Back in the day – when I first started out in Communications – I passionately wanted to work in issues and crisis management. As a former lawyer, and litigator at that, the dynamics were in many respects not dissimilar and it struck me as a perfect fit.
Well in my time on the job I have learnt to be careful what I wish for – having had more than my fair share of interesting times: regulatory changes which fundamentally impacted corporate business models, unfortunate comments by key management, natural disasters, workplace accidents, insolvency, corporate raids – to the point that I am this trimester teaching crisis management to undergraduate students at Deakin University.
This month's IABC Vic professional development event, that examines crisis in its many forms, and my new role as a lecturer and tutor, have caused me to reflect on just how much the discipline of crisis communications has evolved over the past 10 years or so. I remember studying Strategic PR and Media at a time where there was only a cursory salute to digital – largely in the context of research and certainly no consideration of the impact of social media.
No-one can deny that the rise of social and also the shift to a 24 hour news cycle have fundamentally changed the way in which organisations and individuals need to engage with their stakeholders – and never is this more so than in times of crisis. We have seen some excellent examples of this in action – see the handling of the 2011 Queensland floods and more recently the floods in Calgary, Canada – and some not so exemplary examples. A certain oil company's response to a major incident out at sea springs to mind. The pressures of 24/7 are enough to wear out even the most steadfast of CEOs and spokespeople. Agility, speed, frequency and accuracy of response are critical – so how do we as communicators prepare for this? And how do we reach audiences in circumstances where regular electronic channels expected to carry our messages may be down – or even not used by some audiences?
Another key implication of the shift to social and digital is that of forced transparency, and what that means for messaging. How do we deal with this? What shift in messaging do we need to develop and implement to address the reputational consequences of having your whole life – as an individual or for that matter an organisation – laid bare.
What you said in the past can come back to haunt you once tastes and values shift. US Clothing label Abercrombie & Fitch discovered this the hard way when brand positioning statements made several years ago by the CEO, about who he was targeting as customers – came back to haunt him and the company earlier this year. Stakeholder tastes, values and tolerance levels for certain comments and behaviours had changed. This gave rise to campaign of protest and boycotts and although it is unclear whether this was a contributing factor to the company's 17% fall in sales, both are indicative of an organisation that is out of touch with the thinking and values of a significant cohort of its key stakeholders.
Another challenge raised by social and digital is the greater accessibility of statements made in one context to one audience, to members of other audiences who may receive that message in a totally different context. This has always been a risk, but the speed and virality of social media has thrown it into a whole new realm. What are the implications for organisations of how messages are received by audiences other than those for whom they are intended? Myer CEO Bernie Brookes' comments, on the impact of NDIS made to analysts at an investor briefing earlier this year, which subsequently gave rise to an online protest campaign calling for a customer boycott of its stores, immediately spring to mind.
There is no more "flying under the radar" as the digital and in particular social radar is all-encompassing.
Whilst I'm not suggesting this is cause to panic – the rules of engagement have certainly changed and now more than ever organisations whose culture is based on trust and transparency should flourish whilst those whose do not will inevitably struggle.
What does this mean for us as communicators? For one it means ensuring that our leaders understand this. It means embracing our traditional role as boundary spanners to firstly help our organisations, our colleagues, understand the needs of the environment and various organisational subsystems in which they operate and secondly to ensure that the strategies we implement and messages we craft not only address the current strategy – but will also stand the test of time. Never will this need be greater than when developing communications to prevent or deal with a crisis.
For an expert discussion on issues and crisis management – join us for our next IABC Vic event – lunch next week at Deakin University's CBD Conference Centre. The lunch will feature a keynote address by renowned crisis expert Tony Jaques followed by a panel of experts whose collective experience spans sport, utilities, aviation, telecommunications and emergency services: AFL, Motorola, SP Ausnet, CFA, SES, Jetstar – and more. The panel will be moderated by none other than 3AW's Steve Murphy. Details of our presenter and panellists are available at: http://vic.iabc.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/We-eat-crisis-for-lunch-IABC-Vic-event.pdf
Numbers are limited and tickets are selling fast so if you are interested be sure to Register Now
That's all from me. Have a great month.