaphorical application. I’ll leave that one with you.

This is where people gather in the outdoors and debate the merits and methodologies of cooking/burning meat. Other topics, however, are also discussed. When topics relevant to your organisation are discussed at barbeques, functions or other gatherings, it is your job to make sure you let employees know you want to hear about incipient issues from them:

  • Make it part of their induction
  • Remind them in an ongoing communication campaign (that isn’t rammed down their throats)
  • Recognise their assistance.

Regulated ‘forced’ stakeholder interaction

In the oil and gas industry, companies in Australia must submit environment plans to regulators as part of the process to explore for and produce resources. Through this process they must interact with a wide range of stakeholders, informing them of intended operations and asking them a range of questions.

This is an example of a legally mandated process which provides an obvious opportunity to further identify issues salient to an organisation, especially those which are emerging and have not yet had an opportunity to negatively impact on an organisation’s reputation.

What are stakeholders saying about your peer organisations?

In some cases, there may be publicly available data and/or analysis of your peer organisations:

  • It may be market research results
  • It may be documents like the environment plans noted above
  • It may be NGO or community comment based on information gathering they may have done (possibly unreliable and with ill-founded perceptions, but often it is the perception which causes reputational damage, not facts).

This is valuable information for your organisation because your peer has similar characteristics and stakeholders to you. You can pre-empt issues becoming relevant to you by proactively putting in place measures to mitigate reputational impact.

Issues management is a powerful strategic public relations activity

Issues management is the identification of issues which may impact on an organisation’s reputation, then either modifying aspects of the organisation which have caused the issue and/or undertaking strategic communication to minimise the impact of stakeholder dissatisfaction.

There are plenty who think a public relations professional has no place in interfering with the way an organisation undertakes its activities, including the nature of its products and services. This is bollocks.

There is no more important person in an organisation than the strategic communicator, the PR chief. This is because this person, if operating at the top of their game and/or being allowed to operate at the top of their game by organisational hierarchy, is actually Stakeholder Relationship Chief.

This is the person who can provide advice into what organisational activity and processes are likely to positively or negatively impact on stakeholder relations and what the organisation can/should do about it. This is not a simplistic activity. It takes solid, evidence-based data and it takes intuitive, qualitative intelligence to undertake the activity effectively.

An organisation which does not, then, consistently seek the counsel of its Stakeholder Relationship Chief, and of course take their advice, is not achieving its potential. More likely than not it either has, is currently, or will encounter stakeholder relations issues of massive significance and, hence, have its reputation negatively impacted on.

It’s true, some organisations seem to be quite happy – and even thrive? – living within turbulence, stress and problematic encounters – with a resulting poor reputation. But this is the minority. Bad reputation leads to less than desirable performance and outcomes. You do the math.

Has your organisation enshrined any of these issues identification approaches? What has been the impact of them being in place? Where have you gleaned the most useful information and insights? What other approaches exist to assist with issues identification I haven’t flagged? Come on, I haven’t mentioned social media monitoring – can someone add value on this element? Have you seen where issues identified by an organisation in their embryonic stages have simply been ignored – what were the results to reputation and stakeholder relationships?

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