It’s fair to say we’re living in a world in crisis, and that frequent and disruptive events have become the norm in today’s business landscape. Over the last few years, there’s been a rise in the number and frequency of crises so large that they have cascading effects across sectors, industries, nations and economies.
It’s only been three years since the corporate world abruptly left the office and went to work from home. Since then, companies have been forced to face their diversity shortcomings, take a stand on societal issues, whether the great resignation, shore up their supply chains amidst growing global tensions and account for their contributions to the worsening climate crisis. Today, we face unrelenting inflation and the ever-looming risk of recession.
We’re also facing new types of crises only possible because of the ubiquity of our digital dependence. These include (among others) the rise of disinformation, an epidemic of misinformation and mal-information, activism from every direction, a cyber-war being waged on Western corporations by unknown and unidentifiable enemies from every corner of the internet and the promise and perils of the explosive rise of generative artificial intelligence (AI).
The pervasive impacts of a digital-first landscape have only added pressure. The speed at which crises travel, the fragmentation of social networks that they travel within, and the expectations for an immediate and comprehensive response make crisis communications a high-speed sport with little room for error. And while new technologies and channels may present opportunities to understand our audiences better, to respond quickly or to target communications more precisely, they introduce significant new reputation risks.
Take Gen Z for example. We already know they have higher expectations of a company in a crisis and prioritize different issues than the generations that came before. But they use channels that are hard to monitor and influence.
In fact, Edelman’s latest Connected Crisis Study clearly shows that Gen Z is changing and will continue to change the crisis game. They are challenging companies to maintain higher standards, both in their response to crises and in their expectations around societal issues, expecting companies to lean in more than other generations do.
The 2022 Connected Crisis Study — now in its second year — shows that executives are not just worried about the impact Gen Z is having, but an increasingly wide range of issues. While some of these issues have obvious operational impacts, crises around cybersecurity, diversity, disinformation and activism can affect a company’s license to operate, its ability to keep and attract talent, and the buying decisions of its consumers.
What This Means for Communicators
In this new landscape, crisis communications is no longer the domain of consultants or those working in high-risk industries; it has become a core function that is being integrated across marketing and communications teams alike.
To survive, companies need to provide appropriate resources to match the increasing importance of crisis communications in the role of the CCO and CMO — both in staffing and the attention given to planning and training that focuses on and reflects the new risk landscape.
For those who have not yet done so, it’s high time to meaningfully integrate digital into crisis preparation and planning. This means refreshing your crisis plan to reflect the multi-functional team required to execute an integrated response, incorporating new types of risk into crisis simulations (misinformation-based scenarios, for example) and assessing the organization’s vulnerabilities across its digital ecosystem.
This also means raising the level of risk awareness across the entire organization and integrating cross-functional teams into your crisis plan. Crisis management requires diverse skill sets and backgrounds and often requires the integration of departments or subject matter experts who may not be familiar with communicating in a crisis context. All employees need to play a role in raising the company’s reputation risk resilience. Crisis communicators need to think beyond the traditional playbook and consider how to manage novel threats in an entirely digital context.
This doesn’t mean throwing everything out and starting afresh, but it does mean evolving how and where you’re gaining insights, how you’re thinking about scenario planning and preparation, and how you’re building the capability and muscle memory to be able to execute quickly and effectively across new channels and dynamics.
For those who have not yet done so, it’s time to recognize that expectations around societal issues are not going away. It’s time to move beyond ad-hoc approaches that lead to destructive, circular debates, inconsistent approaches and short-sighted decisions. Companies need to build the infrastructure to make bias-free and consistent decisions and accept that engagement in external issues is now a part of normal business practice. Participation is not optional, and silence can speak volumes — particularly to employees.
Companies need to place a concerted focus on building trust in the workplace, bringing their values to life and uniting the workforce around the company’s purpose if they are to mitigate their risks around these matters.
This means treating your employees as a primary audience. This has long been true, but now more than ever your workforce can provide a strong foundation for your response to a crisis if you get this right — or undermine it if you don’t. Our inaugural Connected Crisis Study revealed that more than two-thirds of executives have seen employees speak out to criticize the company’s approach to a societal issue.
Finally, organizations need to take a long, hard look at the ways they’re protecting trust in a crisis, and better match their actions with the expectations of younger generations. Ensure your crisis responses are audience-centric and adapt your approach accordingly. It’s easy to give this lip service, but it can often get lost in the rapid-fire response to a real-life crisis.
If your priority customer base audience lives primarily on TikTok, make sure you know how you’ll turn around fit-for-purpose content for that platform on a dime in a crisis. If you have direct channels of communication with key stakeholder groups, take advantage of that. Traditional media relations remain important, but it can’t be your sole focus and it won’t reach your audiences as effectively.
In this chaotic world of constant crises, businesses must recognize reputation as a strategic asset and a material risk to be constantly nurtured and protected. This means that crisis communicators must be intimately connected to culture and understand how emerging and evolving issues might affect operations. It also means we must be able to sense and anticipate issues and address them effectively across a wide array of digital challenges.
Most importantly, effectively managing the impacts of crises today requires principled leaders that recognize the value of investing in and maintaining a digitally savvy crisis communications function. One that can adapt at the speed of technology and culture, and one that is reflective of today’s digital-first information landscape.
Learn more about crisis communication from Dave Fleet and Greg Vanier at IABC World Conference 2023 in his interactive workshop “Crisis Management in a Connected World” on 4 June in Toronto.
Dave Fleet and Greg Vanier
Dave Fleet has been advising companies on reputation management and digital communications for more than two decades. As Edelman’s Head of Global Digital Crisis, Dave helps companies around the globe to navigate digitally-driven crises, dynamics and channels in order to safeguard their reputations.
Greg Vanier is the Head of Crisis & Reputation Risk at Edelman Canada. As a respected communications strategist, Greg works with some of Canada’s most recognizable and influential brands. His client roster includes Fortune 500 companies, not-for-profits, and government agencies.