The Ghosts of Crisis Management Past and Future
In the 35 years since I took a gamble and built a firm around the crisis management discipline, I have seen several major shifts in how corporations, celebrities, and other brands confront reputational attacks. Not only are the challenges we face today vastly different from those of the 1980s but there are also more tactics at our disposal to mitigate and respond to reputational risks than ever before.
When I co-founded Dezenhall in 1987, the conventional wisdom held that crises were merely communications problems, while I saw them as conflicts between my clients and the motivated adversaries that sought to profit from their misfortunes. This approach resonated with frustrated clients who recognized the need to manage controversies differently. I vividly recall a defining moment in the late 1980s when my firm worked with the plastics industry. In a live debate on The Today Show, we witnessed the power of media influence as a couple of adorable Girl Scouts concerned about the environment were pitted against a silver-haired plastics executive. The outcome was predictable. The executive was overshadowed despite his expertise, and the plastics industry took a hit. It was a wake-up call, highlighting the need for a different approach to crisis management.
Over the years, crisis management has transitioned from an obscure discipline to a dynamic field that demands constant adaptation. The corporate scandals and landmark Department of Justice settlements of the early 2000s, coupled with the economic collapse, brought the limitations of crisis management to the forefront. The old playbook no longer sufficed. The tough-guy CEOs of the past, exemplified by GE’s Jack Welch (RIP), are relics of a bygone era. Today, any sane advisor would hesitate to put a CEO on television during a crisis, as the outcome is overdetermined. The CEO will be savaged regardless of performance and likely lose their job. Recall former BP CEO Tony Hayward. The landscape has shifted, and the rules of engagement have changed.
In 2023, the press no longer upholds the pretense of objectivity. It’s a kill-kill-kill mentality fueled by the velocity and venom of the internet. Clickbait headlines are often the whole story for readers with diminishing attention spans. TV magazine shows, although they still exist, hold less relevance. The smartphone has become the primary source of information; when it comes to companies, the news is often negative. The rise of overseas troll farms, adept at manufacturing and distributing disinformation beyond the reach of a well-equipped legal system, poses a new threat. A mirror image of sensitivity-driven incantations has replaced the swaggering CEO as companies strive to cater to the demands of a young, savvy, upwardly mobile audience.
Today, crisis management is a cliché, a commodity offering peddled by Madison Avenue, serving up platitudes such as “A crisis is an opportunity” and “Get ahead of the story.” The ability to measure results has become the primary objective, not merely to gauge success but also for job security and to avoid risk. While the digital age has ushered in new avenues for crisis management, it would be misguided to believe that all traditional damage control devices can be replaced by a simple swipe right. The digital landscape is essential, but the essence of effective crisis management remains grounded in strategic thinking and a deep understanding of the complex dynamics at play.
So, now what? Where are we, and where are we going? What will the smart managers of public controversy do going forward? I would suggest the immediate future looks something like this:
1. The Shrinking Timeframes: Gone are the days when organizations could stall before responding to a crisis. Today, the digital age has ushered in an era of urgency, necessitating swift and proactive responses to crises. Even if you have no information to share, the act of not responding provokes charges of mismanagement. This, however, does not mean a rushed response; it requires strategic planning and effective, timely execution to mitigate potential damage.
2. Data is King: With advancements in analytics, data has become the new sovereign in crisis management. Digital analytics and audience-building tools offer unprecedented insights, enabling companies to tailor their crisis communications to appeal to specific demographic segments and interests. Organizations utilize data to target a particular audience, track real-time public sentiment, and inform strategic responses. This degree of personalization is vital in an age where the right message can make all the difference.
3. The Rise of Social Media Influencers: Third-party surrogates have been a vital aspect of the advocacy game for as long as I’ve been around. The introduction of hyper-targeted social media platforms has given way to an army of online influencers, some not old enough to vote. They have unique benefits to “third party 2.0” tactics like op-eds, policy papers, etc.; most importantly, they have loyal audiences, a simple distribution model, countless monetization opportunities, and instant credibility. Companies increasingly opt to mobilize surrogates to debate issues on their behalf, given their hyper-targeted audience and the high risk associated with them doing so directly, especially as political matters intertwine with corporate debates.
4. The Influence of Digital Marketing: Digital marketing techniques, such as SEO, content marketing, and social listening, have entered the crisis management field. These techniques help control online narratives, shape public perceptions, and are instrumental tools in crises.
SEO lets companies strategically position their crisis communications to appear prominently in search engine results.
Content marketing enables companies to proactively share valuable information, expert insights, and educational resources related to the crisis.
Social listening tools enable organizations to monitor online conversations, identify emerging issues, and engage with the public in real-time.
5. Softness Reigns: The “woke” phenomenon in corporate communications is not a passing trend; it’s an enduring shift in corporate rhetoric. Corporations are shifting their language towards softer, more inclusive language, focusing on risk avoidance, cultural consistency, and workplace harmony. This shift is a strategic response to the increasingly combative tone of political discourse. However, companies must strike a balance. While navigating contentious issues with sensitivity and empathy is essential, it is equally crucial to avoid getting caught in the crossfire of every political battle just because a small cohort demands it.
6. The Rise of Defamation Law: Educating journalists in attack situations is becoming increasingly difficult due to shifts in the media landscape. Consequently, corporations are turning to defamation lawyers to navigate interactions with media outlets, supplementing PR firms’ traditionally occupied role and working with PR teams, who engage directly with reporters. In contrast, lawyers provide strategic counsel to protect the organization’s interests. The combined expertise of PR professionals and defamation lawyers allows companies to navigate the intricate web of media interactions while ensuring their legal rights are upheld.
7. The Silent Counsel: Experience, wisdom, and judgment remain at the core of crisis management. Seasoned advisors are often the invisible heroes, helping organizations steer clear of controversies through their strategic counsel. C-Suites and brand managers need to embrace data-driven advice while remaining skeptical. While quantitative insights are crucial to decision-making, companies should not discount qualitative factors. Understanding whether a proposed strategy aligns with their interests and values is paramount. Their silent counsel is often instrumental in shaping crisis management strategies behind the scenes.
The ghosts of crisis management past have shaped our present, but we can’t look backward for answers when the future is so different. The dynamic evolution of crisis management, driven by the digital age, demands constant adaptation and innovation. As we navigate this exciting era, we must draw upon the wisdom of the past while embracing the transformative potential of digital practices. Converging traditional principles with emerging trends offers unprecedented opportunities to navigate crises and build resilient reputations. We plan on diving deeper into the themes above on this forum in the coming weeks and look forward to the discussions it might spark.
I am excited to witness the continued growth and transformation of crisis management — albeit a little nervous — and know that a new generation of minds and sentiments will be able to guide us through it.