Dealing with crises is the cornerstone of public relations. However, in many cases, problems are caused by underlying business issues, which are invariably the result of fundamental business decisions. The “More Smart, Less Stupid: PR for Better Business” panel discussion focused on making better business decisions, because let’s face it, it’s tough to message your way out of a morass.
The panelists were:
- Melissa Waggener Zorkin, founder of Waggoner-Edstrom
- Gary Stockman, CEO Porter Novelli
- Bob Pearson, chief technology & media officer , W20 Group
- Mark Stouse, VP & global communications, Honeywell Aerospace
Ultimately, PR rolls up into corporate reputation, which has real, tangible financial implications for an organization. It doesn’t happen by accident – reputation is the byproduct of all the actions an organization takes.
In the case of the recent Susan G. Komen/Planned Parenthood PR debacle, the Komen Foundation’s reputation suffered. Some on the panel wondered out loud whether or not the organization to recover. Fundamentally, the whole problem stemmed from Komen’s decision to pull funding from Planned Parenthood. There were three key elements to the resulting problems.
- They didn’t have alignment internally. Some groups within the organization were not on board with the decision, and they said so.
- They just blurted out the message, failing to test how it would play with their publics.
- They blindly adhered to a policy, not considering the values of their audience.
Simply put, elements of the decision that were removed from their community. Melisssa Waggener Zorkin summed up well, saying, “You have to have engagement of the people who love you and stand by you. “
Mark Stouse noted that the organization could have avoided the entire issue if they had been listening to their constituents, and developing understanding of the issues that were important to them, in addition to Komen’s core focus on cancer. Data and analytics are readily available.
All people who run companies should be prepared for crises, noted Waggner Zorkin.
Stockman agreed, adding, “If people aren’t heard, they will make themselves heard. There is an expectation on the part of constituents that corporations will listen.”
“I’ve dealt with things like anthrax, mad cow and computers that had extra features like shooting fire out the side,” said Pearson. “In the case where you just make a mistake, nothing wrong with apologizing.”
But it’s not enough to simply say that the company regrets the situation. When conveying an apology for an organization, you can’t be scripted, you have to be human. “You need to speak like a human being and reach people in their communities,” said Waggener Zorkin.
The rising role of comedy
In medieval times, the jesters were the truth-tellers. Today, that role is filled by the Jon Stewarts and Steven Colberts of the world.
Stouse recalled a spectacular instance of the use of comedy in developing a response from years ago, when his team wrote some jokes about a competitor in crises and sent them to Jay Leno, who used them on air.
The fact is, clips and jokes that make fun of a situation have a very high pass-along factor and are memorable. This content travels further than most company statements or responses. Planning communications from the Daily Show perspective belongs in crisis communications planning.
One example the panel lauded was American Airlines’ handling of its chapter 11 bankruptcy announcement. The company took proactive stance in an attempt to temper the discussion.
The ensuing news coverage reflected the company’s key messages – that they had plenty of cash on hand, operations were not going to be effected and customers would not be impacted.
In this case, the company did their groundwork years in advance. American had cultivated a culture of transparency and openness, that was reflected in the organization’s increasing investment in real-time communications and social media. Associated customer communications were also very good. Frequent fliers received consistent and prompt messaging. Business decisions enabled the company to do a good job of deploying proactive messages that really stuck with the news media and public.
The cases illustrated how business decisions played a role in the eventual success the organizations’ communications in their respective crises. This begged the question of the communications department’s role in influencing decision that may not be part of the PR remit.
“Organizations that keep their “true north” in mind manage these situations better than those who are inconsistent,” said Stockman. And when it comes to influencing business decisions, the panel agreed that the communications team has several opportunities for involvement:
- Set a roadmap. Outline the issues your company cares about and stick to them. If the company threatens to deviate, ask why. Help the company stay on task.
- As communicators, actively build internal alignment around key issues.
- The military has the concept of ‘over watch.” On the ground, in the trenches, your vision narrows. The military always has people doing over watch – keeping an eye on the big picture. Communicators can do this very effectively.