A crisis is a time of high pressure and scrutiny for the communications function; but also a time of opportunity. The function can show strategic value when faced with acute reputation risk. It is also well placed to play a leadership role in crisis preparedness, bringing functions, businesses and geographies together to help ensure the wider organisation is ‘crisis ready’.’
UNDER SCRUTINY AND PRESSURE
A look at any crisis will show just how much communication is happening, and expected. The tragic crash of EgyptAir flight MS804 on 18 May provides a recent example. As soon as the plane went missing, the world’s media was looking for information.
Politicians were demanding answers, and making their own assessments. Families wanted news. Internal audiences – from flight crew to board directors – sought reassurance. Behind the scenes, communication within and between companies and teams would have been high volume and high intensity. And social media was alive with speculation.
So much of a crisis response is judged by the communications: this, after all, is how stakeholders hear about what has happened, what the organisation at the heart of the crisis is doing about it and how it feels about it. When it doesn’t go well, the organisation’s overall response can look weak and ineffective even if it is doing the right thing.
As the emissions scandal unfolded in 2015, Volkswagen’s strategic response to the crisis – involving long-term cultural and systemic change – was sound, but its communications were slow and opaque.
Also last year, Thomas Cook allowed the lack of an apology and a communication breakdown between the company and the family of two children who had died on a holiday in 2006 to become front page news for days.
FROM TACTICS TO STRATEGY
In a crisis, the communication function is busy. It will be managing the media, monitoring and analysing online and traditional media coverage, running a social media response, coaching the spokesperson, developing content, devising and overseeing an internal and stakeholder engagement plan, and much more.
But there is much more to crisis management than a tactical communications response. At a senior level, crisis management is about long-term reputational, financial, commercial and strategic decision making. And the head of communications needs to be part of this.
The head of communications sits – or certainly should sit – on the crisis management team (CMT) as one of its core members. No crisis should be managed without communications at the top table. In the CMT, the head of communications is sitting in a pivotal place: bringing the outside in by telling the CMT what is being heard by stakeholders ‘out there’; and bringing the inside out by having overall accountability for telling stakeholders what has happened, what the organisation is doing and how it feels about it.
Over the years, we at Regester Larkin have seen first-hand what does and does not work in crisis management. When things go wrong in a CMT, it is often because there has been a failure to set and stick to strategic objectives, a failure to think like stakeholders and/or a failure to assign and coordinate resources.
A CMT therefore needs someone who is clear-thinking with access to senior executives, emotionally intelligent with an external lens and who can work across functions with a wider enterprise mindset. The functional leader that most fits this role is the head of communications.
Senior communications professionals know how actions will be received by stakeholders and what actions are required to show the care, concern, commitment and control that will ultimately help the organisation protect its reputation as the crisis unfolds. This is therefore about actions as much as words.
The head of communications can also show leadership and add value by playing an integrating and aligning role in a crisis. He or she should possess the skills and enterprise wide outlook that the organisation needs to drive integration between functions, businesses, teams, geographies and levels of response. In particular, the communications function is likely to be working closely with HR (employee and family response), legal (content and sign off), investor relations and subject matter experts.
SHOULD COMMS OWN CRISIS PREPAREDNESS?
With such a central role in crisis response, should communications have accountability for crisis preparedness within the organisation? Possibly, but not necessarily.
Communications needs to ensure its own functional preparedness of course. The roles mentioned above need to be codified, assigned, trained and tested. Crisis communication procedures must be drafted and aligned with the strategic crisis management manual and other operational procedures. Beyond communications, wider crisis management doesn’t have a happy home.
This is because crisis preparedness is about bringing many different functions, geographies and businesses together and ensuring buy in at the most senior levels of the organisation. But someone must own it and someone must take responsibility for driving preparedness. It is not always appropriate for communications to have responsibility for crisis preparedness.
Indeed, in most organisations, crisis preparedness is managed by an operational function such as risk or security. This is because many organisations still see physical risks, such as fires, crashes, attacks and so on, as the most likely triggers for a crisis and crisis preparedness has emerged as an extension of incident management.
Other organisations – those, such as financial services or healthcare companies, where crises are more likely to emanate from issues than incidents – tend to give responsibility for crisis preparedness to communications.
Whether communications is responsible for crisis preparedness or not, the function must play a central role in the development of a crisis management capability in an organisation. The function usually enjoys close proximity to senior leadership and is able to access and influence the wider organisation.
The Arthur W Page Society, a professional association for chief communication officers (CCOs), encourages its members to embrace the role of ‘chief integration officer’. In a recent report, The New CCO: Transforming Enterprises in a Changing World, the society stresses the CCO’s ability to ‘drive cross-functional collaboration and integration around strategic priorities’.
In the same report, a member is quoted saying, ‘those CCOs who have very strategic roles within an organisation naturally act as the integration chief. They have the ability to look out across the entire organisation, within businesses and across other functions, to understand goals and integrate messaging and activities. Reporting structure rarely matters here.
What matters is getting parties to the table to work well together and see the value of integration’. Crisis management is the ultimate moment where such cross-functional, cross business thinking and working needs to come together. Communications can be the integrator.
CRISIS AS AN OPPORTUNITY
A crisis is an unwanted opportunity. Some organisations have emerged stronger from a crisis, or used the focus a crisis brings to drive organisational change which may not otherwise have been possible.
For the communications function too, a crisis is an opportunity to show the strategic nature of the function; to show it at its best. And crisis preparedness provides an opportunity in peacetime too.
Even if ultimate responsibility for crisis preparedness lies elsewhere, communicators need to grab this opportunity: not just in preparing the communications function, but helping and aligning others too.
And for good reason: when the crisis strikes, the communications function will feel the pressure. It will be glad of the efforts it put in on behalf of the wider enterprise.