|Jessica Berk Ross
As the Battle for 2021 belly-flops to a close, we find ourselves exhausted from having spent the past year in warrior mode: pivoting, adapting and rethinking. And just as we begin to plan for resuming conferences, meetings, work and life in-person, we’re now forced to reverse course yet again. Businesses and organizations have moved from resilience-building to recovery planning and are now doubling back. It’s as if we’re girding for another siege.
Supplies are short and morale is low. Simultaneously, we’re facing shortages of goods and workers but no shortage of culture wars, ill will and social unrest. Coupled with the ebbing of the public’s trust in just about every institution, the communications landscape is rife with risk and uncertainty. It’s a war zone out there.
In 2021, for many of our clients, crisis communications moved from scenario planning, hypothetical response and risk ranking to Code Red real-time situations. And beyond the pandemic, which already made clear and compelling communications even more important, there were other exigencies that seemed epidemic. Difficulties ranged from legal action, labor issues, business continuity, data breaches, ransomware and real-world violence. It’s just been that kind of year.
|This article is featured in O'Dwyer's Jan. '22 Crisis Communications & PR Buyer's Guide Magazine
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Key learnings from the year underscore the need for iterative crisis communications planning that helps to anticipate issues that can disrupt business or undermine the good work of an organization. 2022 promises more of the same as we anticipate new variants, more uncertainty and an increasingly divided society. It would serve us well to look to lessons from military doctrine as we prepare for a potentially hostile communications landscape in the coming year.
The Crisis Doctrine Playbook includes:
Selection and maintenance of aim
This is one of the most fundamental principles of military doctrine. To achieve anything of consequence you need to know what you’re trying to accomplish. That is where “selection” comes in. This is your objective. And then you must be persistent in the pursuit of this objective, despite things that might arise or seem to get in the way of this aim. When a crisis hits, it’s easy to lose sight of the future and simply deal with the closest alligator to the boat. And that’s the time to remember that second principle of “maintenance.” It’s essential to consider where you want to be and where you need to be when you emerge from the other side of the crisis situation. There can be no blinders, no myopia. Look at what’s at hand and what’s ahead. Your objective must undergird planning and be a primary consideration even in the face of risks, disruptions and the unexpected. In other words, 2021.
If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s shown us that we need to be flexible. Not only that, we need to cultivate that flexibility. It’s like stretching: You have to keep doing it. All organizations need to have the ability to change quickly to be able to meet new and evolving circumstances. Who could have imagined the enormous changes we would undertake as a global society in response to the pandemic (well, actually, epidemiologists could …). Strategic planning and visioning need to be proactive and inspired of course, but at the same time, realistic and anticipatory. Proactive planning, exercises and, yes, rigorous training and rehearsal help to ensure that when things do get difficult or when bad things happen, things can be managed as well as acted upon effectively and efficiently. Adaptation is the key to resilience—and survival.
Plan offensive action
More than ever, strong issues management and crisis communications strategies are essential to navigating the growing complexities of the communications landscape. Nowhere is this more complicated than how to position for advantage in the political and policy arenas. Crisis communications and public affairs are cross-cutting practices that must be included in all planning. Modalities, platforms and audiences shift and morph. The rules of the game are constantly changing. And changing again. Forward leaning offensive action helps to position for advantage, build momentum and to create the opportunity to seize the initiative. It’s a tricky battlefield out there and decisions about how to engage politically and what leadership looks like around political issues and policy has become even more complex, more bifurcated and fraught. Not to mention the mid-term elections. No organization can afford to continue business as usual. Getting ahead of issues and leading from the front are key. But ensure that the offensive is tied to the objective. You’ve got to mean it.
Consider and maintain morale
Morale is that all-important positive state of mind that’s achieved through strong, capable leadership and a widely shared sense of purpose and values. It can be undermined in times of crisis if leadership isn’t seen as effective, empathetic or responsive. Closely held audiences are important and sensitive. Trolls are tireless. Issues can be delicate. And in the Battle for 2021, ZOOM has brought us together as well as created literal distance as we both longed for IRL, and, at the same time, enjoyed the silver linings of remote work. Wellness, intentionality and self-care were ubiquitous themes in the media, and people all over the world took it to heart. Issues management and crisis planning must consider the state of mind of our key audiences, including internal stakeholders. Burnout is the next epidemic. Employees need more, and culture and morale all start with leadership. And, yes, it’s much harder to build culture remotely but it’s even more important than ever. Crisis planning must consider internal audiences and a host of workplace issues that can threaten that critical overall objective. Plan ahead. One team, one fight.
Cooperation is the principle of teamwork and the sharing of dangers, risks and opportunities. In building a strong and resilient organization, be sure to create a cooperation framework that allows for that shared burden. Know who your crisis team is. Beware of shifting alliances. Read-in your trusted team. Bring in experts. Be sure not to go it alone through the difficult times.
Lessons learned in the past by our military brethren seem even more resonant in today’s environment. As we face new circumstances, new challenges and new risks, there’s at least some comfort in knowing the rules of engagement and that there’s time-tested wisdom that has helped to navigate some of the most complex and demanding circumstances. This doctrine can serve as a guide for us as we anticipate difficulties or even when we find ourselves in a time of crisis. Whatever battles may lie ahead.
Jessica Berk Ross is Managing Partner of Global Public Affairs at Finn Partners.