Jessica Berk RossJessica Berk Ross

I was at a holiday lunch with several clients in December, and we were recounting where we were during the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Unlike other major historical events, the pandemic can’t be pinpointed to a single moment in time, like the Kennedy assassination, Reagan being shot or the morning of 9/11, but rather, a painfully slow drip, drip understanding that our lives were now forever altered. The frog in the boiling pot. A gradual realization for some, the rush of panic for others.

We talked about how our uncertainty and confusion soon turned to fear and loss. That ten of us could be sharing these stories unmasked, at a round table with shared food was evidence that the post-pandemic epoch has been ushered in. It’s clear that the pandemic era has already become something of a generational inflection point that we’re beginning to mythologize.

This new era has been shaped and defined by those years of disruption, a cataclysm of economic, social, technological and health impacts. A period when the fault lines of inequality, access and scarce resources were further exposed.

In a perfect world, suffering would make us stronger, and it would be an impetus to catalyze positive change. With our interconnectedness, shared humanity and vulnerability revealed, solutions should be proffered. Research and science supercharged. And indeed, the progress we’ve witnessed has been extraordinary. In our business of strategic communications, we’re blessed to have an excellent vantage point from which to see how nations, organizations, institutions and companies meet the moment, drive solutions and strive forward. But threats and risks remain extant and looming.

This article is featured in O'Dwyer's Jan. '24 Crisis Communications & PR Buyer's Guide Magazine
(view PDF version)

Notably, but not surprisingly, the past year has seen an enormous number of self-inflicted crises. The “own goal” of communications. And, it seems, the bigger and more global the stage, the larger the blunders. Some are communications gaffes, some are existential organizational failures and some are just plain greed and corruption. From the World Cup alcohol change-up to the backchannel communications reveal at the COP, to Crypto fraud, to Congressional dysfunction. And let’s not even get started on X. It’s hard to believe that so much of our global chaos isn’t intentional.

So yes, a complex world demands even more clever solutions. Individual, corporate, national and global challenges all grow more complicated. Threats seem—and are—closer. The pace is unrelenting, and this urgency requires more from all of us. No longer can solutions be reduced to services and sectors or offered up in silos. Lagging is losing.

How does an organization navigate those growing and urgent complexities? Here are some thoughts going into 2024 to help avoid—or at least whether—the coming crises.

Roadmap of the five Bs

Build convergent teams. This moment demands multi-disciplinary expertise. Schisms are wider. Pitfalls and land mines abound. Crises cross the boundaries of DEI, sustainability, global public health, Education, public policy and public affairs, technology ... the list goes on. Success will require convergent expertise. Tiger Teams of specialized experts working together to anticipate and solve critical issues is table stakes. Category expertise is critical, but single-swim lane approaches will be sure to flounder. Arming yourself with insights from across the communications landscape will be the key to staying afloat. We must have all the tools in the toolbox at hand, but please, no more hammer/nail solutions.

Broaden the aperture. An art-and-science approach to planning is essential. Bring real-time analysis and data to the equation. Don’t guess. Really seek to understand your internal and external ecosystems. Employ social listening, competitive and comparative assessments and go to school on others in your environment. Use that aperture to let in more light to reach your sensors. The illumination will be rewarding.

Banish complacency. Rethink your established beliefs. That crisis planning exercise that was so helpful a few years ago, guess what? It’s a Hummer, and your competitors are rolling out in a new Cybertruck. Be sure to bring your stakeholders together for a regular strategic workshop exercise. Scenario planning must include what’s waking you up at night but also think beyond known risks and see around the corners. What’s lurking? What can be planned against? How can you build in even more resiliency?

Be in a ready stance. Now that you have the pieces in place to both anticipate and respond to what may come, how do you avoid the paralysis of shock when something bad does happen? Give yourself a guide to make it easier to deploy the needed resources with the right level of firepower.

A carefully thought-out flagging and response flow can help to simplify and clarify the level of response required. Too often, I’ve seen panic drive the desire for urgent action that could too easily lead to regret, and yes, the dreaded “unintended consequences.” Be measured. Meet a crisis where it is. Do not self-escalate.

Boost ideation. And as you’re planning for the worst, lay the groundwork for growth. A crisis planning Theory of Change model is a useful framework. Outline where you would like to see yourself one, three and five years into the future. Now, work backward. What would you need to get there? Build it in. Crisis planning isn’t just a prophylactic, it can be a catalyst. Envisioning the aspirational future and helping to build from a steady state to an ideal. Visioning is critical. Find a good facilitator to help get you there.

And so, as we close in on the end of 2023, imagine that you’re sitting around the table at that holiday lunch two years ahead in time to 2025. Even the greatest of optimists must know that these will be challenging years, with much to solve for. What inflection points will we be reflecting upon? What crises will we have collectively survived? What will we have learned that will help us to better navigate the seemingly unforgiving communications landscape?

In this increasingly convergent landscape of global challenges, a little focus on the principles of the roadmap can help us on that journey toward a future destination that we can just now begin to imagine.


Jessica Berk Ross is Managing Partner of Public Affairs at Finn Partners.