[Editor’s Note: For this month’s dialogue, we’ve tried something different. Instead of a topic, we began by asking our dialoguers to react to a crisis scenario.
This month’s crisis pros are Ken Fields, SVP and senior partner, Americas crisis lead, at FleishmanHillard, and Ben LaBolt, partner, Bully Pulpit Interactive.
The main takeaway from the crisis scenario is the importance of crisis preparation. As crisis pros whose livelihood has them parachuting in to crises, Fields and LaBolt appreciate companies that have a crisis infrastructure, a set of plans and procedures and a well-practiced team when hired crisis pros arrive.
Such companies, they argue, are way ahead of the game. And in a crisis, where seconds often count, finding a prepared team is a boon for hired crisis pros.
Also helpful when crisis pros arrive is basic information about the situation. LaBolt emphasizes briefings with key company officials. Fields agrees and puts a priority on a clear list of the company’s most important stakeholders.
Another takeaway is that Fields and LaBolt believe the first piece of business, regardless of a crisis’ specifics, is that companies decide how they want to be perceived as handling the crisis. What is their reputation goal? Knowing this could inform every communication issued, or action taken, during a crisis.
Again, Fields and LaBolt prefer such reputation questions are decided before they walk into the company’s crisis war room.
After the scenario, we asked Fields and LaBolt about errors they see in crisis management. They agree companies that try to downplay the severity of a crisis is an egregious error.
And we asked about the subject areas of crises they expect to see during the next few months. Their answers included cybercrime, racial issues and voting rights and several work-related issues linked to COVID-19.
Their responses were lightly edited for space. A shorter version of this dialogue can be found in the August Crisis Insider.]
Crisis Insider: Here’s our scenario. You’re called to help a well-known multinational. It operates in four countries and employs 40,000 people.
One of its top executives, Employee 1, is an SVP and white. Employee 1 said on tape that it’s unfair she was passed over for a big assignment.
Employee 2 got the assignment. She too is an SVP and a woman; she is Black.
Employee 1 didn’t realize the tape was running when she said Employee 2 got the the assignment to make up for the company’s poor record on diversity. She implied Employee 2 got the assignment, in part, because she’s Black.
“Believe me, I know the company needs to improve its record on diversity,” Employee 1 says on the tape. “As a woman, I’ve been mistreated for years. But why should I suffer for the company’s poor record? I deserved that assignment, not [Employee 2].”
Employee 1 and 2 are respected in and outside the company.
The assignment they competed for is highly visible. Trades wrote about it. The trades did not mention the tape’s existence. Employees and management, though, know the tape exists. Rumors are moving internally.
How will you attack this crisis?
Ken Fields: A couple of things we’d think about in a moment like this, when eventually everyone is going to be watching how you react [because while the tape is not in the public eye], it soon will be.
The company must decide what it wants to be known for. What sort of company does it want to be known as? Making that [reputation] decision can’t start too early. Really, it should start before the crisis hits.
Once you’ve thought about who and what you want to be known for, then you can get into the logistics of the tape.
What else might be on it? Who else might have access to it? When might it be released in a more public way?
Crisis Insider: Whom would you get in the crisis war room initially, Ken?
Fields: The legal lead, the HR lead, the DEI lead, the operations folks. Those people need to be in the room as you’re talking through this so you can understand everything that might happen and where the company wants to go on this.
Those are just some of the initial things you’d do.
Ben LaBolt: I think of the opening phase as acting as an investigative reporter. And putting on the hat of the outsider who comes in and conducts an investigation about what happened.
Sometimes, with these incidents, the things that you hear in the run-up to the investigation don’t completely align [with what the investigation finds].
So, I’d want to listen to the tape. And I’d want to schedule a series of in-depth interviews (IDI), not only with the folks who will decide on the external communication, but also with high-level people. So, with the HR lead, the legal folks and the folks on the communication team, going department by department. Sometimes board members need to get involved to understand and information-gather too.
I’d want to know, what is the company’s track record on DEI? Were there other incidents that occurred that have not been reported?
