Calling out the Arm Chair Critics
You know the story.
An unfortunate CEO forgets that the mike is switched on. A pensioner’s complaint is met with profanity by a disgruntled customer service rep, and goes viral on social media. A meaty substance of dubious origins is found in a TV dinner.
Just some of the myriad reputational traps a modern business might encounter.
What comes next is equally predictable: an avalanche of armchair critiques from crisis ‘experts’. Ten Tips for Avoiding PR Disasters. What Every Customer Service Team Needs to Know to Avoid Bad Headlines. Nine Lessons from Hamster-Gate.
Perhaps I have a contrary disposition, but I always find this slightly distasteful, and have got to thinking why.
Firstly, it’s the PR’s industry version of ambulance chasing. The equivalent of the call that starts ‘I see you’ve been in a bit of bother recently and think we can help?’ I’m all for having a wealth of comms expertise at the click of a search engine and clearly understand the need to make blogs newsy and relevant. But the blatant attempt to profit from others’ misfortune can cross the line in my view.
It is of course a straightforward and attractive way of publicising expertise, and there are all shades of commentary from the obvious and repetitive to the well thought-out from people with admirable expertise.
But here’s the rub: the vast majority of these critiques are written by people who aren’t directly involved, viewing the situation from a distance. You could argue that this distance adds objectivity. But so much of what really happens in a crisis is conditioned by the specific circumstances, organisational situation and culture of the company in the spotlight.
At these times I feel particularly sorry for the in house comms heads of the organisation in question. I know and have worked with a number of these people. It’s safe to say they know the 10 Top Tips by heart, and understand them. They are senior, experienced professionals.
But it’s one thing knowing the theory, and entirely another thing putting the theory into practice within a complex organisational system at a time of intense stress. A simple way of analysing many modern crises is a breakdown in alignment between a brand’s promise, its actions, and how society expects it to act.
The comms professionals within an organisation have a vital role in putting in place the capacity to understand and facilitate this alignment– plus prepare adequately for when it goes wrong. They are also a key (and often under recognised) part of shaping a positive organisational culture, true to the brand promise and societal expectations. But they are by no means in control of organisational culture or the resulting behaviour.
We know that in a social media age immediate response to a crisis is necessary if you’re to get ahead of and shape the narrative. But what happens if the incident occurs within a branch, or division of a business with a decentralised structure and no direct reporting lines to corporate comms?
The playbook says that senior executives should be quickly visible and present, demonstrating they are taking the incident seriously. But what happens when your CEO is being advised by legal counsel to tread carefully to avoid liability?
There are of course ways around each, and many reputational crises are averted by thorough preparation and great handling. The simple point is that broad brush, remote analysis of when things go wrong often ignores such complexities, and therefore does a disservice to the people involved and undermines any real takeaways as to what could be done better.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m EXCEPTIONALLY interested in hearing the inside story of a crisis. I’ll eagerly read the account of anyone experienced in being within the tent when handing a major reputational crisis, be they client side, agency partner or any other involved stakeholder. Understanding what really happened, and why, provides genuine insight which, as a practitioner in the field, I’m hungry for. Each crisis has its unique set of circumstances and learnings. Any crises communications practitioner who just relies on a static playbook or generic top tips is like a lawyer who relies solely on statutes, ignoring case law.
So be patient. Hold fire on the remote speculation and actually wait for the inside story to unfold. And have a thought for fellow professionals with their feet to the fire!
by Matthew Willis