Anticipation: key to crisis management

Anticipation: key to crisis management

Frank Wylie

Let us also consider the social climate in which we live and work. Many regard this as the second era of “The Public Be Damned,” the golden age of the “robber barons,” and it is increasingly difficult to establish credibility in such an alienated and antagonistic society. But, problems also bring challenges and opportunities, and public relations has never had a better opportunity to excel. Its success will be measured in terms of its ability to affect positive change, to demonstrate that it can anticipate trends, evaluate the potential, and create effective plans to manage their quick-changing evolution.

The two keys are issues anticipation and practical, well-calculated management so that the crisis is addressed not only in terms of what we want most, but also what is the best, most-lasting consensus that can be achieved. It demands a true understanding of the facts, the strengths of the opposition, the assessment of relationships between various publics, among publics and the organization, and the interplay among various emerging issues. Also, management must accept and demonstrate a top priority for issues management. Token support won’t cut it. Espousing a commitment, but not backing it up forcefully will result in accelerated failure. Issues management is everyone’s concern. It must be part of all planning processes, and it must be more inclusive than ever before. People are righteously adamant that things must be better, that they have a right to participate; or if denied that right that they will actively oppose or destroy the organization.

To prosper, an organization must address current and future issues with a new measure of frankness and honesty, a greater acceptance of the new priorities, and the vehemence with which they are pursued. It should recognize that it takes only three to stage a protest: Two with the protest signs; one to call the TV station. It’s the “now” moment in history and those who aren’t ready for it will lose.

Crisis management programs must become more sophisticated. It will mean higher costs for media and community relations, issues identification and tracking, message testing, and program practice and execution. The question is not whether these costs can be afforded, but rather that the cost of not doing them could ruin the organization. Johns Manville and Dow Corning are but two examples of companies that lost. To those, one could easily add the misadventures of Union Carbide (Bhopal), A. H. Robbins (implants), Sears (overcharging on repairs). Or, instead, one can recall how Johnson and Johnson had two recalls of Tylenol and then proceeded to increase its share of market. It is vital that your organization anticipates well, and evaluates and prioritizes problems so that they may be addressed in their infancy when simpler and less expensive resolutions are possible.

How do you keep ahead of the developing issues? By consulting the greatest variety of sources possible that include, but are not limited to: regular media (newspapers, radio, TV, magazines, Internet) and all the alternate publications you can imagine. Read, read, read and listen, listen hard. The information you need is indeed “blowing in the wind.” When your communication formula is 80 percent listening and 20 percent talking, you’re in a real learning mode. Think research. Review all the second-hand research possible. The questions they ask, and the answers they get, are part of what will be tomorrow. Don’t concentrate on the traditional media; seek the alternatives. Forget about the many ways news is repeated, concentrate on talk radio and the more popular TV situation comedies. They reveal what people are thinking about, what is becoming increasingly acceptable, and which issues are riling people most. Seek alternate sources of expertise, from union leaders to college students, executives to janitors, local politicians to newspaper editors, book store personnel to plumbers, police to waitresses. All of these have many contacts with the public, are exposed to different thoughts and emotions. Know the research findings about your industry and other similar organizations, and pay particular attention to the trade publications – the bibles of their businesses. The goal: Find out what’s going on, who’s making it happen, how it’s changing, who’s causing change, how far they are likely to take them, and how much leverage they have.

Information must not be secreted, nor should it flood forth. The goal: To get all the information you can, disseminate the meaningful data as promptly and continuously as necessary. Too little information and your organization is unknowing. Too much information and you cease to hold attention or merit belief. In these days of computers, any fool can assemble mountains of data. But the competent know how to sort the data, reduce them to meaningful, easily understood, quickly read intelligence. It’s not easy, but it’s essential.

Think media relations in the broadest sense. What is happening? Why are they following this story or that, one trend versus another, one cause more than others? Learn what editors and writers are thinking…not what they’ve already written, spoken. Establish a depth of excellent contacts, those who are the leaders in their field. The goals: to establish good relationships, to learn, and to confirm yourself as a solid source of dependable, inclusive, prompt information.

Make certain your CEO and his or her top execs recognize that an issues/crisis plan is a developing document. It represents the very best that can be known today, but must be constantly updated. Have frequent, brief, well-planned meetings of the leadership. Discuss the issues fully and rank them for their damage potential, new coalitions, growing strength, news-triggering capacity.

Make sure all echelons of management know what a crisis is, who will handle it, and that it must be handled immediately and accurately with all media and publics. Make sure they understand that “immediate” means: NOW! Make sure they also know that if it is bad news, we can soften the blow by getting it all out ourselves. Teach them that getting in and out of the news quickly is lots easier if you don’t hold back facts to ensure a second, third or fourth day’s story.

Why the mixture of formal and informal research? Because some emerging issues will not yet have made the news, but their potential can easily exceed that of those items which have. To be successful, you must be able to keep up with the many issues that are festering about you, your organization or your clients. Keeping up is the first step; interpreting their force and direction is second; creating the arsenal of effective, alternate solutions is third. Selling them to management is fourth, and having the organizational skills to modify and execute the plans promptly is fifth. Then, you must be able to modify and communicate quickly so that you can cope with the next challenge. Lastly, when this crisis is over, you need to plan the organizational review that takes a frank look at what was done and how it can be done even better next time. This should be a shared review and you must learn to take more heat than you deserve.

Also, let’s discard the concept that crisis PR is the most difficult. It’s not! If you’ve done your homework, it’s often the easiest type of management. It’s the time when many, sometimes all, resources are available to you. The CEO just wants the issue to go away and will do all he/she can to make that happen. The CEO knows that the media define an issue, but the public determines the final outcome. Had it not been for actual war on the living room TV, the U.S. would have lost a lot more soldiers in Vietnam. Forget the advice of the host of poorly written, worse thought-out books on crisis PR and crisis management. If you want a text, buy “The Crisis Manager” by Otto Lerbinger. It’s the best.

Why do some companies plan better than others? Usually it’s because they are willing to look at things honestly, make major changes promptly, and honor the letter and spirit of their plans. They welcome change as inevitable, devote their energies to coping with the magnitudes and nuances.

Consider how two organizations reviewed their problems and future. The first held discussions with its top leadership, then based its crisis management plan on the findings of that group. The second held discussions with top management to get them on board, but sought out the criticisms and weaknesses as seen by their employees, unions, customers, lost customers, public officials, general public, key editors covering their field, and leaders of protest organizations. The first built on sand; the latter on rock.

One key process is keeping everyone informed, from management to laborers, suppliers to shareholders, government to media, seniors to youth groups. You must care enough to get the facts and share them. You must care enough to want to be known, understood and appreciated. You must care enough to sacrifice some measure of current resources and success to afford the benefits of a long-term future. You must be willing to hurt today so you can laugh tomorrow.

The real trouble with crisis management is that it takes more brains and guts than many people have.

Frank Winston Wylie, ABC, APR, is professor emeritus, California State University, Long Beach, and now resides in Santa Cruz, Calif.

COPYRIGHT 1997 International Association of Business Communicators

COPYRIGHT 2008 Gale, Cengage Learning