What you’re driving at here is that external communication is much better if an internal action has been taken.
So, you want to do due diligence on the front end so you can act internally before you go external. That’s ideal.
Of course, the clock may be ticking. If there’s something [about the tape] on social media already, you know you don’t have much time. And you may be moving toward an interim solution, like announcing some sort of a review.
Ideally, you’d get the facts before the press does and are able to recommend some actions.
Fields: What Ben describes often has to happen very quickly. Sometimes within a matter of hours, when you’re really trying to get as much of that information as you can.
Once you have that context...and the facts, you can start building out the core messages that should drive all your communication to key stakeholders.
Those kinds of things have to be informed by the information that Ben just outlined...the information you need to get and the conversations you need to have. You just need to have them really quickly sometimes.
And it’s at that point you can build out a plan that is reflective of all the stakeholders you care about and reflective of the decision you made earlier about how you want to be perceived as having handled it. This can impact not only what you say, but, as Ben said, what you do, before you say anything.
In a crisis, you have to do all this fast. That’s why I think both of us will argue for trying to anticipate these kinds of scenarios and build the process, the function and the teams that allow you to do the work before the incident happens, and then you can adjust based on the actual scenario and the facts.
You have the infrastructure and the muscle memory to have your team implement this. If not, you end up spinning your wheels as the clock is ticking and the tape is starting to get out there.
DEI, Reputation and Action
LaBolt: On DEI particularly, we know a lot about the crisis before we arrive. There’s not a lot of room for error on DEI.
Ken talked about the type of company you want to be and what message you want to send. And there’s nothing that has more of impact on sales than brand and reputation.
So, this could really strike to the core of what the company is trying to communicate to their current workforce, to the workforce they’re trying to recruit and to consumers. So, a concrete set of actions needs to be developed here.
A company has to communicate not only that they have this set of DEI principles, but that the entire workforce is committed to them. And especially the leadership. So, an incident like this really undermines that commitment. It’s something that has to be taken every seriously.
Crisis Insider: Let’s role play. The CEO says, ‘Ken and Ben, I like what you’re saying. But I want to keep this quiet. I don’t want too many of our people working with you on this incident…Let’s do this with as few of our people as possible, because I think the more people we involve, the better chance [the tape] will leak to the press.’
Fields: Well, there’s a good chance the tape will leak to the press anyway. We can do this in a discrete way, but before you take an action on an employee, you have to talk with HR and legal. If you don’t have a team you feel can help you work through a crisis, you probably need a different team. What we suggest is you work with that team of key players in advance of a crisis. So, there’s not this stress and you know you have a team that’s practiced and has thought through these kinds of issues before. The team can deploy skills it’s acquired in the past to make sure the right things are getting done. But, you don’t want to do this without a good amount of input from people. That will not end up well.
Crisis Insider: The CEO says, ‘Do we need to get out a press statement now [even though the tape’s contents are not yet public]? I don’t want that tape to get to the press before we’ve issued a statement.’
LaBolt: We need to decide on what actions the company is going to take. We need to take those actions in advance of a press statement.
Now, if there’s inbound and the press says, ‘We’re going [to publish] in an hour,’ or there are leaks of the tape on social media, then our hand is forced. There has to be a comment from us in the story. We can say, ‘We’re reviewing the matter internally and/or with external help.’
We can couple [any action we take] with a punishment of [Employee 1], whether that’s an unpaid leave or some other action…both the workforce and the customer base need to see strong action taken by the leadership.
Crisis Insider: Stakeholders need to see action, right?
LaBolt: Yes. The workforce and consumers won’t be able to move on if they don’t see some strong action from leadership. They’re not going to be ready to move on if you say, ‘This is a private matter and we’re looking into it internally and it will be handled by HR.’ You have to stand behind your DEI principles and there’s an expectation that the leadership and all employees are dedicated to that mission.
Fields: What we’re saying is, at the end of the day, you have to think about how employees and other stakeholders are going to feel if they see [the tape’s contents] and company culture almost endorsing this. It’s probably not the kind of reputation you want to have with those stakeholders, whoever they are.
