I have often written and spoken about trust and empathy, optics and self-awareness as they relate to avoidable PR blunders. Notably, it’s usually not the PR people committing the PR blunders, but the executives who we expect to know better. I have long believed that many reputation/PR crises occur when executives either get bad advice or fail to heed good advice. In some cases, executives don’t even seek advice.
PR executives, working with risk management, legal, HR and other key functions, play a critical role in identifying issues and recommending actions to address threats to the organization’s brand. Unfortunately, organizations have routinely underfunded communication departments and the related staff that can deliver the intel needed to help executives make better-informed decisions before they create a reputational crisis. The same is rarely true of typically well-funded legal and risk management functions.
Communication professionals, like attorneys, can identify problems that may erupt and recommend to management actions that can help prevent smoldering issues from exploding into brand-killing crises. Communication pros have visibility into the day-to-day goings-on with stakeholders that can pinpoint problems, which can impact the court of public opinion. Likewise, attorneys are directly involved in compliance, risk and liability issues that can impact outcomes in a court of law.
When a smoldering crisis erupts, PR professionals and attorneys often are accused of having opposing goals. While PR pros usually focus on humanizing a crisis with transparency and protecting an organization’s reputation in the court of public opinion, attorneys concentrate on the court of law and minimizing the risk of adverse legal action. Both are important goals.
For the attorney, that mindset often drives a desire to share as little as possible in the heat of a crisis. The attorney’s role may be that of devil’s advocate, the worst-case-scenario pessimist who can help the communicator understand the myriad ways that ill-conceived or hasty communication can do more harm than good.
The PR professional understands the importance of quickly controlling the narrative (to the highest extent possible) and making sure that the company’s story is told accurately. We recognize that nature abhors a vacuum, and that rumors and misinformation can quickly dominate the crisis narrative in the absence of both compassion and firsthand facts.
The midst of chaos is the worst time to try to convince the attorneys that immediate communication is required to try to contain the damage. By focusing on risk assessment, crisis planning and preparedness, including a comprehensive crisis communication plan, the PR professional can help attorneys to get comfortable with strategy and the initial statements that need to be made quickly.
Attorneys play an important role in crisis communication strategy, not in dictating messaging, but in helping strike the balance between fulfilling stakeholders’ need for facts and protecting the company from undue exposure to liability. Understanding each other’s job helps communicators and attorneys to work together to assure that the organization can win both in the court of public opinion and the court of law.
Social media surveillance and communication measurement tools also need better budgets to deliver the intel needed to make sound decisions. Some organizations make a token attempt at social media, but executive management does not supply the resources to leverage the social listening tools needed to gain earlier insights into online activities that may explode.
Communication teams with insightful, experienced leaders and proper resources can supply invaluable support to executive management. I have worked with some remarkable professionals in PR and legal who recognize the powerful impact of communication on crisis outcomes. They deliver carefully designed strategies that use the power of words to shape opinion and drive behaviors that support organizational mission, vision and goals.
So what’s my point? Leaders, make sure you build a communication function that can deliver the power of words to achieve your goals. Provide adequate resources along with a clear vision and assure communicators can work with their colleagues and obtain the intel needed to move the needle.
Comm pros, keep up with the technology and tools you need to build the strategy, measure the results and make the business case for the investment. Work with your colleagues and determine how their data can inform your recommendations. Know how your organization functions. Build the relationships needed to assure that your colleagues come to you early when issues arise, so you can gather facts, assess and make recommendations to contain the problem, and prevent a PR crisis. It’s a big lift, but you can do it!
Deborah Hileman, SCMP
Deborah Hileman, SCMP® is President and CEO of the Institute for Crisis Management (ICM), a consulting firm specializing in crisis management and communications planning, training and consulting services.
A globally certified strategic communication management professional (SCMP®), business leader, trainer, coach and consultant with more than 35 years’ experience in public and private companies and non-profit organizations, Ms. Hileman has led high-performing teams in health care, manufacturing, insurance and financial services, nonprofits and higher education. Her most significant areas of expertise include strategic communications planning, reputation and crisis management, change management, employee engagement, media relations and communications training. She understands crisis: she is a FEMA-trained NIMS Incident Commander with experience as a national EMS public information officer during numerous hurricanes.
Known as a voice of calm in the midst of chaos and crisis, Ms. Hileman has earned a reputation as a trusted communication strategist and advisor to board members and C-suite executives, operations leaders and other organizational stakeholders. She has developed and implemented successful communication strategies for numerous business issues, including mergers and acquisitions, bankruptcies, closures and layoffs, natural disasters, labor strikes, controversial development plans, criminal prosecutions and federal civil investigations, workplace violence, executive malfeasance, investor litigation, wrongful death, harassment and abuse investigations, social media attacks and cybercrime, among others.
A regular speaker and writer on business communication topics, Ms. Hileman is the author of “Attorneys as Allies: Balancing Stakeholder Needs with Legal Concerns During a Crisis”, published in the Writer’s Guidebook, Vol.2, PR News Press; "Building a Crisis Early Warning System by Empowering Employees to Speak Up", published in The Book of Employee Communications Strategies & Tactics, vol. 5, PR News Press, and "In a Snap: 15 Tips for Faster, More Effective Employee Communications in a Crisis", published in The Book of Crisis Management Strategies and Tactics, Vol. 8, PR News Press. She is a featured columnist in PR News’ Crisis Insider. She has delivered training and lectures at several U.S. colleges and universities, including Notre Dame, Marquette, Cornell, and the Universities of Chicago, Kansas and Miami.
Ms. Hileman lives and works in South Bend, Indiana. A proponent of lifelong learning, she earned her bachelor’s degree in public relations from Purdue University and a post-graduate certificate in public administration at Indiana University. She has completed executive education programs at the Universities of Denver, Michigan and Virginia; Northwestern University and Stanford University. She is a member of the Public Relations Society of America and the International Association of Business Communicators® where she is a past International Executive Board member. She has served on several nonprofit organization boards and is a Past Chair of the Global Communication Certification Council®, the only ANSI/ISO Accredited international certification body for communications professionals.