Climate Change: Emerging Front in Crisis Communications

Mad Men, the hit AMC series about a 1960s ad agency, evokes a workplace culture where outrageous sexism—behavior which even hinted at today would unleash a firestorm of litigation—is standard operating procedure.
In contrasting then and now, the show’s writers invite reflection about our profession and the real world. Public relations crises often occur when what was tolerable “then” suddenly becomes unacceptable “now,” such as the use of corporate jets by the auto industry, or distributing fat bonus checks to investment bankers. 

The next crisis to blindside companies in this respect may well concern the environment. This is an issue where public opinion has rapidly evolved and where the outcome is still uncertain. Consider that in the past five years:

•    Climate change has moved from a disputed hypothesis to a generally accepted fact.

•    Al Gore has received the Nobel Prize for educating the world on global warming, top universities have established degrees in global environmental politics and environmental activism has emerged as a coordinated and sophisticated global movement.

•    More than 60% of Americans say it is “extremely” or “very” important that Congress take action to address the environment this year (CNN), and more than 80% have made lifestyle changes to help protect the environment (Gallup).

In short, management needs to ensure that its crisis planning (and its environmental policies) reflects these volatile conditions. What should be done? Here are some good starting points:

•    Understand the two crucial facts of crisis planning: There are two hard truths of crisis communication: 1) The court of public opinion is not a court of law; when crisis strikes, typically a company is presumed to be guilty. 2) Communications mistakes in the first 12 hours of a crisis are usually irredeemable. These two facts explain why planning is so important. Most organizations can anticipate the most likely crises. Given this, basic decisions about the structure of decision making, preliminary messages and external spokespersons can and should be predetermined.

•    Understand your company’s risk exposure: Some industries are clearly more threatened by environmental crisis than others. But nobody should discount secondary risks. For example, have you evaluated your entire value chain? How could you be damaged by the environmental practices of a key vendor or client? What about the state of your green office practices or your efforts to reduce your overall carbon footprint? Do you know how your key audiences are changing their standards of acceptable practice in this regard? In short, go to the next level in assessing how you might be at risk.

•    Practice the crisis: Crises do not respect corporate organizational lines—a toxic discharge could undermine a company’s marketing strategies, its stock price, its supplier relations and its human resource management. This is why, for many companies, scenario planning is an important tool. These kinds of exercises are virtual war games that force management to view and respond to a likely crisis in its full dimensions and to work together with representatives from every constituency.

•    Plan for the worst case: Professional baseball players swing weighted bats before they hit so that the real bat feels lighter at the plate. Similarly, make sure that your crisis planning includes some heavy lifting exercises. What’s realistically the worst thing that could happen and how would you respond?

•    Go to school: Study the issues that have confronted other companies in your industry and evaluate which are relevant to you, what their response was, what worked, what didn’t and why. This intelligence can be an invaluable addition to your planning.

•    Forewarned is forearmed: Companies targeted by environmental activists are often discussed in blogosphere well in advance of attacks and long before the mainstream media becomes involved. Your company should have a mechanism in place to monitor what’s being said about it—as well as key competitors in your industry—online, and a policy about when and how to respond.

•    Rehearse: Subject your spokespeople to a rigorous round of mock interviews. Hire a media trainer or a former journalist to pose questions and challenge the answers. Chances are that your spokesperson will never be asked the types of tough questions that will be posed during such sessions; however, he or she will be thoroughly prepared.

•    Be accessible and err on the side of caution: During crisis, especially when companies feel under siege, there is a temptation to hunker down. This is usually a mistake. Management needs to project an image of accessibility during crisis. That doesn’t mean, of course, that communication should be loose or unscripted. In crisis, caution is usually the prerequisite for credibility. If there is any doubt about a fact or development, demonstrate both candor and determination: “We don’t yet know, but we are working hard to find out.” Ultimately, good-faith observers will respect caution; they will find it hard to forgive hyperbole or undelivered promises.

•    Crisis as opportunity: If a crisis is short-lived and management has presented credible remedies, take the offensive to use media opportunities to strengthen your reputation (for example, your company’s environmental track record as well as involvement in various socially responsible causes). Chances are that media coverage will be fair and balanced.

Having a plan in place (and one that is continuously reviewed and updated) will assist greatly in preparing for such an eventuality and serve to hasten the recovery of your corporate reputation. PRN

This article was written by Robbin S. Goodman, an EVP and partner at Makovsky + Company. She can be reached at