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Head to Head: Is crisis communications in crisis?

Mumbrella invites the industry's senior PR professionals to share their opposing views on the industry's biggest issues. This week, Rebecca Wilson, CEO at WE Buchan goes head to head with Sefiani Communications' chairman and reputation counsel, Robyn Sefiani on whether or not crisis communications is going through a crisis.

Is crisis communications having an identity crisis? We Buchan’s CEO Rebecca Wilson argues that the traditional approach to crisis communications is no longer relevant and unless business start adapting to the change which is already here, their businesses are going to be left very exposed.

Meanwhile, Robyn Sefiani says while crisis communications and management is rapidly changing, “human judgement is still at the forefront of crisis management decision making and messaging”.

Who do you agree with?

Yes, argues Rebecca Wilson, CEO at WE Buchan:

Wilson says: “The traditional approach to crisis comms is no longer relevant”

“We are living through extraordinarily turbulent times and operating in a world inspired and influenced by technology – full of change, threat and opportunity – where every business is in motion as a result.

“In such an accelerated environment, friction is inevitable. Issues are inevitable. And crisis can follow. Every business in every industry is vulnerable in this climate of uncertainty. And in a proliferated digital media environment, being crisis and issues ready is still important, but it’s not enough.

“The traditional approach to crisis comms is no longer relevant – that is, the linear process of assessing risk, identifying stakeholders, understanding the level of impact, and using known – and somewhat controlled – channels to engage and influence, doesn’t adequately reflect the world of motion we’re living in.

“Put simply, there is a crisis in crisis comms with few organisations evolving their issues and risk management processes to adapt to the change that is not coming but is already here. This leaves businesses increasingly exposed.

“With the explosion of communication platforms, escalation channels are interrelated and magnify issues rapidly. They’re also increasingly activism-led. Listening, monitoring, and tracking escalation is essential to determining the process and timing of intervention. Online data is both the uncontrolled beast in issues management, and also the hero, as predictive tools enable issues to be red flagged at the genesis, at both an organisational and industry level.

“Too few organisations acknowledge this imperative of around the clock ‘listening’ while constantly matching information against the needs of all stakeholders, whose expectations continue to increase.

“Our proprietary Brands In Motion study shines a light on a harsh reality when it comes to corporate reputation with nine out of ten respondents saying they would have no hesitation joining in public shaming if a business stepped out of line. Further, more than two thirds said they expect leaders of business to take a stand on important issues. But are they? In a world of fickle support and active antagonists, leaders need to reconsider their approach to issues, and the often inevitable escalation to crisis.

“They need to adopt a robust yet nimble approach to mitigating and addressing known or potential issues, which should start with a solid understanding of where their business sits in terms of its reputation versus its competitors and the expectations of stakeholders. They should also deploy an active social listening program that allows key issues relating to their business and industry to be quickly identified, monitored, and responded to as required.

“Ultimately, boards and management need reassurance that their corporate reputation is being actively managed in a dynamic environment where potential risks and escalation no longer follows traditional paths. Put simply, the most successful corporate reputation management programs embrace the world of online, borderless connectivity.

“Being able to show, through data, ongoing tracking and management of risks will help crisis comms address the current crisis it is facing; it will also ensure it has its rightful seat at the governance table, as well as remain a priority in communication teams.”

No, argues Robyn Sefiani, chairman and reputation counsel at Sefiani Communications Group:

Sefiani says: “human judgement is still at the forefront of crisis management decision making and messaging”

“No, but it is rapidly evolving and that’s a good thing.

“Organisations are increasingly caught by surprise with members of the public snapping incidents on their smartphones and sharing content and commentary on social media. Fake news spreads like wildfire, driven by a 24-hour news cycle and the power and immediacy of social commentary. And research points to the lack of trust the public has in large organisations.

“In this context, savvy businesses have community managers and/or social listening tools to raise the alert to a trending issue or crisis incident so crisis communicators can swing into action to explain, refute or deal with an incident.

“Despite advances in technology, human judgement is still at the forefront of crisis management decision making and messaging. While the channels by which organisations receive and convey information has driven a new paradigm in crisis communications, the fundamentals still remain:

“Readiness: knowing the risks and planning for their mitigation through a crisis audit and preparedness approach; crafting, re-evaluating and updating the crisis communication plan; testing the plan in a crisis drill exercise with the crisis management team and media-trained spokespeople; ensuring holding statements, communications templates and video are at the ready and saved on a crisis management platform accessible by crisis team members wherever they are in the world; and monitoring social and traditional media and social listening platforms for crisis alerts.

“Response: responding swiftly and authentically direct to the public through social and digital channels as well as to media, authorities and influencers; issuing an apology if warranted; sharing new information as soon as it comes to light; monitoring media and social channels for public sentiment and reaction through the life of the crisis.

“Reassurance: taking control of the situation and the messaging; staying on top of the facts and sharing them quickly; being honest, empathetic and authentic; briefing third party experts who may serve as reassuring advocates.

“Recovery: applying the learnings from the crisis incident and communicating these clearly while moving fast to reputation recovery and rebuild. Throughout this phase, measuring social sentiment and conversations to inform recovery communications.

“The majority of recent crises have been driven by bad behaviour and poor culture – be it in the banking and financial services sector, the #metoo movement or significant privacy breaches. Commissioner Haynes’ interim report from the Banking Royal Commission described the unfolding scandal in Australia’s financial services sector as ‘bad behaviour driven by greed’. As a result of these and many other crises, Board members and the C-suite now clearly understand the critical importance of effective crisis communications to protect reputation and company value. Board Risk Committees are expected to ensure the organisation not only has an operational response plan in place and tested, but a crisis communications plan as well.

“A recent example of effective crisis communications was the rapid response to Australia’s needles-in-strawberries crisis, where after the initial incident no-one was injured and harsher new laws for fruit contamination were swiftly introduced by the Federal Government to deter copycat incidents. An organisation presenting its face to the world has to protect and defend its reputation. Try telling a company in crisis that crisis communications is not relevant! The value and relevancy of crisis communications has in fact increased, not diminished.”

At CommsCon 2019, WE Buchan’s Rebecca Wilson and Michelle Ryan will discuss how protecting and managing your brand needs a fresh approach that combines consulting power with digital analytics, channel and content strategy. Essentially, businesses can’t be reactive, they need to become actively ‘resilient’.

Buy your tickets here to see the duo present the ‘Crisis Comms Is Dead: Why You Need To Take It Further’ session.

  • As told to Abigail Dawson. If you’re a senior PR professional who would like to take part in a future Head to Head, please email abigail@mumbrella.com.au
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