You Only Need One Out of Four Crisis Communications “Experts”

crisis communications

There are four kinds of crisis communications experts. Spoiler alert. You only need one of them.

Here they are:

  1. The Academic
  2. The Performative Presenter
  3. The Media Trainer
  4. The Counselor

The reason you only need one is because only one of these four has actually managed a crisis before. If you’re not sure which one is the one you need, we’ll get there.

The Academic

The first is the Academic, which is the college professor who teaches a few courses on campus, perhaps does some research on crisis communications, travels during the summers to symposiums, gives some speeches, and maybe writes textbooks.

Academic crisis communications experts usually have never been in the trenches on a crisis. They’ve never had to put their theories to the test in the real world under the same pressures that those going through crises actually experience. They’ve never had to worry about being humiliated, fired or sued or even prosecuted for making a crisis communications mistake. They test their theories out on each other at those summer symposiums, and if all goes well, they pave the path to tenure.

The $75 books they write are an easy sell. Students have to buy them if they take certain courses on campus.

The Performative Presenter

Of the four types of crisis communications experts, the Performative Presenter is the newest phenomena and perhaps the most dangerous.

The Performative Presenter may have gone to college as a theater major, or perhaps wanted to get into TV news. Somehow, he or she stumbled across an article or a book on crisis communications and it looked easy enough for them to grasp. So, they imagined a way to give a speech on it as though they are motivational speakers.

As crisis communications content goes, it’s usually very rudimentary and sometimes downright naïve. Performative Presenters are very good at what they do. They can make Crisis Communications 101 sound profound, and they can make themselves sound much more knowledgeable than they actually are.

The more they present, the better they hone their schtick. They add new workshops to the mix and typically find certain industries, trade groups and audiences that are enamored with them. They travel from event to event, preaching a one-dimensional gospel they’ve mastered. Their audiences are more often not new to communications issues and process.

The pandemic exposed some Performative Presenters because for all intents and purposes, their business dried up due to the lockdowns. Think about that. We all experienced one of the worst crises in our lifetimes, and these crisis communications “experts” were sidelined because they weren’t actually capable of engaging in real crisis management.

What makes the Performative Presenter dangerous is that these are the folks most likely to get a call from cable news or the New York Times to comment on a breaking national crisis. They are the ones quoted in the trades where other communications professionals read them, and possibly take their word as gospel.

Performative Presenters tend to shoot from the hip and guess a lot. They imagine what they would do in a crisis, in microcosm, and scale it in their minds to the organizations and people involved. They are very often terribly wrong.

I read something from one Performative Presenter recently on a brand crisis. The brand involved was losing millions and millions of dollars to a boycott. That factor alone defined the severity of the crisis. It was all about the money. Had the company not been losing money there would have been no crisis. Yet the Performative Presenter wrote that the big mistake the brand made it didn’t have the proper conviction in the cause, that it should have doubled down on the thing that caused the boycott to start with.

That’s like a cardiologist telling a man who just had a heart attack he should have eaten more French fries. She allowed her personal feelings about the issue to cloud her judgement on what it would take to stop the financial hemorrhaging.  That’s dangerous.

The Media Trainer

The third type of crisis communications expert is the Media Trainer. Usually, this person is a refugee from the broadcast industry. Make no mistake, some of the best media trainers I know are television veterans. Most have solid broadcast journalism experience, and you can learn a ton from them, including for crisis scenarios.

I’ve worked with a number of former TV news professionals in training and preparing clients for crises.

Unlike the Academic or the Performative Presenter, the Media Trainer likely has some professional experience with crisis situations, but usually from the perspective of a reporter who covered the story. To be sure, this can be very helpful in crisis preparedness. A good TV veteran can put your spokesperson through the gauntlet during training exercises so that the spokesperson is best prepared to face the media at crisis time.

But Media Trainers tend to have a blind spot. They start to actually think of themselves as crisis communications experts simply because they are effective at preparing people for media interviews. What they tend to overlook is that’s only a small fragment of what real crisis communicators do.

The Counselor

The fourth type of crisis communications expert is – you guessed it – the one you need if you’re facing a possible crisis. This is the Counselor, and he or she most likely has been through a few crises already. The Counselor has already seen what you’re facing or what you’re about to face.

They’ve “been there, done that.” They’ve already made their mistakes and learned from them, or they’ve worked with clients who’ve made a myriad of mistakes and learned from them. They’ve done things right and seen how that had an effect.

They’ve developed and implemented plans, messaging, tactics and created channels for crisis communication. They don’t need a symposium to tell them what to do.  They don’t need affirmation from an audience at a trade show. They know that there is so much more to crisis management than dealing with the media.

Perhaps one of the biggest things they bring to the table is that ability to calm your leadership, engender confidence in the process, work through the problems and the solutions, and be a quiet leader and resource. A good crisis Counselor makes you feel better about things instantly. Strategies, messages and action items start to fall into place amidst all the chaos, stress and tension all around you. But it’s not all strategy and messaging. A crisis Counselor will likely get into the details. Right down to the kind of music your customers listen to, how close your plant is to a nearby school, or where your workforce likes to go for a beer after hours.

This is something the Counselor has mastered, and it’s something the other three “experts” often don’t fully grasp.

Counselors know how to step back and not get emotionally attached to certain positions or issues at the center of the crisis, while remaining committed to ethical decision-making. Counselors understand that they do not work to please the media, but rather for the good and welfare of the organization. Counselors know that they aren’t expected to have all of the answers all of the time, but they are secure enough in themselves to know it’s more important to ask all of the right questions.

This is the crisis communications expert you need.

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The Essential Crisis Communications PlanTim is the author of the forthcoming book called “The Essential Crisis Communications Plan: A Crisis Management Process that Fits Your Culture.” He is founder of O’Brien Communications and has provided crisis communications and issues management support to clients from Fortune 100 firms and national nonprofits, to emerging start-ups.

Tim has handled hundreds of crises, large and small over decades, working with some of the most iconic brands in the world along the way. To receive updates on when his book will be available for you, click here.

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