In 1994, I wrote an article for that year’s West Coast Conference on Corporate Communications that was titled “Crisis Management for the Health Care Industry: A Look at the Public Relations/Affairs Function.” In it, I reviewed case studies of corporate communications crisis management situations and relayed findings from a survey analysis that highlighted the importance of public perception, the need for a crisis management plan and the effectiveness of such a plan.
My research confirmed that many CEOs recognized the importance of public opinion and that business success often depends on winning the support of key advocates and external stakeholders. As such, there was recognition then that the public relations practitioner had evolved from an executor to a valuable management player and that crisis communication was a strategic imperative in a company’s overall communications plan.
Most of the companies whose case studies I reviewed revealed that they had experienced a serious corporate communications crisis stemming things like environmental problems, product tampering, regulatory and clinical trial issues, patient access issues and more. However, the majority of survey respondents were neutral about whether their crisis plan was effective.
So what does this mean for crisis management today? It’s important to understand how our world has evolved since 1994 and recognize the various considerations we must now take into account when crisis planning. We’ve experienced 25 years of massive change, and I can’t imagine conducting the same survey and receiving the same responses today. Managing a crisis was daunting then; today, it’s even more of a challenge given the multiple channels of communication and multiple stakeholders involved.
In the last 10-plus years, we’ve been seeing more companies collaborating in partnership models since large companies are typically better at commercialization and smaller companies are known for innovation. Today, there are more partnerships between companies with different stakeholder needs than ever before. What a small public company might consider to be material information to disclose publicly might be considered top secret by a large company.
Our culture is different than it was in 1994, and business needs likewise have changed. Crisis communications planning has become more critical to preserving a brand’s reputation.
And what do we, as stewards of reputation for clients and companies, need to consider as we prepare crisis preparedness planning? I believe that PR professionals today must be knowledgeable in the following areas:
Technology: Artificial intelligence and machine learning may be buzzwords, but I believe we need to understand how these technological advances can help us tell companies’ stories and provide us with insights that allow us to adjust messaging that advances our cause. Tools that are rooted in AI — such as TrendKite, which my company uses — can provide insights that may be critical to understanding how crisis management communications can affect a brand’s reputation. Such tools are important, but we’re still early in adoption, and I believe we need to learn how to interpret data and adjust our strategies based on an understanding of companies’ areas of focus and the specifics surrounding relevant issues. This will take time, of course, as well as educating yourself. I recommend looking for courses on AI offered by professional organizations.
Sector expertise: It may not enough to understand just technology. I believe we also need to be immersed enough in our industry sectors and company stories to enable us to add value. To gain such expertise, read industry trade publications, lean into your sector and find a mentor to coach you.
Deciphering what matters: Understanding key audiences’ hot buttons is what can separate executors from strategists. Execution is very important, but the ability to clearly see through the issues that matter most to your audience and therefore your management team is what can set you apart. This can be critical when managing a crisis. My firm conducts perception and media audits, message testing and social listening to gain a fuller understanding of key audiences’ understanding of issues. To conduct such audits, aim to hone critical skills such as analyzing, assessing, reflecting and reporting.
Navigating the 24/7 world: In today’s world, we often need to manage communications globally and 24/7. Many companies work across time zones. As such, the coordination and execution of a crisis communication plan isn’t usually a 9-to-5 job. Companies and clients often must partner to solve problems quickly and responsively, and we can play a role by ensuring that we have strong partners in relevant markets.
Diversity and inclusion: I believe we must embrace people of all races and ethnicities and ensure that we’re approaching our stakeholders in a holistic manner. What worked for us in 1994 may no longer be accepted, and our mindset likely needs to continue to evolve. We live in a world today where brand stewards are more watchful of what their companies stand for and how to integrate it into their marketing mix. In a crisis, this can become more important, as we’ve all seen how consumers respond when they feel offended. In a connected world, managing the perception of diversity and inclusion can be critical. As a key element of your crisis plan, take the time to properly assess diverse populations’ perceptions.
The importance of purpose: CEOs in many industries are actively taking stands and speaking out on topics that matter to them, their people and our society. In the health sector, this centers on patients and transcends beyond to ensure that we’re connecting with society for a bigger purpose that ultimately delivers innovation and value. I believe that weaving your company’s purpose and mission into your crisis planning to ensure that stakeholders understand what your organization stands for has become another pillar of communication. Conducting an assessment to find your company’s purpose is an important first step in this process.
Crisis planning is more relevant today than it was in years past due to technology, specialized sectors, the 24/7 world, more diverse populations and companies that are driven by purpose. Assessing your company’s crisis communications plan with these areas in mind as part of your yearly planning exercise can help you navigate a crisis.