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There is a clear choice in how the team that runs the reputational dimension a crisis is comprised: communication and reputation management can be run either as a stand-alone process or integrated into a team that addresses the crisis’s logistics/operations side making it, therefore, a more holistic approach.

Teamwork and integration critical for crisis communciation

There are benefits to both approaches, but embedding communication/public relations with the logistical/operational side of the crisis wins out according to two leading Australian corporate communication and issues and crisis management professionals.

Integrating communication into holistic crisis management

“My preference is to have a ‘combined’ team dealing with both crisis response and crisis comms,” says Tony Jaques , owner and director of Issue Outcomes.  “The reason is that I feel the alternative sets up a differentiation which is unhelpful.

“I have given this issue quite a lot of thought over time and I feel that a combined team serves to very strongly emphasise that crisis management is a truly cross-functional activity, of which comms is an important part, but not really more important than others.

“I was running an issue management workshop for a client recently on a very strongly legal issue and the question was asked whether there should be a separate legal issues management plan developed. I think the answer to this question is the same.

“There is sometimes value in establishing a ‘sub-team’ for specific purposes, but the core crisis team must retain overall responsibility.

“Does having a separate comms team mean the spokesperson would necessarily be part of the comms team, or would that person be a member of the ‘core’ team? Thinking in terms of responsibility and accountability, I believe best practice becomes almost self-evident.  It is the crisis management team which must be seen to be in charge, including the most senior managers, with a comms sub-group acting only on delegated authority.”

Craig Badings, a director at Cannings, agrees with Tony.  “Definitely merge the two together,” says Craig.

“Why?  Because I have seen too many crises when it becomes clear that the planning was done separately and as a result the left hand doesn’t know what the right is doing. This puts the business under enormous pressure.

“The danger of planning them apart is that the operations’ crisis plan focuses on what it thinks is most important – business continuity, with little thought given to the external communication pressures and demands this will place on them and senior management.

The two have to work seamlessly with very clear responsibilities (e.g. the CEO will likely spend a lot of his/her time dealing with various stakeholders almost in a full-time communications role with little time available for operational issues).  These are the sorts of things that need to be taken into account in the planning so when it does happen the business doesn’t crumble under the pressure.”

The importance of public relations for permission to operate

An operations/business continuity/logistical-focused management of a crisis needs communication for its objectives to be realised to the best possible effect. For instance, when it comes to business continuity it may be necessary to liaise with stakeholders such as industry associations, regulators and business partners (e.g. suppliers, customers etc).

Even if it is not these stakeholders’ communication professionals that business continuity needs to liaise with to ‘fix’ the issue and retain/gain permission to operate, the communication professionals in these organisations will frequently be called upon to handle activities in regard to their own reputation. In this case, clearly there needs to be multiple layers of communication that occur between different stakeholders and it will be a smoother process if public relations is at the heart of the crisis management process.

Permission to operate is important both as a logistical reality with many crises as well as a fairly vivid sub-text when it comes to reputation management.

There may be organisational stakeholders that don’t actually decide if an organisation should be allowed to continue to operate in a official capacity, but they sure as hell influence whether this will actually occur (not to mention influence share price impact, an ability to expand operations, make new acquisitions, attract new and quality employees etc).

You only have to look at the recent (and ongoing) example of chemical company Orica’s PR crisis and the issues it is having with local residents and councils – not to mention the NSW state government that has been giving them a pounding.

Crisis communication: an opportunity for public relations credibility

Enhancing the credibility of public relations may not be a sufficient reason for integrating communication/public relations into a sole crisis management team, but it is certainly a corollary of doing so.

In a crisis situation the importance of communication and reputation management becomes very apparent, even to those most averse to recognising the power of public relations. No CEO is fond of having the organisation he or she runs hammered by the media, politicians and 3rd party analysts.

Because of this reliance that different vocational disciplines have on public relations, it should help the latter become a stronger part of organisational culture. And to fully leverage both the opportunity that a crisis presents and the power of public relations, a review of what occurred in the crisis is the perfect time for the public relations team to present rationales why it might just be that the organisation needs to evolve for two reasons:

  • To better meet the needs of its stakeholders
  • To enable the organisation to meet its long-term business objectives.

Do you think that communication/public relations should be incorporated into the core crisis team responsibilities, or be a separate entity? Has the credibility, stature and impact of public relations increased in organisations you have worked in after a crisis? In your experience, has applying a public relations two-way symmetrical communication mindset post-crisis helped your organisation meaningfully evolve?