Crisis management and the need for CEO leadership

Commentators around the world commonly promote the CEO as Chief Communication Officer, or as Chief Environmental Officer, or occasionally even as Chief Reputation Officer.  But what best practice requires now is the CEO as Chief Crisis Management Officer, and that is much harder to “sell” along the mahogany-lined walls of the executive suite.

Issue and crisis management

Of course the role of CEO as spokesperson in a crisis is well known and well understood (including the fact that there are good reasons why the CEO is sometimes NOT the best spokesperson).   However that activity is purely responsive – it’s about what gets said when the crisis has already struck.

This is a guest post from Tony Jaques*, an internationally recognised consultant and authority on issue and crisis management.

Yet the true role of CEO leadership in crisis management should be much more, and public relations practitioners have a real opportunity to identify and help develop that broader responsibility.

Crisis management as executive responsibility

The concept of crisis management as an integrated executive responsibility is a key theme of my new book, Issue and Crisis Management (Oxford 2014).

It shows that comprehensive crisis management extends from long before the crisis with identifying issues and potential crises; through introducing and activating effective crisis prevention and response; and continues long after operational resumption to include post-crisis risk issues such as inquiries, inquests and adverse legal action.

It’s not surprising that a crisis situation turns the spotlight on leaders as the human face of any organisation.  As US reputation expert Leslie Gaines-Ross says:  “Just as CEOs receive most of the credit when things go right, they are also expected to accept the majority of the blame when things go wrong, particularly in times of crisis.”

Leslie Gaines-Ross research found. “when crisis strikes, nearly 60 per cent of the responsibility for the crisis is attributed to the CEO.”

CEO: more than a spokesperson in crisis management

One result of this attention on the CEO is that a lot of the available material concentrates on the role of the leader as spokesperson in a crisis. But I believe that if CEOs understood better how much blame they will get for the financial and reputational  damage when things go wrong, they just might be more willing to take a more active role in helping prevent the crisis happening at all.

If they need any further convincing, you need look no further than the seminal study by Les Coleman at Melbourne University, which examined Australian crises over a ten year period. It found that more than a quarter of those crises cost the organisations concerned in excess of $100 million, and about one in four of the organisations failed to survive.

In my own research interviewing Australian CEOs about crisis preparedness, it became obvious very quickly that top executives simply don’t see crisis management as their immediate priority.

As one CEO told me:  “People prioritise based on day-to-day issues and pressures. And, hopefully, on more than 99% of days, crisis management is not an issue or priority. Consequently, I think there is a tendency for people to put it off.

“When it’s time to do the crisis management stuff, there is always something else which is more important in the short term. It’s a matter of planning and priority setting and leadership.”

Accountability and opportunity in crisis management

Crisis (and issue) leadership is about much more than just speaking on behalf of the organisation—albeit a crucial responsibility.  Public relations practitioners are in fact ideally placed to help promote what I propose are basic criteria for true crisis leadership:

  • Leaders need to be able to help identify issue and crisis threats early and have the forethought to assign sufficient resources to make a difference.
  • They need to break down functional barriers to drive the integration of issue and crisis management systems.
  • They need to be able to recognise that issues and crisis may represent an opportunity as well as a threat.
  • Most critically, they need to provide an example to managers throughout the organisation to take personal responsibility for developing and implementing effective issue management plans to help prevent crises happening in the first place.

It might seem like a tall order, but it might also be the difference between organisational survival and extinction.

What role do you think CEOs should play in crisis management and why? What experience do you have of effectively undertaken proactive involvement in issues and crisis management from CEOs and executive leadership?

*Tony Jaques is an internationally recognised consultant and authority on issue and crisis management.  He writes Australia’s only specialist issue and crisis e-newsletter, Managing Outcomes, and is author of Issue and Crisis Management: Exploring issues, crises, risk and reputation (Oxford 2014)

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Which of the six types of public relations professional are you?

The six types of PR professionals are: leaders, inspirers, creatives, synthesisers, galvanisers and project managers. Which one are you!?

Of course, you may be more than one simultaneously (or think you are…). And to some degree, the typology above will be reflective of your career journey. Equally, however, I’ve known practitioners straight out of university in their early 20s to, indubitably, be leaders and inspirers. And on different days of the week and, indeed, different times in a single day we may need to wear different hat ‘types’.

At our core, however, I’m interested to hear what you think about the types I have identified, what characterises these types and what I have missed out on, got wrong and, hopefully in some cases at least, got right! Please comment at the end of the post!

