Crisis tests Character

Article by: S Roy Kandpal 

It is not the question of ‘if’ but ‘when’. Some businesses are by default prone to certain vulnerabilities such as a pharmaceutical company or a hospital; there are vulnerabilities that does not differentiate and all are prone to them such as earthquakes, product faults; and then there is ignorance and wilful deeds that makes you extremely vulnerable. Before we proceed, it is important to define what a crisis is and what it is not. Every negative article, every customer issue, although, may be an origin, is not a crisis. We are not talking about winning the battle of news cycles but winning the war of the news story. By default every single negative reference in media is discounted in the seriousness of crisis we are talking about. But any development that erodes trust and threatens your very existence, is a full blown crisis that has already discounted your bottom line.

There are a few truths about a crisis that we can establish:

  • Most issues develop over time. A crisis misleads us to believe that it is an event. An occurance that we need to prepare for. On the contrary it is an issue that finally manifests in an unexpected way.
  • Most of the crisis can be spotted early at an issue level and controlled during escalation phase by taking necessary early steps.
  • In an interconnected world, an issue can erupt and transition from various departments; various geographies; various platforms and various stakeholders.
  • Often the media warm up to a trend only after it has been running for a while. There is herd mentality and inclination to reach a similar conclusion. Waves of hype grip the market, the news media are geared to capture the current zeitgeist which reflects the strongest consensus thinking.
  • Elite Wiesel, the writer and holocaust survivor said, the opposite of love is not hate. It is indifference. Consumers will ignore you if you lose their trust.
  • The basic rule: media’s love is a bad sign for any company and its indifference is a good one. We see how the once prominent media darlings are dragged in dirt on their way down.
  • Pessimistic visions about anything usually strike the public as more erudite than optimistic ones according to noted economist Schumpeter. So stop fighting the media and get on with what you need to do.
  • Refusing to communicate is a sure fire way to fail to communicate. Legal liability and financial exposure tends to cripple your decision making ability but every moment of delay digs a deeper hole for you.
  • Stick to the facts. Don’t make any assumption about anything. During the BP oil spill Tony Haywards told reporters that it was only a small spill. It turned out to be the biggest oil spill in the U.S. history and media continued to project his comment to show how little credibility he had.

There are certain new realities about information origin and dissemination that we need to keep in mind

  • In a highly skeptical world, the one who provides and seeks information are skeptical, the information is consumed and shared cynically resulting in cyclical cynicism and erosion of trust. So even before journalists asks you for your version they are expecting half the story (or less) and have got all other sources of information in place to align for the story they want to write.
  • Earlier we tuned in-absorbed information-tuned out but today we tune out-dig in-spread out. There is no one source of dominant information. Some prefer to live in known circles of known opinion and even become known vote banks. You get the information you want and rarely have to hear a dissenting voice.
  • We choose to associate with our version of truth. There are multiple realities and we choose to knowingly create a world of like minded people shutting out the rest. So you will find equal support for and against killing stray dogs. Equal amounts of admiration and hatred for a particular politician. In the internet age there is no single iconic measure of mainstream opinion. That distinction used to belong to the cover of news magazines but today by the time a story reaches the cover it is dead.
  • Marshall McLuhan the visionary media strategist coined the term “global village” which meant modern communication was going to replace individual cultures with collective identity. News travels fast and is constantly bombarded with new information. It could go around the world twice even before you have had a chance to catch a glimpse and react. Therefore reacting to news is a bad strategy.
  • Rush but don’t rush. Chasing news is a futile effort. In a situation where you cannot have complete grasp of all conversations or all the facts, quickly releasing response could do more harm than good. Audiences are looking for information they can trust. I am not allowed to say or I am not authorised to speak or I have no idea could be the lamest response and the beginning of a death spiral.

A 500 crore company today does not invest 1 percent in being crisis ready. Even though it has the potential to threaten their very existence. It is like the Indian insurance industry. Everyone thinks it will never happen or atleast it will never happen to them. It is not easy for companies to invest in a PR program for a possibility of destruction till it becomes a reality. There are too many things that grab our attention today. Although smart CEOs and organisations understand this better than others who dig the well much before they are thirsty.

What are the new basics that should be in place to manage a crisis in the new world:

  • Make place for a Chief Reputation Officer outside the PR department, who has to be part of a board; acting as a filter for all critical decisions that impact the company. Sometimes a company needs to be shielded from its own leaders.
  • CRO needs to identify the character of the organisation and invest to strengthen the tenets of that character. Building up credibility in the good times helps build reserve for the bad times.
  • Don’t listen to old PR counsel, don’t shield your leader, don’t get caught up in safe messaging and statements. Crisis requires a leader to step forward, take charge and act in the larger interest of the affected party. Messaging is important but it is even more important to be trustworthy, to be believable.
  • Admission of guilt is the toughest part. CFOs and lawyers will advice you against it. The consequences are dire therefore admitting a mistake is not easy. But history proves that those who did and moved on have come out better in a crisis.
  • Maria Sharapova called for a press conference and announced her error in consuming performance enhancing drugs. She has suffered less damage. On the contrary, Toyota received complaint of faulty pedal for 9 years and they lived In denial. By the time they accepted the mistake it was too late. Tiger woods took 4 months but the people pronounced him a serial cheater even before he decided to admit and there was no coming back from that deep rough.
  • Text book wisdom says keep calm but the very nature of crisis makes you lose control and act inappropriately that causes more damage. The best laid plans are forgotten in a war after the first shot is fired. Expect chaos.
  • Experts say take decisions but there are so many influencers within a company that decision making suffers at the cost of self preservation. Having a good counsel, a sound mentor is always an asset.
  • Be brutally focussed on actions you need to take according to the changing dynamics of the situation.
  • Mark twain memorably said, “When in doubt, tell the truth”.
    PR is built over time. What we said decades ago can come back to haunt us. Republican candidate Donald Reump is a living example of that. So align yourself and be good in general.
  • Don’t fight the media. Treat them as an ally. Be clear about what you know, what you don’t know and what you are going to do to find out what you don’t know. Use digital media for faster news dissemination. But also take key stakeholders, including media, into confidence, let them understand your challenges, your restrictions but never let them doubt your intentions.
  • Honesty and sincerity becomes very crucial in establishing trust. Victory is when people can trust you despite the crisis. Tony Fernandes actions post the 2014 AIrAsia crash killing 155 passengers is a good example of that.

We also need to appreciate that every new crisis seems to produce a new explanation for crises in general. So we will never know enough how to manage a crisis. By the very definition a crisis is a situation that paralyses you, brings out your worst fears, threatens your existence, questions your judgement and completely throws you off gear. So while we prepare for a crisis we must take heart in the fact that knowledge of not being in control, still is an advantage. No matter how disciplined you have been in preparation, you also need equal amount of discipline and mental toughness to navigate through the chaos-smog that a crisis creates. I am reminded of Albert EInstein’s famous line, a crisis introduces a man to himself. Although I am sure today the non-gender-neutral remark would have created a crisis for Einstein.

S Roy Kandpal works with Adfactors Public Relations