About a year ago, in the months after COVID-19 first arrived in America, the nation was in crisis. No organization or family or person was unaffected.
As a result, nearly every professional communicator faced challenges of their own.
To be sure, there’s a difference between being in crisis and being a crisis manager. It’s the same difference that exists between being the patient and being the doctor. Having a problem doesn’t automatically make you an expert at solving it.
Still, since the larger pandemic and related lockdowns had a huge impact on many communications firms and consultants, quite a few decided to pivot.
Almost overnight, an army of PR people with no crisis experience – other than the fact they were now in one – became crisis management “experts.” I vividly remember one travel and tourism PR firm, whose business came to a screeching halt, starting to bill itself as a crisis management firm.
I noticed a flurry of social media posts, blog posts, webinars, livestreams, articles in trades, featuring any number of PR people talking about how to manage a crisis. But in quite a few cases, these were individuals I knew something about. The thing I knew was that many, if not most, had never handled a crisis in their professional lives.
These were professionals whose brands had centered mostly on publicity, marcomm, freelance writing, recipe PR and social media account management. But here they were putting out kindergarten-level crisis management advice, and it was being validated by respected trades and business media.
It was obvious to me that most were just winging it completely with no basis in experience or informed judgement. They were imagining what they would do if they were in a crisis and then positing theories. They made liberal use of words like “transparency,” “accountability,” “misinformation,” and “sincere apology.”
As an aside, on the matter of apologies, it seems that an entire cottage industry of crisis management amateurs has sprung up around the notion of crafting the perfect apology. If you think there is such a thing, I have an old fax machine I’d like to sell you.
All of this raises a question. Did anyone hire these novices to actually handle a crisis situation?
As far as I can tell, no. At least not many. Those of us who provide crisis management services were busy over the last year actually helping organizations through the healthcare issues, the pandemic, the lockdowns, the shutdowns, and the many mandates and directives from government, while most of the crisis novices I saw continued to self-promote with no signs of having encountered real-life scenarios.
Since then, the same people have moved on to position themselves as experts on other things.
Where are we now?
These days, I’m sensing that as the economy rebounds and firms need more non-crisis communications support, the crisis management pretenders are actually back to doing what they are qualified to do.
And those of us who work in crisis communications are back to doing what we do without having to advise clients on why something they read from a crisis communications poser isn’t in their best interest.
So, what kind of advice should you expect now?
Let’s go with counsel that helps calm all fears and concerns, instead of feeding the panic machine that is social media and the mainstream media.
Let’s seek clarity in the face of challenge, messaging that’s honest but presumes no fault on your part from the outset. That’s a good start.
Let’s look for guidance that doesn’t use auto-pilot to take you to a “well-crafted and sincere apology,” but rather to a solution.
Let’s try not to buckle under the pressure of the mob in the first 24-48 hours with the understanding that all is not lost if you take a firmer, steadier, more self-guided approach. We will likely find there’s no need to give in at all.
Now is the time to look at the new challenges your organization faces, to take an informed look at how to turn them into opportunities, if at the very least to bolster your credibility among those most important to you.
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Tim O’Brien, APR, is founder and principal at O’Brien Communications, a corporate communications, crisis and issues management firm in Pittsburgh. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 412/854-8845. O’Brien Communications provides C-suite corporate communications services.