As a public relations/corporate communications strategist, I have spent a career working with extremely talented marketing communications leaders. I admire how they look at the world: with a combination of creativity and focus that pinpoints target customers and speaks directly to them, motivates them to act, connects with them, and makes them a brand believer.
It's common for Marketing and Communications to fall under a single umbrella within an organization because the skillsets have some overlap and the work each does can boost the other's efforts.
Despite that compatibility, however, our approaches and the way we see the world are different.
Let me explain. As a corporate communications professional, I see myself as being in the business of reputation management. Of course, I want to enhance the brand and promote its positive attributes and benefits, but my responsibility is also—and sometimes mainly—to protect the brand by identifying and mitigating risks, managing issues, and navigating crises to minimize impacts on the brand.
Marketing colleagues similarly make calculated risks when telling the brand story, attempting to win over customers, build a following, and increase sales. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. Their focus is (and should be) about the customers and user experience of the brand. Then, when such amazing brand builders work with those like me, we bring our worlds together, pooling our efforts to help retain the success they have built, which might include defining a strategy on the company's behalf to position a failing of theirs.
Often, crisis comms professionals' time is spent conducting a 360 analysis to determine how a given situation will be perceived not only by customers but also by employees, partners, the community, and the government. Then we focus on the company's messaging, turning it inside out to see how it could be perceived or misconstrued, whether there are legal implications, what positives there are to highlight.
Essentially, we pressure-test everything the company or organization is saying to ensure it protects or enhances the brand, making changes and improvements to minimize risks.
Most recently, with the convergence of marketing and communications, the distinction between the capability of a marketing expert and a corporate communications expert has become blurred. As a result of the confusion arising from "communications" being part of the marcomms handle, talented, smart, and trusted marketing communications leaders are being expected to flex a rarely or never-used crisis communications muscle.
During a global pandemic and a tidal wave of "issues" hitting companies hard, high-performing traditional marketing communications teams are finding themselves out of their depth when facing mounting pressure from executive teams to be responsible for crisis management—a skill that takes literally years to develop.
If you don't have years to retrain and need to tackle a menacing issue or an emerging crisis, here's how to start:
- Think through what it is you want to say about the issue—the one sentence that defines what you want or need people to know about your company's position. Is there something the public needs to know? Is there a commitment your willing to make? Do you need to reinforce a key point (data point)? Is there a significant change to your business model that will address the issue head on?
- Next, write down your key audiences—all of them. When an issue arises you do not have the luxury of giving one audience all of your attention; you have to think about how every interested audience will view your response: employees (always employees first), customers, shareholders, partners, government officials, your local community, etc.
- Once you have defined your topline message and the audiences that need to hear it, go through your audience list and consider how each will receive your key message. Though some audiences will love it, others may be opposed, upset, understanding, accepting, and so on. Now that you understand their possible reactions, you can start to either reshape the message to address vulnerabilities or customize the message to better address each reaction.
- You will then want to spend time, using that same audience list, to determine the possible questions each group may ask and prepare the possible responses. Be candid and realistic when pulling together this list of questions: This is not an opportunity to choose the questions you want to deliver a slick marketing-type answer. These questions and responses are the grunt work of managing an issue by turning over every rock and attempting to address everything that could possibly come up—the good and the bad. You may never be asked one of these questions, but if you are... you need to be prepared.
Further to the above exercise, let's spend a minute defining a response versus an answer. Often, spokespeople feel compelled to "answer" everything that is asked, though sometimes their eagerness to answer means they overshare, divulge confidential information, or speak to an area of the business they aren't qualified to address. No qualified public relations practitioner will support or advise anyone to be dishonest; however, we will coach spokespeople to respond to difficult questions, not necessarily answer them.
Let me give you an example:
Reporter: Do you think you will have to lay off employees if the quarterly results miss the mark?
Answer: We might need to reduce our headcount; we are hopeful results will be strong, but we just do not know yet.
Possible media headline: CEO Doesn't Rule Out Layoffs If Earnings Miss
Response: I am not going to speculate about results that are not yet released. What I can tell you is that our employees are vital to our business success and we want to perform well and keep everyone working.
Possible media headline: CEO Hopeful for Strong Earnings This Quarter
* * *
What is my best advice for a marcomms leader to handle a crisis? Take off your marketing hat for a moment because promoting an issue or selling its good side won't get you anywhere; instead, issues need to be met with candor and authenticity in order to convey effective and thoughtful management. To move on, your audience needs to feel that you understand the issue and you are actively addressing it.
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