With PR Advisors Like These Who Needs Enemies?

If your organization is faced with the real possibility that it could be involved in a crisis centered on a controversial issue or development, the one thing you should be able to do is trust that your PR advisors are on your side.

Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon for some organizations to seek and receive counsel from PR advisors who may not quite have the best interests of the organization in mind. To be clear, we’re not talking about spies or subversive activities. We’re not talking about PR professionals who would intentionally do you harm. We’re not advocating a surrender of professional objectivity and detachment in favor of accepting only the client’s side of the story. And we’re not focused on PR professionals who are pushing the boundaries of PR ethics.

What we are talking about are those whose hearts simply may not be where yours may be – PR advisors who may be happy to get paid to provide PR service to you all within the bounds of ethics, but their sentiments may align a little more closely with your critics. When this happens, you’re likely to get and take advice from someone who has already accepted the premise of your critics’ attacks. Their inherent bias clouds their ability to provide the counsel you need. So much so that your critics’ reality is your PR advisor’s reality. That’s dangerous.

Here are a few hypothetical examples.

Apologize First, Ask Questions Later

A large consulting organization serving a large NGO is under fire by an extreme environmental activist group for having once worked for energy companies. The consulting firm made no secret of this. It listed energy companies as clients on its web site and had complied with all disclosure requirements. However, the critics treated the consulting firm as though by virtue of having worked for energy companies in the past it had done something wrong.

The consulting firm’s PR advisor counseled the firm to first issue an apology for having worked for those firms and to announce that it would be conducting an internal review of its client list to assure it would be more diligent about taking on “controversial” clients in the future.

Takeaways: There’s nothing wrong with consulting firms serving energy firms, so there is no need to apologize. There is no need for an internal review of client lists unless a specific business arrangement or contract warrants it. More importantly, it will undermine your own business if you start to publicly classify clients as “controversial.” This is a reflection that the PR advisor is working under a reality framed by critics. The lesson is, if your organization has done nothing wrong, there is no need to apologize. If your organization has to conduct an internal review to determine if it did something wrong, say so, but wait until the investigation is complete before even considering an apology and corrective action.

Give Your Critics a Forum

A real estate developer has announced it plans to build a new mixed-use development on the outskirts of a mid-sized city. As part of this process, it is compelled to meet with elected officials and local authorities, and appear at public meetings where the development is on the agenda. A group has formed to oppose the development and is waging a campaign based on fabricated claims in the media, on social media, and in public demonstrations.

The opposition organization has built its campaign around allegations that the developer is trying to hide its plans and is not being transparent. The developer’s PR advisor recommends to the company that it host a town meeting to foster dialogue with the community to be more transparent.

Takeaways: First, the PR advisor is coming from a place where it is presumed the developer has not been transparent. While there are appropriate times for town meeting forums, there are many times when a PR advisor recommends hosting a town meeting when all it will achieve is to give your critics a forum for their own agenda-driven campaigns. When you host a town meeting in a contentious situation you are giving your critics a forum to create a made-for-TV event that may give the misleading impression that what you are proposing does not have public support, or ironically, that you are trying to hide something – all because an organized and vocal opposition knows how to hijack such forums for their own purposes. A better approach in this situation, may be to communicate broadly and aggressively through your own channels: Web sites, newsletters, mailers, op-eds and ads, and when it comes to public meetings, consider them, but there are ways to structure them so that your critics cannot commandeer them to shut down real dialogue.

Appease Your Way to Failure

A bank is forced to reduce its philanthropic activity due to a downturn in its business. This means that certain local arts-related organizations will see significant reductions in funding. The bank is now under fire from certain community activists who say the “greedy” bank is putting profit before culture and is working to “destroy the local arts community.” With picketers outside of the bank’s offices, the bank’s PR advisor tells management to engage with the group by having an impromptu face-to-face meeting with the group’s leaders, hoping that they will understand the bank is not putting profits before the arts.

