Why the old crisis comms playbook should be thrown out

For crisis communications, it’s a data obsession that will deliver results in the future.

Though there has been a pressing need for PR pros to show tangible results for their work, such as adopting measurement best practices like the Barcelona Principles, the COVID-19 pandemic offers a clear turning point for crisis communicators.

“It’s no longer acceptable or even preferable to just go on your experience alone,” says Robert Gemmill, senior vice president at Argyle, an agency that focuses on trust and reputation management. “I think there’s a number of tools out there now that practitioners should rely on that puts data at the foundation of their counsel.”

Robert Gemmill, SVP Washington, D.C., Argyle

Robert Gemmill, SVP Washington, D.C., Argyle

That doesn’t mean that listening software and artificial intelligence can replace the human element. Brands still need experts to make sense of the data—but a gut feeling is a poor foundation for a modern crisis communications strategy.

Everyone owns reputation now

Gemmill also argues that brand reputation can no longer exist as a siloed communications problem.

“COVID made it abundantly clear that there are no silos anymore, and reputation needs to be addressed at every level of the organization,” he says. That requires a communicator to develop deep relationships across departments in advance. Gemmill says it is crucial to loop in HR, IT, finance and general counsel, to name a few, and make sure all players are “on the same page.”

Organizations must do constant work to make sure that the entire organization has the same readiness plan ready to be activated if a crisis strikes. “When something like (COVID-19) hits and it’s just handed over to the communications department,” Gemmill warns, your response is not going to be prepared to activate in time.

The new playbook

So what does the new crisis playbook need to look like? Perhaps it’s instructive to first look at what isn’t working from the old playbook.

“For years, crisis communications teams have been tasked with coming up with a very tactical playbook, and that playbook could be anywhere from 20 pages to 100 pages long,” says Gemmill. “It lists all of the stakeholders and all of the messages. It’s very detailed about who to contact if X happens at Y time … so you can flip to page 47 if something similar to a scenario happens.” However, Gemmill warns that this exhaustively detailed approach can still leave organizations—particularly C-suite level leaders— unprepared to take action.

“Simulations and trainings are becoming more and more important,” he says, “and making sure that you’re constantly reevaluating your risk profile, and that the scenarios in your communications approach are in line with your organizational approach as a company.”

Holistic crisis comms

Crisis communications is no longer the art of spinning CEO missteps to avoid public fallout, bury bad news or provide cover for disastrous errors. That work is still being done—but fewer and fewer PR pros want to take it on.

It’s the kind of work that Evie Smith, founder of Rebellious PR, specifically set out to avoid when she started her own PR shop after years in Silicon Valley. “I was not interested in having to spin when brands messed up in some way,” she says. “Whatever it was, it was usually the brand’s fault.”

Evie Smith, Founder, Rebellious PR

Evie Smith, Founder, Rebellious PR

However, in 2020 amid COVID-19, social justice movements and more, every communicator is a crisis communicator, and Smith and her team had to pivot to help their clients tell the whole story about themselves and their values. “Everybody is in crisis,” she says, “and anybody who is doing PR has to somehow kind of get their crisis bearings.”

That’s when her team developed flow charts—themed around the character David Rose from the TV show “Schitt’s Creek”—to help organizations build in some basic workflows for the next inevitable crisis.

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Crisis response diagram.

(Image via Rebellious PR)

One key question Smith continues to ask clients as they prepare for crisis scenarios is: “How fast do you want to respond?” That choice would then dictate other decisions, such as the number of people who would be contacted to sign off on a holding statement or how many people would convene on a task force to take action.

Gemmill agrees with Smith that a crisis plan that fails to align with the actions of the whole organization is bound for failure.

“You can’t just handle a crisis from the communications side as if you’re trying to get out of or mitigate that particular issue, he says. “It’s much broader now, and everything that happens on the crisis communication side needs to complement the wider organization’s goals.”

It’s why so many organizations are turning to purpose-driven communications and leaning into CSR and ESG. A modern crisis communications plan requires actively pushing and defending your record on core values at all times—and as the data from Deloitte shows, the stakes are very high to get that messaging right.

See more: https://www.ragan.com/why-the-old-crisis-comms-playbook-should-be-thrown-out/

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