That’s why we’re arguing for being able to take some action quickly and why it’s really helpful to think through these situations in a dispassionate way before they occur so that you can determine the kind of actions you would want to take and then be informed by the individual circumstances rather than be trapped by waiting for every last detail to come in.
Crisis Insider: Let’s move to other questions. We’ve heard it’s important for outside crisis pros to take emotion out of the room. True?
Fields: It’s hard to take emotion out of the room. It’s more realistic to take it out of decision making. And make sure you’re making decisions based on facts and what’s in the long-term interests of the company. That emotion has built the company often. That passion has helped drive their business. So, we want to help them properly channel everything they believe and know and attend.
In the vast majority of situations, you have people sincerely trying to do the right thing, but a bad thing has happened. So, they’re trying to figure out how they can, sort of, reclaim the narrative because of that difficult moment. And helping them get through that is a pretty energizing thing, even when it’s in the middle of the night or the middle of the vacation.
Crisis Insider: Ben, what crisis errors make you wince when you read about them?
LaBolt: I think there’s a misunderstanding of how to handle crisis. It’s sort of a misunderstanding about the industry itself. When we talk about things like spin. If Ken and I are trying to spin a problem away, we haven’t done our jobs and probably should be fired.
It’s more about understanding the nature of the problem and trying to deal with it. Trying to get to accountability and then trying to rebuild after that has occurred.
It really takes a long time to put together facts and [on the] ground truth, so you’re able to go out with a statement and a series of actions that feel well-advised and meet the expectations of the stakeholders you’re trying to communicate with.
Lots of times there are statements put out that try to minimize what is clearly a very serious problem. They try to shirk responsibility and slam the door on something that is an issue by saying there’s nothing there at all, when the casual reader very much understands that there is. That happens a lot.
Fields: I’d give the same answer. When people try to minimize the concerns of others about a crisis, it generally [indicates] that they don’t have a complete feel for the stakeholders that [the company] cares about.
It’s totally appropriate to try to put a situation into context. But when that crosses the line into we’re minimizing the concerns or dismissing the concerns that people have about this, that is not a long-term strategy for building or maintain a reputation. That has increasingly become a political strategy, but it doesn’t get you where you need to be in terms of reputational support.
Crisis Insider: The economy seems to be recovering, though the Delta variant is a growing issue as we speak in mid- July. Do you anticipate recurring crises or situations that will arise in this climate?
LaBolt: Two things quickly. The pandemic certainly will continue to be a big issue, especially around the treatment of workers. I think there will be crises around offices opening and closing, the Delta variant questions about vaccination requirements surrounding companies and workers.
I also see companies being asked to weigh in on voting rights. There is an ask, especially for CEOs who spoke out on Black Lives Matter, to see if they’ll follow through on that and speak out against these bills that will diminish voting rights, particularly for diverse communities.
In San Francisco, we’re in the middle of the ongoing techlash, which is a reputation issue for nearly all the companies out here. I’d encourage companies to dig a layer deeper [to understand] what that’s about. It’s not only about data and privacy…it’s really about income inequality and whether or not the average American is benefitting from the opportunities tech companies are providing for people making extraordinary sums of money in the Bay area.
Fields: We are seeing a ton of cyber work, much of which is exclusively ransomware…we’re also not, nor should we be, ignoring the conversations around racial inequity. That’s something every executive is going to have to deal with because that problem’s not going to be fixed anytime soon.
And then we will see a chaotic environment around COVID. Companies are going to be asked to make decisions [on vaccines and masks] and it’s going to be difficult for them to do that.
Crisis Insider: What can a communicator at a small company do to prepare for crisis?
LaBolt: Ken mentioned a playbook. That’s something every company has to develop…there are a lot of surveys about this, but the last one I saw said more than 50 percent of companies didn’t have [a crisis playbook] with the right holding statements on the shelf.
If I were to triage spending, I’d spend money on infrastructure to help protect your data [against cyberattack] and use the rest to bring in outside counsel to walk you through how to handle a [data] breach.
