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In the past five years the communications and marketing world has become increasingly complicated. Google+, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and mobile apps have joined the vast array of outlets and platforms competing for our attention. This blog contains my thoughts on best practices for cutting through the clutter and having impact. I'll also be taking occasional detours into the world of corporate social responsibility and green marketing where I have ten years of expertise.

The Missing Ingredient to Most Crisis Communications Plans

By Jason W. Anderson on
Jason W. Anderson
Jason has spent the last ten years developing and executing communications strat
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Jul 24 in Crisis Communications

If you are in the communications and marketing business, you can not watch the recent coverage of the phone hacking scandal involving Rubert Murdoch and not have a shiver run down the back of your spine.  


As brand managers this would be considered a nightmare to deal with.  I actually know people who are working for teams on both sides of the issue and after speaking with them, I am thankful to be sitting on the sidelines on this one.

rupert murdoch image

The situation has led to many articles and discussions about best practices for crisis communications and what Murdoch’s team should or should not be doing.  This ongoing “case study” will join the volumes of information which have been written about the subject and have led to the creation of very profitable crisis response firms.


What strikes me, however, is that most of what is being discussed or found in books is missing one key point.


Allow me to let you in on a little secret to the missing ingredient for most crisis communications plans. 



Avoid the crisis in the first place.


That may seem like a “well, duh” comment, but hear me out.


I spent ten years working with Conservation International's marketing and communications team, including several years in their corporate partnerships division.  As the media manager and later the director of marketing and communications I was on the front lines of dealing with all types of crisis situations.  Later I headed up communications strategy for the entire institution,  which also included leading our crisis response team.  


During this time I responded to media, trained staff, counseled our board of directors, etc, based on a set of techniques I had learned from books, articles and other sources.  It was not until I decided to take the lead in writing a crisis communications manual for Conservation International that I had this “ah-ha” moment.


The simple fact is that almost all crisis situations are preventable.  In the Murdoch situation, for example, having a core set of organizational values and an institutional policy guiding employees about what was and was not acceptable in how they covered stories would have been a good first step (though as a former journalist, I would have hoped that their internal moral compass would have been enough).  Of course, a policy is only as good as enforcement which was clearly lacking at News Corporation.  That raises a whole set of other questions about management at the organization.  The simple fact of the matter, though, is that this could have easily been dealt with before it ever happened.  Crisis averted. 



The Best Defense is a Good Offense


Crisis communications often resides in the communications department, but to really develop a plan that works to prevent crisis, ownership over its creation should live across divisions.


At the very least the team also needs to include:


  • Human Resources
  • Legal
  • Accounting
  • A representative from the C-Suite


Every company or organization will likely have to add to this list depending on what they do, how big their staff is, their exposure to the public, etc.  Once you have the team assembled, I recommend these steps:


  • Dedicate time to meeting over several weeks to brainstorm about all potential situations. This is not a one or two meeting process. 
  • Analyze scenarios against existing policies, procedures and trainings and address any gaps.  This is where prevention really starts.
  • Establish a “decision rights matrix” to ensure roles and responsibilities are clearly understood among key decision makers. This helps when putting measures into place to prevent crisis, as well as when dealing with the crisis itself. 
  • After the manual is written, take the time to run through scenarios.  This type of “role playing” will undoubtable identify new potential crisis situations and missing steps in your existing plan.
  • Form an ongoing risk-analysis team including all of the same individuals named above so that you continually monitor the happenings of the organization. It is important to have these various opinions because where a situation seems benign to one person, his or her colleague will see potential risk. 


Crisis Manuals Are Not Built in a Day


Make no mistake, anticipating crisis is a daunting task.  Given the scope of my organization’s international operations, I know this first hand.  What started off as a small exercise when I launched the process, quickly became a multi-chapter document ranging from death and injury in the field to greenwashing accusations to financial impropriety.  The process even uncovered internal management issues that had to be dealt with. 


Another key lesson is understanding that if you are in charge of crisis communications, or are going to charge someone to lead crisis communications, the amount of dedicated time it takes to produce a working manual is substantial (and, quite frankly, it is never really done).


I am reminded of the phrase, the best defense is a good offense.  The same goes for crisis communications.  If you take the time to put in the proper policies, procedures and protocols early on, then - fingers crossed - you will never have to actually deal with a real crisis.


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About the author

Jason W. Anderson

Jason has spent the last ten years developing and executing communications strategies and integrated marketing campaigns for Conservation International, an international non-profit with operations in 30 countries. Jason has worked with Fortune 500 brands, government agencies, pr firms and partner organizations to educate, engage and empower consumers, policy makers and business leaders. Prior to that, Jason spent nine years with CNN as a producer in their political and business news units.

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Jason W. Anderson
Falls Church, VA

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