Takeaways: There is a place for engagement, but there are times when what looks like engagement is not. This is one of those times. In this situation, the messaging coming from the bank’s critics is highly strategic, designed play to stereotypes of big business. This signals that the creators of that messaging have no desire for real dialogue which can lead to real understanding. Rather, any event or activity in which they do engage is designed to further amplify that messaging. So, if the bank would take the PR advisor’s recommendations, it would be doing two things. First, it would be giving the community activists an event it can play to further reinforce its theme that that the bank is not “listening to us” or “trying to manipulate us.” Second, if the bank has made a firm decision on its philanthropic support of the arts, such a gesture as an impromptu meeting with this group (handled the wrong way) could give false hope. A strategy of appeasement only lasts so long, then critics are likely to feel misled, and their vocal attacks on the organization will then be proportionately stronger and longer.

You Have a Right to Expect Your PR Advisor to be with You in Heart & Mind

The main problem with these kinds of PR advisors is they’re not really sure who they work for. Some live to please the media before their own organizations or clients, and their advice reflects this.

Others see the issues your organization faces through the prism of your critics and not yours. They identify more with your critics than they do with you.

Of course we must do research on all sides of the issue. We can’t accept information on face value from clients any more than we should if the information or claims come from critics. That said, when PR advisors start by accepting the premise of the critics, they’re more likely to accept false assumptions and baseless allegations, and on this they will base their recommendations. This is quicksand for any communications program.

How to Communicate Change Management Like a Boss

You may never have heard of Herclitus, but something he said a couple thousand years ago is as relevant today as it was when he lived around 500 BC. The Greek philosopher is credited with saying, “Change is constant.”

I would suspect that even he would be amazed at the pace at which the world seems to change today. An entire industry – Change Management – has grown up around that very concept just to normalize the process of introducing and executing change in organizations large and small.

Change management represents the planning, implementation and follow-through required to help both organizations and people inside and outside of those organizations deal with that change. Think mergers, acquisitions, reorganizations, downsizings, changes in policy or procedure, consolidations, and much more.

The common thread is that as senior leadership is concerned with how people will react, respond and adjust to the change, it takes steps to make sure that potential reaction to change does not derail the larger plans.

Effective communication plays a critical role in a successful change management program. With this in mind here are five ways to make sure your communications efforts effectively support your change management initiative:

Listen

Before you even start, you need to get a handle on what people are thinking, what they are concerned about now, and what they might be concerned about when the time comes for change. The listening process starts simply by getting out of your office and talking to people at every level of the organization on a regular basis, taking the pulse of everyone from the work force to customers. Formal research could include surveys, focus groups, interviews and customized, individualized outreach. The key is to make sure you know how your most important stakeholders feel and think about the issues that will form the center of the change process. If you can do that, you can better anticipate their reactions and response to change.

Identify the Most Powerful Core Values at Play

Your organization may have a mission or vision statement that cites its core values. This is part of that, but it can be a mistake to assume that simply because the organization committed to those core values that the work force and external stakeholders are on the same page. As part of the listening and outreach process, you will likely get strong clues as what core values are most important to stakeholders. Some may be in your mission statement, some may surprise you. The core values you’re looking for are quite simply what matters most, culturally speaking, across diverse constituencies.

You should start to see patterns of what internal and external groups find to be the most important values that come to play in their relationship with the organization. Once you can identify these values, you will uncover what to many will be considered non-negotiable. These values will be the keys or the obstacles to success.

Create an Embraceable Vision

One of the more common mistakes organizations make when introducing change is to place the focus on the good the change will do for the organization, never adequately telling individuals how the change will help them on their terms. It is too often assumed that people will connect the dots themselves. If you’re charged with communicating change, you must create a vision that people can readily embrace. This usually involves speaking in simple terms, helping people best envision how their lives will be better (or not as bad as it otherwise could be) by embracing that vision. Whatever you do, don’t overstate the promise of that vision. Herclitus didn’t say it, but whomever said, “Don’t kid a kidder,” probably worked in change management. People can see through hyperbole and may not respond as you hope.

