How can we explain why many companies and organizations that routinely create operations management plans to deal with major business risks often fall short when it comes to creating workable crisis communications plans to anticipate and manage these situations?
In 2021, we’ve all watched an array of crisis situations play out in the media, most leading to rapid executive downfalls and besmirched corporate reputations. Granted, many other potential crises were likely averted with advance planning and smart actions before they attracted media scrutiny. But many of the situations we witnessed seemed to be the product of known—or at least anticipatable—risks.
That’s why one of my New Year’s 2022 wishes is for a meaningful change in the willingness of companies and organizations to think and plan ahead to address their biggest risks and create workable crisis communications plans to manage them.
I’ve noticed that most companies and organizations really do know what their biggest potential reputation risks are: the five or six things that have the potential to really undermine the way the outside world, their employees and key stakeholders think about the enterprise and its leadership. These often range from executive blind spots to gaps between how they operate and regulatory or societal norms, and from technology risks to practices they’re working to change but not quickly enough.
|This article is featured in O'Dwyer's Jan. '22 Crisis Communications & PR Buyer's Guide Magazine
(view PDF version)
These reputational risks can do transitory or permanent damage—it’s hard to assess when you’re in the moment—but you can’t escape the reality that they’re problematic and can largely be anticipated.
Barriers to progress
So what’s standing in the way of real progress in crisis communications planning, particularly at a time when communications budgets have grown and business interruption and cyber insurance have become risk management must-haves?
Is it because we’ve all lived through crisis-after-crisis in our individual and business lives over the almost two years of the pandemic and are anesthetized to downside risks?
Is it that communicators have had it with negativity and want to focus on the positive? Perhaps senior executives and boards of directors aren’t holding communications leaders accountable for crisis planning?
In discussing this dynamic with other communicators, you hear anecdotal evidence of the challenge. Fast-growing healthcare companies and impact-focused organizations may feel they will get a partial or free pass from media and influencers who admire their success and commitment.
Some businesses comfort themselves with the belief that media organizations today have fewer resources to do deep investigative work (although better-resourced outlets and non-profit news organizations are devoting more people and time to investigative coverage because they see it as core to their mission—plus it wins recognition and attracts eyeballs).
None of these pass muster as good reasons for not embracing the need to make more progress.
My hope is that despite the continued weariness we all feel from the pandemic, the dawn of a new year will bring us new convictions around closing this gap in reputation management best practices. If it’s not among your goals—and even if no one’s asking you to do it—communicators should view this as a real opportunity to demonstrate executive leadership.
Putting time and effort into creating a thoughtful crisis communications approach and plan—or dusting off an existing one to make it relevant to the current risks and a changing environment—is one of the best investments you can make in 2022.