All Things Being Equal, A Trust Bank Helps You Emerge Faster from a Crisis

[Editor’s Note: This month’s dialogue considers why two entities can react similarly to PR crises and obtain vastly different results: One company exits the crisis promptly, the other continues to experience issues. Our dialoguers are Maureen Cahill, partner, Bellmont Partners, and Dan Jasper, VP, communications, Mall of America. Interestingly, Cahill was Jasper’s predecessor at Mall of America. ]

Crisis Insider: Let’s assume two companies, organizations or people handle a crisis roughly the same way. Why, then, does one entity ‘survive,’ returning to business as usual relatively quickly, and the other seems mired in crisis debris for weeks or longer?

Dan Jasper: Given the scenario, where one company is more successful in exiting the crisis than the other, in my mind a lot of that lies in the trust that’s been built up in the years leading to the crisis. So, if the public and their constituencies, their consumers and clients, have faith that the brand is going to be transparent, is going to be forthright, is going to fix an issue, that brand’s ability to get beyond a crisis is going to be much easier than a brand that doesn’t have that reputation. That’s one reason.

Maureen Cahill: I agree, Dan, on trust. Bottom line, it’s about relationships.

Relationships with consumers, with the media, with your partners, vendors. How you react to outside [stakeholders] is important all year round, not just when there’s a crisis. It’s building those relationships, building trust. So, when a crisis happens you’re able to say, ‘Let’s step back and deal with it.’ And all those audiences trust you.

I’ve been in a crisis when I said to the media, ‘This just happened. Give us a half-hour’ [and we’ll have something for you.] And [the media] has come back and said, ‘Thank you for being open.’ They appreciated that we had a dialogue and weren’t going to put our head in the sand.

Jasper: I agree 100 percent. It’s that you’ve built a reputation leading up [to the crisis] with consumers, media, with leadership and ownership.

Then there are fundamentals: being prepared, having a plan, having your ownership and leadership onboard with that plan. And, the crisis communication person has a significant seat at the table. That person is looked at as an asset in [a crisis situation], as a leader.

That’s been critical in some very tough situations. When we walk into that room, leadership and ownership value my advice and direction. That can save hours, because you don’t have to get to that point, you’re already there.

Cahill: Absolutely. Whether it’s in your company or at an agency, [the crisis pro] just can’t be the messenger. You have to be at that table crafting those messages, playing through the scenarios. It’s not just thinking about a crisis and how to react, but digging down deep and considering who is at that table. All this goes back to relationships and trust.

The media knows you’re part of the conversation, not just a talking head repeating the company line. [The crisis communicator] has to be organic and authentic and part of [the decision-making process].

Jasper: Maureen is exactly right, especially when you’re dealing with a local media team that understands your brand and company. They’ll know if you’re just a PR person put out in front of the camera to handle a situation or whether you’re part of the decision-making team. And there’s a lot of respect that comes when [media] understand[s] you’re part of that leadership team.

CI: Assume I’m a communicator without a significant seat at the table right now. Maybe I’m an outside consultant, brought in at the last minute. What can I do to improve my situation?

Jasper: The first thing to do is hold an after-action meeting with the leaders in your organization. That’s when you start the conversation that begins, ‘It’s really critical that I’m at this table from this day forward. So, the next time we’re in a crisis situation, I’m up to speed and you see the value of this role and you understand this is an integral part of our team. Then you bring evidence [from other crises] to the table.

If you’re not part of that team you must have an honest heart-to-heart, and it’s going to take more than one [meeting]. But it’s not letting it go. It’s being persistent and constantly saying, ‘This is critical. This is our brand and our future. Myself and my team play a critical role in this and you can’t just bring us in last minute.’

Cahill: Working at an agency, you may have to helicopter in [to a crisis], working with a company you didn’t know previously. Even in that situation, it’s about building trust with the client [when you walk in]. You have to say, ‘If you want us to [reach a successful outcome] we have to be part of your team, be at that table.’

It’s the same in situations where you’re [an agency person] working with a company [regularly]. It’s important to have those meetings [before a crisis hits] where you build trust and learn about what the company does day-to-day. And you pose ‘what-if’ scenarios and questions with leaders of the company, not just your contact. Get up to the top leaders and say, ‘We’re the experts. We’re doing this now so if and when [there’s a crisis], we can have a better outcome.’

Jasper: I agree 100 percent. We use an outside agency [for crisis periodically]. Among the first things I did was build a relationship with them. But then, I brought them in to meet ownership and leadership. So, [ownership and leadership] saw them as a trusted asset. And there was so much value when I hit my first crisis because leadership and ownership already knew [the outside agency] and trusted them. They brought this outside objectivity to the situation. So, doing the prep work ahead of time is really important.

CI: Maureen spoke about helicoptering in on a crisis. Dan, you advise sister companies during a crisis that you may not know as well as the main company. What are the hurdles when you first walk into the room?

Cahill: I’ve been on both sides. I’ve been in Dan’s seat and in an agency, where sometimes I’ve had a long-standing relationship with a client’s leadership and other times when I haven’t.

In the scenario [where you don’t know the client well], it’s very important to be upfront, lay the groundwork right away. Say, ‘We’re an extension of your team. We need to be at the table.’

Jasper: One thing [you have to do] is help take the emotion out of the meeting. So many times, people are so tied to what’s happening. They see the situation with blinders on. It’s a limited perspective. A critical role that we play is reminding them how the situation looks to people outside the company. Be that objective person coming in. Telling them, ‘Hey, let’s take a breath and look at it from other perspectives.’

Also, be bluntly honest. I don’t hold back in crisis. My job is to give them my very best advice and to advocate strongly, fiercely, for it. I remember being in a crisis, relatively early in my career. I was in a room with leadership, ownership and federal authorities. There was not consensus [on what to do]. And I said, ‘We’re going to do this.’ There was concern in the room about my recommendation. But I said, ‘No, you don’t understand. This is the path we’re taking.’ It was scary as hell for me. Luckily, it turned out to be a good decision, but I think that’s our role, to be a strong advocate. Especially when there are a lot of people in the room, it’s tough to get consensus. We need to be a leader in those situations.

Cahill: I agree. Take the emotion out of the room. Crisis can get very emotional.

Jasper: Right. We had a crisis that was terribly emotional, horribly emotional. For most crisis situations we handle them internally. Within three minutes on this one I called an outside counsel that I trust. ‘’I’m too close to this….” So, if we can’t take the emotion out of it, it’s our role to bring in somebody who can do that for us.