There are strict timelines about notification and regulation. You have to get smart on that before it happens.
Fields: Most CEOs will appreciate it if you can help her think through the stakeholders that they need to reach out to and have that work done in advance.
That’s a relief in the room when you can have that up on a screen or on paper and say, ‘OK, these are the people we want to reach and here’s how we’re going to communicate with them.’
You can do that work now, in advance. It might change, based on the circumstances of a crisis, but it’s probably going to be pretty close. That work can pay off enormously.
Crisis Insider: A related question, Ben, what can [in-house] communicators do to ease the way before outside counsellors get into the room?
LaBolt: A few things. If the crisis has broken already one thing I could use is a social report. Zignal is something we like to use because we can see it on a screen in real-time and watch the different platforms. We really need to evaluate the scope and scale of the crisis.
I also want to understand the inbound. How many calls are they getting? Is this a regional problem, a national problem, international? I want to know where those calls are coming from.
As I said before, I also want briefings. There may be different perspectives [about what’s happened], so I want the no-holds-barred communication briefing. Then one from the attorneys...sometimes there’s a separate regulatory team.
I really want a series of IDIs (in-depth interviews) that don’t only involve people working in the war room but also from the various disciplines at the company. So, I’m getting that 360 picture and then we can come up with a battle plan.
Crisis Insider: Ken same question. Preparation is critical, right?
Fields: Yes. All those things are really, really helpful in the moment.
Before the moment, if they have not prepped, they have not worked through a crisis playbook, not done simulations or table top exercises, they’re going to be further behind.
If they’ve done that in advance, they will be exponentially farther along.
The other thing that is incredibly helpful to us is a review of who the stakeholders that they’re most concerned about, with as much detail as they can give us.
So, employees are almost always near the top of that list, but if they’re talking about customers, who’s the purchasing manager at the customer that you are most concerned about?
If you can do that with specificity, we can be specific in putting together a plan to address their needs.
Crisis Insider: What’s it like in a crisis war room? A crisis typically comes at the wrong time, right? Let’s hear some war stories.
LaBolt: A crisis usually starts when you’re at in the middle of a vacation and when you’re in some barely reachable place. I took one of those calls on New Year’s Eve in Mexico. It was not my preferred way to ring in the New Year.
There are several factors here. People [at a company] who handle crisis already have full-time jobs. So, they need support.
Also, they need another set of eyes, outside eyes, to pressure-test the ideas that they have in their head.
Often, they are too close to the problem to solve it, especially if it involves an individual at the company and/or they are unable to convince leadership to do the right thing that they know in their gut they must do.
So, having a third-party counsellor that can come in, who specializes in crisis, and can provide objective analysis about the problem, and can not only look at the current scope of the problem but can talk about how it is likely to metastasize, is a resource that is really valuable. It’s probably the number one thing we get calls about. It’s really a close partnership in which the communicators in the building really rely on external help.
Crisis Insider: What’s a crisis communicator’s life like?
Fields: Well, last night at midnight, I got a meeting invite for 6am this morning. The challenge is it can be very fatiguing if you’re constantly going from episode to episode.
The thing you have to remember is that as a crisis counselor the people you are supporting have often invested their entire professional lives in the business that is now being put at risk.
They need someone to come in who can view themselves both as a truth teller and who also is going to work like heck to make sure the people of that company who are doing the right thing…are not in some way damaged by this situation. They need a reputation defender.
And when you think about it that way, it’s a pretty important motivator and can help you get through those vacation moments that Ben just described.
The reason we do this work is to make sure that those people have somebody who’s telling the truth and somebody who will help them communicate in the face of very difficult circumstances.
What happens often, is, as Ben mentioned, there’s a [personal] investment [in the company and its staff from the people in the crisis room].
So, [a crisis] can be disorienting…and emotional and you can be too passionate. [The company employees] can make decisions that don’t serve their long-term interests very well. So, they need a counselor who can say, ‘This is how this is likely to play out. Here’s where we can take steps to mitigate it. And here are some principles you can use to make decisions. And here’s how we can help you communicate what you’re doing.'