The Crisis Communications “Point Guard”

posted by James Haggerty  |  September 30, 2017

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This is an excerpt from PRCG CEO James F. Haggerty’s new book, Chief Crisis Officer: Structure and Leadership for Effective Communications Response (ABA Publishing): 

In the context of the Chief Crisis Officer, you’ll often hear people refer to having someone in place to “quarterback” the response effort when a crisis event or other sensitive issue confronts an organization, but I think the most apt analogy is that of a “point guard” in basketball. The skills that make a basketball player a good point guard are particularly applicable to those needed in the role of Chief Crisis Officer.

First, for those of you who have never played basketball or followed the sport closely, let me describe the role of a point guard. Simply, a point guard is the player who directs the offense on the court. The point guard’s job is to know the playbook by heart, assess the situation before him or her, and look for opportunities. At times, this means taking the ball to the hoop themselves, and at other times, it means passing off to another player in the best position to score. Sometimes called the “on-court general,” the point guard — while usually the smallest player on the court — is often the most important to success.

Point guards dictate the tempo of the game by how they bring the ball up the court and what they do with it when they get into the action. They have one eye on the defense, another on the shot clock. They are thinking about where they are in the game, how many time-outs both teams have, and the matchups in front of them. Point guards need shooting skills certainly, but more importantly, they need passing skills, ball-handling skills, decision-making ability under pressure, and what is known as “court vision” — the ability to see the entire situation unfolding before making a decision on which play to run.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? In many ways, the perfect Chief Crisis Officer is like a point guard. Consider the following:

A good point guard can make all the difference. A point guard brings the ball up the court, directs the offense, and distributes the ball to other players on the team. Without such a leader, the team flounders. With such a leader in place, everyone is at the top of their game, and the team executes the fundamentals.

This is also true in crisis matters, high-profile litigation, and other complex public perception events. The lack of a sure-handed leader — a skilled Chief Crisis Officer directing the action — can lead to failure. Public implications of developing crises are ignored until it is too late. No one is properly explaining what is happening: to investors, regulators, employees, and other influential audiences. Ill-conceived public statements, slapped together at the 11th hour, do little to help. Companies fall back on clichés that simply reinforce the sense that the event is spinning out of control.

The ideal Chief Crisis Officer understands that it falls on him or her to be the point guard for your organization in the heat of a difficult corporate crisis. You’ve got to coordinate the right defense and run an effective offense — moving the ball down court, anticipating what’s going to happen next, and passing at the right time to team members who can score.

You can play the game at their tempo . . . or you can play it at yours. In basketball, you can play an “up-tempo” game (pushing the ball up the court at a breakneck pace), a “set” offense (taking time to execute defined plays, sometimes with several passes before every shot), or some combination in between. A good point guard dictates the tempo of the action and gets the other side playing his or her game, not theirs. If the other side is constantly on their heels, responding to the point guard’s latest move rather than running their own offense, your team is probably winning.

Let’s translate this to crisis communications response: If you spend all of your time responding to chaotic events that seem to be spinning out of control — or commentators or opponents’ characterization of issues and facts — you are probably losing. I advise clients confronting crises to start playing the game at their tempo: Make your arguments and explanations effectively — especially in adversarial situations — and force opponents to wrestle with your facts for a while, perhaps facing questions about their own motivation and characterization of the facts. Get them back on their heels. Bring in key third parties to reinforce your views. Rather than just responding, playing the game at your tempo opens new avenues of communication that begin to reshape the debate. When you start dictating the tempo, good things happen.

You aren’t going to win every time you execute a play. No matter how good your point guard is, you’re still going to miss a few shots, even lose a few games. Yet smart organizations, like good sports teams, know that a “season” lasts a very long time. They don’t dwell on today’s loss, or take their ball and go home in the face of any particular setback.

A high-profile crisis will usually be a negative experience for everyone involved. You are going to take your hits. The only question is how hard, how long, and to what effect? Media coverage can ebb and flow over weeks and months —sometimes years for those crises with a “long tail.” In more drawn-out crises like investigations and litigation, facts and evidence develop over time, and today’s devastating news coverage can be overcome if the Chief Crisis Officer and his or her team remain steadfast in their messages, themes, and commitment to ensure that the public understands their side of the story. Organizations that give up after one bad story are playing for a single game and not for a winning season.

Chief Crisis Officer: Structure and Leadership for Effective Communications Response is available on Amazon and at fine booksellers everywhere. 

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