I was recently put in an awkward situation where the question of the crisis communications team’s independence at a major organization became an issue. As background, the communications team had asked me to work with them to prepare some materials related to a specific product launch. There was the potential that the launch could cause some communities to react negatively, so the team wanted to conduct some planning and prepare crisis response material. The team was sophisticated and had an interesting approach to readiness, based on the experiences that they’d had in the past. My role was to act as a sounding board to test what they had in place and I was able to help them round out some edges to make everything run just a little bit more smoothly. But generally speaking this was a competent team and they were in good shape.
The question of the team’s independence arose during two calls we had as part of this process. We scheduled back-to-back calls, the first with the team itself to pull together all of their ideas and to finalize their plan. The second call was described to me as a perfunctory ‘checking in’ call with other leaders from the company. The crisis team suggested to me that this was completely unnecessary and a bit offensive. They explained that they had everything under control and they had gotten advice from an outside expert, me. Therefore, they felt that this call with the wider organization was pointless.
This left me perplexed. Despite the competence and experience of this team, they felt that the crisis organization could operate independently, separate from the rest of the organization.
I pulled the senior communicator aside to raise my concerns. I made my case:
“We shouldn’t be going into these conversations with other departments as if we want to simply ‘check the box’. Whether it’s marketing or operations or the general counsel, it would be best to value their input because they have a different perspective of the business that can help us as communicators. Our expertise is the public, but they are experts on the operational side of the organization. We need their input and we need to be aligned, to see we are in this together.”
Unsurprisingly, I heard the same push back I have heard other times from those that live on Silo Island.
“They’re just going to water everything down, particularly legal, and we’re going to get stuck in groupthink.”
Therein lies a quandary with crisis planning: do you tend towards operating independently with the benefits of speed and focus that this approach allows, or collaboratively which allows for greater expertise and buy-in from the organization’s experts but with significantly more friction. In my experience, the answer lies somewhere in the middle.
Communicators, particularly crisis communicators, have a finely-tuned understanding about the public’s expectations, how the organization’s actions will be interpreted by the public and how this affects its reputation. Communicators are not typically experts in the operations, legal, or financial elements of the business or the risks that these departments have to deal with.
Similarly, other departments may be unaware of how their actions, which may be absolutely sound from their perspective, might have a negative impact on the organization’s reputation. Therefore, balance is required to ensure that both sides understand each other’s ‘world’ and are aligned, rather than operating separately. This allows communicators to understand the perspectives of their internal stakeholders, to use this expertise to refine the communications plan and to generate much-needed buy-in from other departments.
When that equilibrium gets out of balance – either where there is too much independence or too much dependence – is where communicators are not at their best. Too much independence leads communicators to operate in a bubble that is divorced from the rest of the organization, robbing them of critical expertise and, sometimes, leading the communications team to diverge from the rest of the organization. Alternately, trying to have everyone involved in the communications activity is a recipe for disaster: ‘communications by committee’ is never successful.
So, no, crisis communicators cannot operate completely independently. Nor can they become wholly dependent on other departments, serving as a glorified scribe of others words.
Communicators occupy a unique space in an organization as their role is wholly focused on the external, public environment. This allows them to bring a degree of understanding into discussions that are of critical importance to an organization. But just as the organization needs this external perceptive, the communications team needs to understand what is going on within the organization.
Communicators therefore need to live in the middle: working with the organization’s experts for critical input, while also acting as the best and the truest compass of the impact that the organization’s actions has on its stakeholders and reputation. The exact balancing point between independence and collaboration will change depending on the situation, but occupying this middle ground is absolutely critical for crisis communications to be successful.
My friends at the check box conference call are still living on Silo Island and what should be accomplished in one call takes at least two or three. At this point it is less of a role for a crisis consultant but that of the marriage therapist.