- Crisis Management
Government gets it. Companies don't get it. What is “it"? The lesson of the BP oil saga, as judged by the New York Times.
The Times' editorial, entitled “What Have They Learned?", suggests that Federal regulators will do a better job in future deepwater drilling crises—avoiding them or dealing with them forcefully when they flare. When it comes to industry, the Times is not so sure.
Put that aside for a minute. It's a complicated argument, the subject for another blog.
My focus, as usual in this space, is on corporate communications.
What have we, CCOs and counselors directly engaged in the escalating era of high-profile crises, or watching intently from the sidelines—what have we learned that's instructive for God-knows-what risks loom ahead?
I'd like to get some discussion going around this.
Here are some starters, from my head:
(1) We've learned that we have to work on cultures of safety. In C-suites as counselors, we need to be looking at the values that the company encourages and whether everybody “gets it" and whether communication is an enabler of potential crisis prevention. Whether it's public and environmental safety, production problems, product marketing, recalls, the goal is risk management, including reputation-loss risk, and that's our bailiwick.
(2) We've learned the importance of CCOs in the company's risk management process as an ongoing accountability. My co-professor in crisis communications at Georgetown University—Judith Muhlberg, formerly Boeing's CCO—and I are teaching our grad students how to do pre-crisis intelligence. They use Web devices to find red flags in stakeholder online conversations that warn of creeping crisis conditions. We think CCOs can sophisticate this idea into a risk management device.
(3) We've certainly learned—or renewed what we knew about—the downside of overworking, overexposing or not being able to manage top executives as spokespersons. I doubt there's a neat answer to this. You can manage up just so far. But come on. CEOs and board members surely are open to our counsel on options to avoid ultimate-authority gaffes and culture/language disconnects (BP, Toyota, you know) that kill good stakeholder communication strategies…and damage the executive.
(4) It's transparency, facilitated evaluation, full-time now. Arthur Page would be amazed by what we've learned about “tell the truth and prove it with evidence". That's been turned on its head. Now it's show your evidence constantly and let your stakeholders decide what the truth is. BP activated its deep-sea camera and left it on for five months so anybody could decide how the company was doing. That's the new normal. No backing up from that. You have a crisis, open your kimona, turn on the webcam and put your evidence on YouTube. If you don't, they will. What's next? The car company puts web cameras in the factory to show recalls being fixed? I'd be really interested in what CCOs come up with to enable tracking that leads to trusting.
(5) The really big lesson we've learned? Government is in the business of business. That's a reality for communicators to factor into every phase of crisis communications planning. Part of it is protection: internal emails, all levels of information flow are immediately part of the public record accessible by government and of course the media. Part of it is opportunity: various levels of officials can validate corporate messages and improve stakeholder trust. The Coast Guard spokesperson helped BP.
Let me end upbeat: A good lesson, back to ultimate-authority spokesperson problems: J&J's CEO showed the way, I think, when he testified before Congress in the recent Tylenol crisis. He said, in effect: We've learned a lot of lessons. We made mistakes. We've moved to correct them. We're taking steps to make sure they never happen again. On the Hill, the CEO was a positive communicator. Online, the J&J website backed him up with evidence.
Your comments, your lessons are invited.
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