Leaders in PR – showing us the way

Clearly, leaders lead through their behaviour, not what they say or how they say they’ll act (e.g. walking the talk). Otherwise, in my books, they aren’t really a leader.

A grandiose title and being in charge of lots of employees doesn’t bestow leadership upon a person, at least not in the ideal (which sounds unrealistic but I’m actually being absolutely pragmatic, as walking the talk is about the most pragmatic thing to achieve results a leader can undertake) and useful sense I am concerned with.

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One of the most powerful characteristics of a leader is that they can be trusted. They follow through on what they say they will follow through with and they treat people with respect and, where appropriate, confidentiality. This trust will be founded, hopefully, on the fact they actually care about those around them – about them as people as well as the nature and quality of their work.

Leaders will always give public credit to those who they collaborate with and not claim undue, or unbalanced, credit for themselves. Sharing this credit and recognising others empowers people. And it reflects well on the person who shares this credit.

Conversely, the leader will protect those who report to them, standing up for them as appropriate in difficult situations.

Inspirers: the wings of an eagle

Leadership, obviously, will inspire people. As will those who are creative and produce stellar business outcomes. As will those who are effective collaborators.

Perhaps inspiring others is an inherent quality of truly effective leadership. But I think it’s worth calling out as being a particular type, too, as so often our activities outside of work and the way we deal with these challenges can inspire those who know us, whether they are colleagues or not.

The way we behave, therefore, just like with leadership, is the ‘platform’ on/through which we inspire people.

In a professional context, one formidable way of inspiring people is by seeking to achieve, and actually achieving excellence. These are two separate things. In many cases, the seeking is vastly more important than the destination. This restless, relentless striving to achieve the best we can be is where we exhibit what sort of person we are.

The only fail is failing to try, I tell the boys I coach at football – and it is equally applicable in the professional world of public relations and business.

Creatives – at the heart of PR

Well, where would we be in public relations without the creative types! Sure, all of us are capable enough to come up with the odd good idea, but there are those who are absolutely characterised by this quality. And they definitely do not always seek to lead or be the big boss.

I’ve seen this quality manifest itself time and again in the PR agency environment. It is an absolute winner as a characteristic to have in this context as new business pitches are won and lost on the creative dimension. (I see this as a far more critical element in winning business than agency reputation or rigour.)

And if you’re in an agency which doesn’t win new business, in turn the agency will fail and you’ll be out of a job.

It’s a quality I particularly value in in-house practitioners, too, but it doesn’t materialise in this context as often, at least in my extensive experience. In-house practitioners can be mechanics, doers, project managers etc and do this admirably and successfully, without necessarily needing to be particularly creative.

It would be expected, however, that even the most plebeian meat and potatoes type (another type?!) of PR pros will add some creative value to, at least, the process of undertaking the work, if not the nature of the actual project/task itself. It may not be as glamourous as the ‘big idea’, but innovation in how to actually get the job done can add much value, including saving time = saving money.

Which leads us neatly to….

Synthesisers – the hidden geniuses of PR

Maybe I should call this type the ‘creative synthesiser’, as that’s what I mean. Synthesisers take creativity from whatever sources input ideas into a project/topic/etc and value-add through two means:

  • Coalesce the divergent ideas into a seamless, integrated whole which takes the best out of each contributory shard to produce an holistic masterpiece
  • Value-add through building on the creativity which has been offered, adding new ideas and coming up with further, compounding (‘viral’, if you like) notions which, once again, help devise an holistic masterpiece.

This is an underestimated type of genius, in my view, and is in many cases founded on an ability to collaborate effectively and understand the genesis of many of the ideas which have been suggested. That way, going to the roots of the various creative ‘shards’, our synthesiser protagonist has access to the mother lode of inspiration at the core of the ideas.

Of course, as we can be a superficial lot, sometimes understanding the genesis is entirely unnecessary. It could be the creativity is resulting in a fabulous launch party and its the glitz, fizz and absolute fabulousness of it all which prompted the compelling value-adding and its integration into an holistic masterpiece.

But enough about me.

Galvanisers

When putting together this dichotomy, I pondered the entrepreneur as a distinct type. But then I decided it is perhaps this is similar enough to the galvaniser to group them together.

I think every PR practitioner needs to be entrepreneurial to some extent, not only those who work in mid to higher levels of PR agencies or in in-house leadership roles (though I recognise you could cogently argue the case for inspirers being in the same boat).

And I think there are different enough qualities between the galvaniser and the project manager to make it worthwhile flagging both as unique types.

