By Crystal Hyde

As a public relations/corporate communications strategist, I have spent a career working with extremely talented marketing communications leaders and always admire the way they look at the world — with creativity and focus that pinpoints target customers and speak directly to them, motivates them to act, connects with them and makes them a brand believer.

It’s increasingly common for Marketing and Communications to fall under a single umbrella within an organization because the skillsets have some overlap and the work we do together can boost both area’s efforts. Despite this compatibility, our approaches and the way we see the world are quite different. Let me explain as a corporate communications professional, I see myself as being in the business of reputation management. Of course, I want to enhance the brand and promote its positive attributes and benefits, but it is also and sometimes mainly my responsibility to protect the brand by identifying and mitigating risks, managing issues, and navigating crisis to minimize impacts on the brand.

I have watched my Marketing colleagues, similarly, make calculated risks when telling the brand story, attempting to win over customers, build a following, increase sales. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t. Their focus was (and should) always be about the customers and user experience of the brand. Then when these amazing brand builders work with me, we bring our worlds together, pooling our efforts to help retain the success they have built which can include defining a strategy to position a failing on the company’s behalf.

Often, my time is spent conducting a 360 analysis to determine how a given situation will be perceived not only by customers, but by employees, partners, the community, and the government. Then I focus on the company’s messaging, turning it inside out to see how it could be perceived, misconstrued, if they are legal implications, if there are positives to highlight. Essentially I pressure test everything the company or organization is saying to make sure it protects or enhances the brand, making changes and improvements to minimize risks.

Most recently, with the convergence of marketing and communications into a single area, the distinction between the capability of a marketing expert and a corporate communications expert has become blurred. Due to confusion because ‘communications’ is part of the MarComms handle, talented, smart and trusted marketing communications leaders are being expected to flex a rarely or never-used crisis communications muscle. During a global pandemic and a tidal wave of ‘issues’ hitting companies hard, high performing traditional marketing communications teams are finding themselves out-of-their-depth facing mounting pressure from executive teams to be responsible for crisis management, a skill that takes literally years to develop.

If you don’t have years to retrain and need to tackle a menacing issue or emerging crisis, here’s how to start:

Think through what it is you want to say about the issue, the one sentence that defines what you want or need people to know about your company’s position. Is there something the public needs to know? Is there a commitment your willing to make? Do you need to reinforce a key point (data point)? Is there a significant change to your business model that will address the issue head on?

Next, write down your key audiences — all of them, when an issue arises you do not have the luxury of giving one audience all of your attention you have to think about have every interested audience will view your response: employees (always employees first), customers, shareholders, partners, government officials, your local community etc.

Once you have defined your top line message and the audience who needs to hear it, go through your audience list and consider how each will receive your key message. While some audiences will love it, others may be opposed, upset, understanding and so on. Now that you understand the possible reactions you can start to either reshape the message to address vulnerabilities or customize the message to better address each reaction.

You will then want to spend time, using that same audience list, to determine the possible questions each group may ask and preparing the possible responses. Be candid and realistic when pulling together this list of questions, this is not an opportunity to choose the questions you want to deliver a slick marketing-type answer. These questions and responses are the grunt work of managing an issue by overturning every rock and attempting to address everything that could possibly come up, the good and the bad. You may never be asked one of these questions, but if you are you need to be prepared.

Further to the above exercise, let’s spend a minute defining a response versus and answer. Often spokespeople feel compelled to ‘answer’ everything that is asked though sometimes their eagerness to answer means they over share confidential information or speak to an area of the business they aren’t qualified to do. No qualified public relations practitioner will support or advise anyone to be dishonest; however, we will coach spokespeople to respond to difficult questions not necessarily answer them. Let me give you an example:
Reporter: Do you think you will have to lay off employees if the quarter end results miss the mark?
Answer: We might need to reduce our headcount; we are hopeful results will be strong, but we just do not know yet.

Possible media headline:
CEO doesn’t rule out layoffs if earnings miss
Response: I am not going to speculate about results that are not yet released. What I can tell you is that our employees are vital to our business success and we want to perform well and keep everyone working.

Possible media headline:
CEO hopeful for strong earnings this quarter

What is my best advice for a Mar/Comms leader to handle a crisis? Take off your marketing hat for a moment because promoting an issue or selling its good side won’t get you anywhere, instead issues need to be met with candor and authenticity in order to convey effective and thoughtful management. Your audience needs to feel that you understand the issue and are actively addressing it in order to move on.

Crystal Hyde, Principal & Certified Executive Coach at Scout Communications Scout Communications Inc., uses the power of communication to solve business problems, train leaders, coach emerging leaders and teams to deliver effective messages and proven results.

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