Demonstrate Your Commitment to People

Once you’ve revealed your plans for change, and what those plans are, you must do more than talk a good game. You must walk the walk, or demonstrate that the organization is committed to keeping its promises. Start with all of the little things you may be doing, but make sure to broadly publicize those steps, so that no one can ignore what is being done to deliver on your promises. This is important for the organization’s credibility, which it will need later when it asks people to make uncomfortable adjustments at some other point in the change process.

Be Responsive

Little things matter. Return phone calls, emails and suggestions left in “suggestion boxes.” When internal committees and work teams pass along feedback, insights or other information that goes up the chain, make sure they know the organization received it and is using it in the spirit it was provided – for the good of the organization and its people. If external stakeholders call your customer service line, tweet something positive or negative, a posture of aggressive responsiveness will go a long way towards building the goodwill needed to implement the sometimes volatile process of change.

These are just a few important things you can do to ease people through the change process at your organization. What ideas would you add to the list? Feel free to comment below.

Can You Really Enjoy Working on a Crisis?

In a brief recent exchange with a former crisis communications client of mine, it dawned on me that it may be possible to enjoy a crisis experience. But you can be sure, I won’t let a comment like that sit without proper context.

First – the exchange. I asked him how he was doing. He said, “Couldn’t be better,” and then he mentioned that he had “really enjoyed” working with me.

We all like to hear that from time to time, but his use of the word “enjoy” caught me by surprise.  When we worked together, the nature of the crisis was such that I couldn’t have imagined him enjoying that unwanted experience at any level. I could think of many words he might use to describe that experience, but “enjoy” wasn’t in the top 10.

To be sure, the situation was handled well and things worked out, and now it’s years later and everyone has moved on. Still, it may be worthwhile to explore this issue of whether it’s possible to enjoy a crisis experience. Here are some things to consider:

You’re Not Alone

Once the crisis communications team is established, strategies and decisions are explored as a team. Crisis situations are not a time to posture and position. People who would otherwise hold back in meetings are forced to be more direct and candid. There is a lot on the line. People get real. Good crisis communications teams form and function well due in part as a response to the pressures they face. Once this happens and the team gels, almost every single member of the group starts to feel that he or she is not an island facing this crisis, that they are not heading into uncertain territory by themselves. There is comfort in that.  In some of the crises I’ve experienced, that’s what I remember most.

Bonds are Formed in Adversity

Nothing builds the strong bonds of camaraderie like facing adversity together. Soldiers come back from battle with “brothers” and “sisters” they never even knew before they entered battle together. That sort of dynamic, though not life or death in many crisis communications scenarios, feeds the nurturing of strong bonds that can be formed through a crisis.

A Sense of Humor Doesn’t Hurt

I’ve found that there are times when a well-timed quip or comment can ease the tension in the room when certain sensitive issues and subjects are at the center of discussion and it just feels too intense. Keep in mind, though, ill-timed comments can totally backfire. Be careful with humor, especially in crisis situations when people are already on edge and it doesn’t take much to light someone’s fuse. Still, if you have the right perspective and know how to ease the tension in the right way at the right time, you not only will play a vital role on the crisis team, but you really will contribute to creating an experience that someone someday may remember as having had its encouraging moments.

Doing the Right Thing Gives Peace of Mind

In almost every crisis situation I’ve seen, generally speaking, I’ve found people want to do the right thing. The types of obstacles that may complicate decision-making could be legal, regulatory or business-driven. Still, the job of a crisis communicator is to help management teams do what they know they must, while staying true to all of their other business and legal obligations. In simplistic terms, you may find that doing right by one stakeholder group can have a potentially negative impact on another, so you have to help the organization find balance. Through it all, the communicator must be a calming force, serving as counselor, sounding board, hand-holder, and sometimes the honest bearer of bad news. In the end this can give clients peace of mind and sometimes the confidence needed to make tough but sound decisions. Later, they see their crisis communicators as invaluable catalysts in that process.

You’ll Laugh Later

Every crisis is a story in itself, and it is often the mother of countless other stories. Like the time I was misquoted in a news article and a fellow crisis team member decided to prank-call me immediately after, pretending to be an angry shareholder. Funny.

