walks into a crisis

“A marketer walks into a crisis…”

February 14, 2020

Critical takeaways

  • Many organizations prioritize branding over communications. This makes sense when driving market share but leaves them vulnerable in a crisis.
  • Marketers are often asked to fill the crisis communications role but this requires a fundamental shift in mindset and changing their focus from brand and revenue to reputation.
  • Marketers in this situation should prepare beforehand to develop the mindset and skills for this role.


“A marketer walks into a crisis…”

Don’t worry, starting a career in stand-up wasn’t one of my New Year’s resolutions. But the reality is that many organizations we work with don’t have a fully developed crisis communications team. They built their sales and marketing team first, but developing their communications team comes second. Crisis communications is a distant third.  

It’s not uncommon for us to walk into a crisis and discover that the team in charge of communications is the team responsible for driving revenue – their marketers. Unfortunately, marketers have little or no interest in driving reputation: their focus is the brand and the market-share that delivers.

I recently met with the CEO of a company that had made some reputational missteps. When I asked who was responsible for their reputation and telling their story, his response wasn’t surprising.

“Nobody specifically. The general counsel writes some of that stuff. I write some of that stuff. We just hired a new marketing person, but they’re really responsible for growing revenue and partnering with our direct sales team.”

Don’t get me wrong; I believe that every marketer can develop the skillset needed to be a communicator in a time of need. In fact, many of the skills that they have as marketers will help them take on a communications role when required.

However, to be successful as communicators, particularly crisis communicators, marketers need to fundamentally change their perspective and think about reputation, not brand.

Marketers’ day-to-day focus is on how the company wants to define itself: branding. However, communicators are charged with building and nurturing the company’s reputation: how others see it. Remember, a company owns its brand; the public owns its reputation.

However, in a crisis, marketers need to switch their focus away from brand and towards reputation. This is a difficult transition to make, especially when many marketing quants come from a business background, whereas the poets in communications are more likely to have a liberal arts grounding. Like comparing engineers and artists, each group is wired very differently and this is a good example of IQ versus EQ. So the change to a reputation focus isn’t just a readjustment of priorities for a marketer: it can require a complete shift in mindset. This is hard. As someone firmly grounded in the humanities, I know that it would be equally painful for me to take a marketer’s perspective.

An additional complication is that marketers see their responsibility as driving revenue and growth for the firm.  Unfortunately, in crises, revenue isn’t the number one consideration. Instead, accepting financial losses is par for the course when protecting people and defending reputation take priority.

Communicators still need to keep revenue and profitability in mind, but they aren’t burdened by a direct mandate to drive revenue. In many ways, therefore, a crisis is simply an expansion of the communicator’s mandate. For the marketer, however, it’s a fundamental change of focus.

Nevertheless, although I’ve highlighted how challenging it can be for a marketer to be thrust into the communicator’s role, the punchline to my opening joke doesn’t need to be them slipping up. 

Instead, marketers who see that there’s a communications deficit in their organizations should anticipate taking over this role in a crisis and prepare for it.

First, they have to understand that they will have to shift focus from brand to reputation. Therefore, they should spend some time beforehand educating themselves on the differences between these two elements and how nurturing reputation differs from building a brand.

Second, they should look at the analytical tools they typically use in marketing for decision-making and resource allocation. These are not as readily available during a crisis where decisions are much more intuitive and gut-driven. However, there may still be marketing tools that can be applied in a crisis. Where the timelines don’t allow for the use of these tools, marketers need to be prepared to make decisions based on their experiences and good pattern recognition.

Third, marketers need to understand the mission and values of the organization beyond brand-building. Understanding the firm’s mission and values is critical to generating the speed they need to succeed in a crisis. Simply linking these to brand and market share isn’t enough. 

Next is adjusting their concept of chain of command. Most typically, marketers have a clear chain of command through their organization, usually to the CEO. But their work is heavily influenced by the marketing timeline they are working to. Meeting the planned schedule to roll out a Super Bowl ad or a new product announcement will be more important than their exact chain of command. However, a robust chain of command, for both the communicators and other subject matter experts, is vital to success in a crisis. Without this, silos develop, speed is sacrificed, and the crisis is likely to win. Understanding how the chain of command changes between a crisis and a product launch is a critical differentiator and something that marketers should consider beforehand.

Finally, there is the notion of time. I’ve mentioned how speed is key to success, but the truth is that the tempo of a crisis is orders of magnitude greater than that of marketing. Having days to plan a product launch would feel insanely fast to a marketer, but a crisis communicator would welcome the luxury of having more than a few hours to build a response strategy. Again, this can be a matter of changing perspective and marketers can study previous crises to get a sense of the timelines and tempos they are likely to encounter.

So instead of being the set up to a joke, “a marketer walks into a crisis” should be a time where they have set themselves up for success. They need to bring the best of what they do to help deliver an analytical, creative approach to the crisis. 

Remember, the core skill set is very similar. Instead of driving revenue, they’re now driving reputation. The guidance and counsel that they need to give certainly has to protect the business and the bottom line. However, instead of being driven by how they want to define themselves, the critical factor is how others see them. That way, they’ll be able to fill that communications gap and become a valuable crisis asset to their leadership team.

For now at least, it’s all about reputation and goodwill, not brand.


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.