Authority: Granted and Earned

January 17, 2020

Critical Take-Aways

  • Authority is required to see any initiative through in an organization whether that is leading crisis response or beginning the journey to reputation resilience.
  • Authority is initially granted but then must be earned to see the initiative through.  
  • Ensure you have the necessary permissions and granted authority in place at the outset and then seek to continue to earn these to ensure success.

From the very beginning of the meeting, I could see the Legal team’s skepticism: “Who does this guy think he is?” was written all over their faces. After some introductions and reassurance from the manager who had engaged us, we were able to get to work, albeit grudgingly. We had been granted the authority we needed to start working with the client to solve their crisis issues. Fortunately, over the course of the crisis, we were able to demonstrate our expertise and worth. By the end of the response, we had earned that authority and the Legal team was among our biggest supporters.

However, in another crisis, we found ourselves without that authority and permission from the get-go. We thought we had it – we had been invited into the organization by the CEO after all – but we were wrong. We devised a crisis response plan with the Communications team, outlining what we thought was necessary. Then, at the 11th hour, just as we were preparing a press event for the leadership, the CEO and the board of directors pulled back. They rejected our suggestions due to that initial lack of authority: without that, we had no foundation to build upon and they weren’t wholly confident with our guidance.

As we work with our clients, we often find ourselves plunged into a crisis or critical moment without the time for appropriate introductions or explanations of our track record or how we do business. Someone, typically a board member or one of the senior leadership, has requested an outside communications expert to assist in rapid response. Often, there’s no pre-existing relationship but our authority originates from the permission we’ve been granted by the leaders of that organization.

Note that I said our authority ‘originates’ from the leadership. 

That alone isn’t enough to see you through a significant transformation or a crisis. Although some higher power initially grants authority, usually a senior executive or board member, maintaining that authority is not a right. As the first example shows, the initial grant of authority isn’t enough by itself. There’s a duty that comes with that authority and you can’t take it for granted. You need to respond accordingly and not be overly cavalier in your response. 

Therefore, you have to build on that initial allocated authority and demonstrate your expertise. That way, you move from assigned authority to earned authority

I’ve found the best way to earn that authority is through quiet competence. Show that you understand the brief, understand the situation and understand the organization as quickly as possible. Then, it’s all about doing your job: ask good questions to identify the real issues, design solutions and balance the competing interests that a crisis exposes. Help deliver practical, relevant solutions in a quiet professional way and enable the team to succeed. 

That’s going to reassure the people who engaged you that they made the right decision and demonstrates your abilities to the other members of the team. By then, you will have earned the authority you were assigned.

However, that assigned authority is still necessary, especially where there is no previous history. As the second example illustrates, without that initial grant of authority, you may not get the opportunity to earn it.

And this doesn’t just apply to consultants or new arrivals in an organization. You still need to be granted and subsequently earn authority for any new initiative, even if you are established within an organization. 

For example, we’ve talked numerous times about our belief that true reputational resilience comes from both crisis readiness and risk awareness. Even if you’re an established communications leader in an organization, you will still need the authority and permission of the senior leadership and those around you to bring that to life. An established track record and demonstrated competence will go a long way to help grant this authority but don’t assume that it is there.

So you need to ask yourself if you have the permission and authority required before you launch any major crisis readiness initiative. Do you have the permission or authority to execute a multidisciplinary crisis simulation that brings in lots of people from your organization? Do you have the permission or the authority to reach out to your operational colleagues and understand their readiness? Do you have the permission and authority to build readiness and create a media training event? Similarly, does the enterprise leader have the authority to drive the organization to become more crisis ready and risk-aware?

We’ve seen organizations jump into crisis simulations or begin awareness or promotional activities around reputation excellence without this inherent permission. Despite people having the best interests of the organization in mind, they get called out and their authority is challenged. This forces them to stop the process while they seek out that authority before they can start the process again. This creates a whipsaw ‘start / stop’ effect and also creates uncertainty about how much support they have for what they are doing. 

As a communications leader, your role is to make sure that you have the permission and authority of the organization before you begin that transformation journey. That starts with the granting of authority by the senior leadership, but you still have to earn your peer’s permission to see the initiative through.

All of this takes time and will not be there at the outset: we often find that real authority is established mid-way through the transformation journey, in the 3rd quarter if you will. However, we believe that by laying the groundwork and explaining the importance of risk awareness and crisis readiness, then that permission will be earned.

Whether we’re talking about crisis readiness, risk awareness, or a journey towards true reputational excellence, we’ve seen too many organizations fail when we don’t bring everybody along. However, bringing everybody along requires you to have the permission of and authority within the organization. That starts with having that authority bestowed upon you but you need to build upon that to earn and maintain your authority. That will give you the ability to effect change, build resilience, or successfully steer your organization through a crisis.


Filed under: Blog


Bill is a reputation management, crisis communications and professional development expert, keynote speaker, Wall Street Journal Risk & Compliance panelist, and best-selling author of Critical Moments: The New Mindset of Reputation Management. He has more than 25 years of global experience managing high-stakes crises, issues management, and media relations challenges for both Fortune 500 companies and winning global political campaigns.