Or, the time a group of us were hashing out a statement in a hotel room on deadline. Someone moved a very hot floor lamp over to where we were working. Unbeknownst to all of us, it was right under a sprinkler head and sensor. Luckily, the heat only triggered flashing lights and sirens, not water. The visual still etched in my memory is two members of that team trying in vain under flashing strobe lights to use a hotel couch as a launching pad to jump up to hit the sprinkler’s kill switch.

Some of the funniest stories I have from working in public relations emerged from crisis situations. I think it’s because of the natural tension that serves as the backdrop for the scene, which only makes the unexpected that much more compelling of a story later.

So, can you enjoy a crisis?

Answer: No one enjoys what causes a crisis or the fact that an organization is in crisis. All too often some stories emerge from crisis situations can break your heart.

But it is this understanding that makes the good things we see, hear and experience that much more meaningful when we look back. It’s the relationships and sometimes the friendships we sometimes form with people – facing adversity together and doing our jobs in good conscience – that we come to treasure.

Ultimately, yes, we can look back and find there truly were some things we did enjoy.

Communications Inbox: How to Start a Solo Practice; When to Communicate During a Crisis

shutterstock_52853291-questionsWithout any encouragement in recent weeks I’ve gotten some questions via email from some people who’ve become regular readers of this blog (Thanks!).   The questions have ranged from how to start a solo practice, to how to structure a business plan.

With that in mind, and with the permission of the questioners, I thought I’d pick two of those questions and respond to them on this blog. Should you have a question you may want to see addressed in this space, just let me know. From time to time, I will feature them here.

Question #1: I’m presently working in the corporate department of a large firm.  I have no agency experience.  What steps should I take if I want to start my own solo practice?

– Nathan B.

Response:  Nathan, this is one of the more common questions I get from people in the PR field, mostly due to the fact that my business has been established for 15 years and I have a monthly column in PRSA’s Tactics called State of Independence.

The main thing I’d tell you to do is to create a thorough and detailed business plan. There are many books on the subject, and many good articles to be found online. It’s not as important that you follow any one structure over another. What’s important is that you find one that suits you, and that it is exhaustive in its detail.

Chances are you will encounter several points in the process of creating a business plan where you don’t have the answers. Take that as a sign you need to do more homework, or in some cases, get more experience. If you have agency experience, the transition to starting your own solo practice will be a little easier because you should be already familiar with the business development and administrative processes that work behind the scenes to create a structure for effective client service.

But until you’ve actually started your business, it’s very difficult to imagine the difference between self-employment and working for someone else in an agency or another kind of organization.  The process for creating a sound business plan is probably one of the most significant steps you can take to determine if starting an independent practice is right for you.

Question #2: There have been times when smaller crises have occurred within my organization and my supervisor was reluctant to communicate. His position was to wait to see how people would react before communicating. Is that the best approach? 

– Jennifer K.

Response: No. Usually, when you wait for the worst, you increase the chances that the worst will happen because you’re surrendering control to others and circumstance.  In any crisis, the first and most important thing to do is gain a clear and accurate assessment of the damage and potential damage to the organization’s reputation.

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That means doing your own internal reporting and identifying potential vulnerabilities, not only to the organization’s reputation, but to the organization itself.  Waiting to do this or to plan a crisis response can lead to operational problems that can hinder the organization’s ability to function at its best.

Once you have an idea of how big the crisis is or what could happen in a worst-case scenario, the next step is to prepare. Draft strategy documents, identify crisis team members, and begin to draft the full suite of documents and materials you may need should the crisis unfold.  Make sure your channels are in place for communicating to all important stakeholders. This includes conventional means and digital.

This kind of preparation is invaluable even when organizational leadership is reluctant at the moment to communicate on the issue.  No one will complain if you are prepared when the time comes to mobilize and communicate.

Strategically, the reason it’s best not to wait is that when you do, you give others a chance to shape the story for you, and the way they shape it may not be in your best interest. It may be inaccurate, irresponsible, or it may be agenda-driven, such as when a competitor spreads rumors or gossip.

