This was a year that tested the ability of governments, organisations and enterprises to communicate well in a crisis. The results of that test are in, and the verdict is unequivocal: fail.
None of these events was the direct result of a failure in communications or marketing. But in each case, the severity of the crisis was magnified by a lack of timely, accurate, helpful and reassuring communications from the entities involved. And in each case, one of the results was an evaporation in the reputation, credibility and trust of the entities involved.
So why did this happen?
From a corporate perspective I see three problems common to each case.
The first problem is leadership. In times of crisis, the first response of most leaders is to handle the problem now, and communicate later when you have a solution in place. That doesn’t work any more. Communications and action operate in parallel. Talk while you fix, or people will wonder why you are being so quiet. And as the crisis in Mumbai proved, if you don’t talk, the online universe will talk without you.
Fixing this problem requires the temerity to stop hiding public relations under marketing. This means selecting a head of communications with the abilities, gravitas and direct access to work at the C-suite level.
Too many companies and organisations - especially in Asia - appoint leading communicators who lack the seasoning and experience to be taken seriously beyond organising a press conference.
That brings us to the second problem, which is mindset. Whether you are in advertising, media, public relations, or any of the other functions in a marketing team, you are a communicator first, a marketer second, and a whatever-your-speciality third. This means that every organisation in a crisis has a team - sometimes a huge team - to call upon. But to get there requires that we start reminding ourselves that the skills we possess can, in times of need, be applied to audiences beyond the market and to purposes beyond selling.
And now the third problem. The communications professions have spent the past six decades forming and improving the crisis management craft. Yet what we faced this year are a series of disruptions that far exceed in scope the focus of traditional crisis management.
This is partly why so many executives failed to communicate. They were simply not prepared to deal with rapid, large-scale disruptive events.
It is time for a new craft: cataclysm management. I define cataclysm as a collective or systemic event in the wider environment that threatens the well-being of customers, stakeholders, or the very viability of the organisation.
The past year has proven that the unthinkable is now thinkable.
Corporate communicators need to recognise that the current playbook won’t work in these cases. We need to formulate a new set of approaches, tactics and techniques to deal with global and systemic events.
And we cannot afford to wait, because there is no indication that the cycle of cataclysms is over, and much to suggest there is more
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