Lessons from the Worst Communication Blunders of 2021 And What We Can Do About It 

A year ago, in the Jan. 2021 Image Patrol, we called 2020 a banner year for crisis communication managers. Every time you turned around another company got caught doing something stupid, and since so many of us were home with nothing to do but doomscroll Twitter, every misstep became a crisis.

I didn’t think it was possible then, but 2021 was worse.

Thanks to advertisers and the media’s focus on engagement as a key metric, crises have surfaced and been amplified at a far higher level in 2021 than they were in 2020. Because they bump up engagement numbers, the plague of misinformation, disinformation, rumors and lies skyrocketed to the top of everyone’s news feed and we all got angrier at everything.

And, since anger drives engagement and engagement bolsters advertising revenue, the cycle will just get worse in 2022. But there are lessons we can take with us into the new year from all the messes that CEOs made, and PR pros were asked to clean up.


Lesson #1: Culture and Crises are Connected

In virtually all the crises we analyzed in 2021 Image Patrol columns, corporate culture played a definitive role. Whether it was oversized egos,  institutional greed or inherent  naïveté, the way a company is run and the nature of who is running it, played a definitive role in how the crisis played out.

What to Do: If the problem is the CEO, and there’s no chance of that person leaving, you need to dust off your resume and find another job.

If the corporate philosophy is profit over people, greed over ethics, or growth at all costs you will, eventually, be dragged into the cesspool of crisis that a bad corporate culture creates.

When there is potential for change, and you’ve experienced a recent crisis, conduct a root-cause analysis to determine the real problem or cause.

If you’re one of the lucky ones who hasn’t gone through the ringer in the last few years, find a similar organization that underwent a trauma and take a hard look at what fundamental issue caused its fall from grace. Use that information to try to make necessary changes at your organization.


Lesson #2:  Forget the Funnel

We’ve talked for years about the marketing funnel, a process where a theoretical customer passes from awareness to consideration to preference to action. The problem today is that the journey from awareness to action is anything but direct.

There are many things that determine whether someone does business with an organization. These include everything from what politicians an organization has contributed to, to the user interface on its website to how quickly it responds to an angry customer complaint on Twitter. Even loyal customers can be lured away if they don’t feel like their complaints are heard.

Under the best of circumstances, your target becomes aware, talks to friends, checks reviews and meanders down an increasingly complex set of pathways to, with luck, end up doing business with you. Along the way, there are myriad stimuli that are likely to distract them.

What to Do: Toss the funnel and think of the process as more like a sieve. Your job as a communicator becomes more like a cowboy herding cats–i.e., developing effective communication strategies to keep that target headed in the right direction.

So, make sure you are monitoring (and measuring) the competition and how you are perceived in the marketplace.


Lesson #3: Prove your Value in Terms of the Business, Not in Terms of Your Activities.

Unless your goals are to increase anger and bad behavior, engagement numbers by themselves are an insufficient measure of your success. Value in the minds of people who sign your paycheck means greater efficiency, and lower costs, or bringing in more money or customers as a result of communication.

So, if your goal is getting people vaccinated, you can’t measure results looking at Likes. Instead, measure the size of the vaccinated population.

If you work for a nonprofit, the goal is raising funds or getting people to change behavior to help achieve the societal good that is your organization’s mission.

Because of that reality, 2022 will be the year that many vanity metrics and bloated reach numbers get resigned to the toxic waste dump of history.

What to Do: If you want credibility within your organization, you need to speak the language of business. Regardless of what it is, you need to demonstrate that your communication made progress toward whatever goals the organization defines as success.


Lesson #4: Your Goal May be to Survive Congressional Hearings.

We wrote last year that everyone is mad at The Machine. As we go into 2022, they are even madder.

Some of that anger and madness is fueled by lack of information or disinformation on social media, but a lot more of it comes from whistleblowers and former employees who are fed up with not being heard.

Remember, our elected representatives and their staff spend as much time on social media as the rest of us. Their standard response to a problem is to investigate the cause. Companies being hauled up in front of a congressional hearing never do well, but the whistleblowers who reveal juicy secrets become overnight heroes.

What to Do:  Make sure your budget includes funds for regular pulse-check surveys to find out what really is on people’s minds. And address their issues with real solutions.

If not, you could be looking at unions and labor issues. Be transparent, and if you are dragged in front of Katie Porter’s whiteboard, be really, really, really prepared. Investigating the darkest corners of your organization’s history before Congress does is a great start.

Then, cure the problem and with luck you can get ahead of the crisis. And, if you get hauled in front of a hearing, do your homework on the people to whom you are speaking.


Lesson #5: Measure Results from the Outside In.

For years, communication professionals used measurement to quantify their activities. At best, they’ve measured the degree to which they have been successful at smothering the audience with their messages.

Changes in societal norms and demographics are forcing a re-evaluation of who their audiences really are. Many organizations are discovering that their audiences are far more diverse than they expected.

Those organizations have switched their approach to measuring outcomes from the target audience perspective. Their measurement programs start with deep dives into what those audiences care about, what they listen to and where they get information. Only with that data under their belt do the companies measure whether they are reaching the audience and meeting its needs effectively.

What to Do: Listen more than you talk. And again, budget for pulse-check surveys and other ways to get feedback from audiences. If you can’t claim direct attribution for all of the organization’s success, at least agree upon acceptable proxies that will help you show your contribution to its goals.

Correlate your communication activities to steps customers or employees take toward the goals as a result of what you do.


Lesson #6: View Communication Holistically.

As Mary Miller of Miller Communications puts it: “Every business problem in existence can be traced to a communication breakdown.”

To avoid a crisis, you need an integrated, holistic and consistent set of messages and values that you communicate to all your audiences.

Traditional silos are crumbling from the outside in. As a result, those traditional buckets of communication are one big leaky barrel of messages that will either get intentionally or accidentally disseminated to all your audiences, whether you like or not.

For many organizations, talent acquisition and retention are at the top of their 2022 goals. This requires good internal communication. The answer isn’t to talk more; it’s to listen better. To be human means needing people to listen to you. And the single most important goal for internal communication these days is for employees to feel like you are listening and addressing their issues.

What to Do: First, develop feedback loops from employees, customers, prospects, opinion leaders, potential employees–in fact, any audience that matters. In all communication be as transparent, honest and open as possible. Don’t assume you can keep bad news hidden for very long.

More important, avoid communication breakdowns–make sure that your messages are consistent no matter the audience. Again, conduct frequent pulse-check surveys to find out what is on the minds of your audience members.


Lesson #7: ESG Issues are Top of Mind for Investors.

If you work for a public company, its ESG score (and communication around it) will have a significant impact on share price in 2022. Investors will use it to determine the level of risk that your organization faces.

Even if your stock isn’t listed yet, keep ESG ratings top of mind. Chances are few that investors will want to take a flyer on someone whose prior record on climate, social justice and good governance isn’t stellar.

Nonprofits need to think along the same lines; no one gives anyone money these days if they don’t trust the organization to use it in a way that is sustainable, just and legal.

What to Do: Think holistically. ESG scores go up and down based on the performance of the whole enterprise. So, put someone in charge of ESG communication who has deep knowledge of the organization.

Give that person the resources and support to ensure that they can actually make a difference, whether with better policies or better communication. The upside is that if you raise your score, that’s a great opportunity to show leadership the value of communication.