If you have a question you’d like to see featured here, please let us know.

PR Planning: What are Your Key Stories?

Public Relations, PittsburghNot long after I started working in a large PR firm, I had become a specialist in writing crisis communications plans. As part of that strategic planning process, we work through all of the things that could go wrong and put in place systems and processes designed to help organizations best plan for and respond to the full range of crises in the hope of averting or minimizing the impact.

Soon enough, I began to think about one of the worst crises that could happen to me on a personal level – that would be to get “downsized.”

So, I went about creating a crisis communications plan for myself and young family. The plan, based on what I had seen others go through, was to have in place a mechanism to never be unemployed.  Or more to the point, I wanted to have a system in place for being a self-employed communications consultant from day one, even if the decision to be self-employed was not entirely my own.

Fortunately, I was promoted and achieved PR career success from that point on, but the seeds of the idea of running my own public relations firm took root. Eventually, I was able to voluntarily and with purpose, start O’Brien Communications as a corporate communications consultancy. My crisis communications plan had evolved into a business plan, which became a course of action.

That’s my PR firm’s story. It’s key to me and anyone who wants to know how serious I am about serving clients.

I told you this because I wanted to practice what I’m about to preach.

Stories are more powerful and effective than simple key messages. Yes, any time we formulate a public relations program, we should create key messages and build our communications around our key messages. That, in fact, is where our stories should be rooted.

But it’s through the telling of stories where we connect with people. It’s where our audiences find common ground and common understanding.  It’s where they identify ways to relate to us and subsequently believe us.

For this reason, I’d advise that in planning your next public relations program, don’t just come up with a list of key messages designed to fit within the 40-second sound bite format of most TV news operations. Go one step further, and attach a story to each key message so that when given the chance, you can breathe life into those key messages and make the strongest connections possible.

When a Crisis Hits You Can’t Rely on a Template

Extinguisher

As with any professional discipline, the way crisis communications is practiced can follow different approaches, or different schools of thought. This is particularly the case when it comes to crisis communications planning.

Just recently, I told a group of college students an old story for me of how I once had to rewrite a crisis communications plan where there was so much tutorial information up front that its Table of Contents appeared on page 36!

As a point of reference, imagine if the emergency manual at a power plant was equally packed with background information, so that when an accident occurs, the emergency responders would have to plow through 36 pages of background before they could even tell what was in the plan.

This is rare, of course, but it was a sign of things to come.

This old crisis communications plan had something in common with so many others, though, which was that it was also dense with volumes of hypothetical press releases and statements. There was a template news release in the event of workplace violence, another one in the event of a flood impacting operations, and another in the event of a product recall.

That’s a school of thought that persists.

For some organizations such template documents give them a sense of comfort that they feel they have thoroughly anticipated every possibility and are prepared. This can be a false sense of security, to be sure. Yes, the effort to think through and develop all of this content is often distracting and wasteful of time, money and resources. But perhaps worst of all, organizations can tend to feel so burdened by the crisis communications planning process that managers look for every excuse not to participate, which can have a direct impact on the organization’s readiness when a crisis hits.

The truth is, you cannot anticipate every possible crisis situation in advance to the point where you can write a passable first draft of a news release. Once the crisis happens, there are usually so many distinguishing factors tied to time, place and the people affected, among other things, that you have to start all over. If the template release is helpful at all, it may be in the first five minutes of the crisis, and after that, the many hours spent on developing, editing and approving it are quickly devalued.

What then matters is that a solid communicator be in the loop directing that part of the crisis response process. That there is a team involved in information-gathering and strategic planning and response. That a reliable spokesperson has been designated to assure the organization speaks with one voice.  And that an organizational commitment is made to responsible communication and accountability.

Just as with anything done right, it just can’t be handled with a template. Rather, the sense of security has to come from knowing there is a quick-start process in place, that the organization is practiced in it, that it’s tied to the way the organization already works and makes decisions, and that good people are involved in the crisis plan’s implementation.