The galvaniser recognises the creativity, sees the opportunity, then takes a stand to pull all the potentially wayward strands together. It’s an important role. And it is one which good managers (aka leaders in another guise) are experts at.

Project managers

Project managers make sure the job gets done. It takes rigour, intelligence, people skills and discipline. Creativity is not necessary, but without these PM types we’d be lost. We all need to be a project manager at times, but to tell the truth I wouldn’t particularly fancy to be categorised as one myself.

I’m afraid my ambitions are greater than this. So accuse me of being hubristic, then, as in this case I may well be guilty as charged.

What specific ‘types’ of PR practitioners have I missed or inappropriately called out as a specific type? Do you have examples of how the types noted have manifested themselves in your career?

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Social media is death to dialogue (and public relations)

One of the great fallacies of social media is that it is a boon to dialogic communication (sic) and interactivity and, hence, public relations*. In actuality, it is characterised more by the viral compounding multiplication factor, which manifests itself through replicated sharing with minimal or no value adding.

Tsunami of fatuous social media information

This, essentially, defines social media as primarily a broadcast medium, rather than an interactive one. So instead of communicating WITH each other through social media, we are using it to communicate AT each other.

*Public relations cannot work unless there is dialogue embedded within it. Dialogue is fundamental to at least two key characteristics of PR. It provides the best possible means of:

  • understanding stakeholders’ positions on issues
  • manifesting empathy towards stakeholders (though of course behavioural change by the organisation illustrates the best sort of empathy-in-action!).

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So while social media should be a boon to enabling dialogue (and hence public relations) to be effectively implemented, it very often simply isn’t up to the task. Two reasons for social media evolving in this way could be:

  • the harnessing of social media by commercial interests as a means of marketing products and services (i.e. to sell stuff)
  • society’s predilection for using it as a means to brain dump inane chatter, thus clogging up the communication channel with so much junk people have, often, become inured to it as a credible means of gaining information and communicating WITH people.

Social media for cretinous commentary

It can be argued that simply by RTing ,sharing et al, online posted content is being injected with the sharer’s credibility and imprimatur, but that is still not the same as contributing to the dialogue. And it’s a very long bow indeed to pontificate that it’s remotely value-adding, either.

While we all are known to some degree for our position on certain issues, with this stance ostensibly casting a shadow or veil over the content which is being shared, without the value of explication this will rarely offer sufficient clarity on the sharer’s stance, especially to those who are more than one step of ‘separation’ from the person who originally e-articulated the content.

Social media is the lazy person’s means of making something known, too. A simple RTing means, ‘I don’t have to think much or add value as I’m letting the initial content do the intellectual heavy lifting’; I’ll just (hopefully) look smart through association. God knows I’ve been guilty of this myself often enough. And generally this just adds to the information noise out in the e-ther.

I raise my e-glass to the power of less!

Raillery as the missing e-ingredient

I say: forget the cursory upload or sharing of content which does not have value-adding integrated.

To echo the stupendously wonderful Robert Dessaix, we want raillery (light hearted criticism) to enliven the e-cosmos. Criticism can be negative, positive or neither – simply analytical and observational.

But raillery is analysis which makes you smile through its gentle teasing and play. I’d like to think it’s one of Australians’ better national characteristics.

Social media as Narcissus’s ‘mirror’

Another failure of social media is encapsulated in a further non-social media-specific observation of Dessaix’s, that of individuals within western civilisation’s tendency say what they think as a sort of “angry narcissism”, with people “locked within an endless loop of self- reflection”. E-narcissism anyone?

This is a good description of how social media is used as a mechanism through which tsunamis of fatuous, self absorbed information are paraded like trophies, when even to describe this information as the emperor’s new clothes is to overestimate its utility and resonance.
Dessaix classes this as “conversation avoidance”. Hardly the dialogic platform social media is meant to exemplify.
Dessaix has further implied, if not the death, then the traducing of the term ‘friendship’ by social media. Facebook, I cast the stone at thee. Facebook, the evil home of ‘friending’. where vague acquaintances are elevated to friends. The commoditisation of friendship.  Can social media go any lower?

Further, most social media-driven ‘additional’ commenting (hardly value-adding!) on the initial content is facile and/or solipsistic. Marginal, at best, from an interactivity and dialogue perspective.

Clearly, there will be resistance to some aspects of this social media rant! What are your thoughts? Have I underestimated the current value of social media to corporate communication/public relations? is social media more interactive than broadcast, as I define it to be in this post? Can you give examples to illustrate your point (which, clearly, I haven’t!)

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