‘Chief Crisis Officer’: Why Aren’t Companies Better at Crisis Communications?
This is an excerpt from CrisisResponsePro founder James F. Haggerty’s new book, Chief Crisis Officer: Structure and Leadership for Effective Communications Response (ABA Publishing). We will post other excerpts to the Knowledge Exchange periodically. In this section, Haggerty discusses why organizations aren’t better at doing crisis communications.
Why aren’t companies more skilled at crisis communications? In my experience, hubris is certainly one reason.
If you examine a crisis that’s spinning out of control, you’ll often find a situation where two things happened: (1) The company in question thought it knew better and didn’t need a plan . . . didn’t need advice . . . didn’t need to be ready; and (2) as a result, they started too late with a sharp, cogent and effective response.
In fact, many successful organizations I work with in these situations started out the process feeling that preparing for a crisis and responding quickly and effectively out of the gate didn’t apply to them. They all had some type of reason:
- The company isn’t big enough, or didn’t face these sorts of crisis situations often enough, to be concerned about effective response.
- Their issue is just too complex for pre-planning.
- Their industry is already too maligned; therefore, effective crisis communications wouldn’t have any real impact (or, alternately, their industry is so highly regarded that they can withstand any attack).
- The company or executive in charge was once in a similar situation—a year, or 10 years, or three jobs ago—and it went away on its own. So they think that, because they got lucky once, it’s far more effective to bury issues like these rather than confront them. Hell, it worked before!
Yes, many, many companies out there have believed this . . . and they’ve all been wrong. In my experience: Every. Single. Time.
- They were wrong about what was needed during the initial stages of the crisis.
- They were wrong about being proactive and heading off negative stories.
- They were wrong about the impact that being proactive could have on the course of events.
They were wrong about all of it.
The fact is this: You can prepare effectively. You can anticipate scenarios that might affect your particular organization. You can explain even the most difficult issues successfully to your target audience.
In other words, you can do it.
Too many companies take the approach that if a crisis is going to occur, it’s going to occur. It’s our turn. We’ll just keep our heads down and suffer through it and see what we can do to rehabilitate ourselves afterward: Maybe we’ll sponsor a golf tournament or make a donation to a children’s charity.
Why? Why is there an unwillingness to accept that proper crisis communications techniques are worth the effort?
Part of this willful ignorance is basic human nature: Company leaders don’t want to be going through a crisis. They want the crisis to go away. There is a natural human tendency to think that if you ignore something long enough, it will go away. You want to put the issue to the side, say and do as little as possible, and go back to the positive stuff—the things you like to work on. Maybe you’ll get lucky and you won’t have to deal with the issue at all. Maybe that smoldering ember won’t turn into a raging fire. Maybe it will be extinguished before it spreads.
Well, maybe . . . but are you really going to build your organization’s risk management strategy on maybes?
This type of thinking is the equivalent of not going to the doctor for fear the doctor might find something wrong. Clearly, this is not a great way to safeguard your health or the health of your family members and loved ones. Yet, in the organizational context, sometimes we don’t take some simple preventative steps to ensure long-term health.
In the end, I can only assure you to the best of my ability, based on a quarter century of experience: This stuff works. Crisis communications planning and proper execution during a crisis can make a tremendous difference. It won’t solve all your problems, but if you are properly prepared, you’ll put your organization in a better position for handling them. You’ll be ready to give the proper level of attention to crises as soon as they crop up (or, even better, when they appear about to) rather than ignoring them until they spin out of control. Again, I emphasize that this doesn’t mean you come out guns-a-blazing for every minor issue facing your company. Sometimes you can do more harm than good that way. But it does mean you take the situation seriously and put the proper protocols in place to ensure the appropriate level of response to minimize the crisis event.
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