Agile communicators shift from crisis preparedness to crisis readiness

December 8, 2020 · READ

Show of hands. Who had a crisis management plan in place for dealing with every risk event that had the potential to pummel your enterprise in 2020?

A devastating pandemic, social unrest, political divisiveness, and an economic recession have forever transformed the risk environment for brands and relegated backward-looking crisis playbooks to the ash heap of history.

As stressful as it has been, this trial by fire has taught brand communicators to break from the status quo and make swift, insight-informed decisions to protect brand reputation while maintaining and earning customer trust.

The emergence and current resurgence of COVID-19, coupled with a lockdown surge in social media use, have required brands to move at unprecedented speed to prevent the cascading consequences of the harmful content created by instigators intent on creating reputational damage—or worse.

The increasingly volatile, uncertain, and dynamic risk environment demands more agile risk management. Communications professionals must forge a proactive crisis management strategy in the months and years ahead to mitigate reputation risk and maximize corporate resilience.

This requires nothing less than a change in mindset to one of constant readiness. Brand communicators with agile capabilities and approaches are able to tap into colleagues with the right skills and knowledge, convene cross-functional teams, identify clear and present dangers to the brand, and generate fast mitigation.

The status quo of crisis preparedness and crisis management no longer suffices. In this era of unanticipated challenges and risks, even the best quarterly-updated risk playbooks have been rendered ineffective and irrelevant, leaving many enterprises at a great disadvantage.

“For organizations that had a traditional crisis management plan at the start of 2020, how well did it truly serve them?” asked Melissa Agnes, a leading authority on crisis management and author of “Crisis Ready: Building an Invincible Brand in an Uncertain World.

“It didn’t,” she wrote. “Instead, we watched—and many experienced first-hand—as good businesses and great professionals suffered immensely due to a lack of effective crisis preparedness.”

Conversely, organizations that were “crisis ready” prior to COVID-19 had a strategic advantage. Rather than going to a playbook and matching the situation to a predetermined scenario, they had a sense and feel for what was percolating and what was emerging.

Indeed, agile communications leaders are better able to contribute to a whole organization approach, which Andrea Bonime-Blanc calls the organizational resilience lifecycle in her book, “Gloom to Boom: How Leaders Transform Risk Into Resilience and Value.” 

She says, “It requires that a series of key additional elements—including good governance, high integrity leadership, enterprise risk management, and a holistic strategy including key ESG issues—to be in place not only for crises to be properly managed but for companies, brands, and other types of organization, to properly cater to protecting their stakeholders and also survive and thrive.”

These brand communicators benefited from a more sensible and relevant approach to risk using real-time insights that take advantage of the latest technology and combine it with human intelligence.

Volatility and uncertainty reshape the role of CCO

Before we could even imagine COVID-19, nationwide protests for social justice, or widespread political divisiveness over pandemic restrictions, the role of the chief communications officer had been evolving.

In addition to handling corporate communications, crisis management, investor relations, and more, the responsibilities of many CCOs have grown to include social media and content marketing; message creation and alignment; and leadership on purpose, vision, values, and culture.

Perhaps the biggest addition to the CCO’s plate, though, has been responsible for anticipating and mitigating reputation risk.

The rise of social media alone has made it much harder for brand communicators to control the message. Consumers and other stakeholders now exert huge influence over a brand’s reputation. Today, expectations are higher than ever, with the presumption that brands will lead with a sense of purpose, taking a stand on social issues and showing a willingness to do the right thing.

The emotional state of consumers during a pandemic who feel restricted, conflicted, and overwhelmed adds to the challenge. However, astute brands that have acknowledged the presence of fear, uncertainty, and frustration have been able to avoid new risks and take advantage of new opportunities.

Brand communicators have learned that social media engagement showing compassion and empathy can increase both positive brand perception and customer loyalty. On the other hand, appearing inaccessible, ineffective, or uncaring can provoke a pronounced negative reaction, with risks potentially escalating into crises.

At a time when social media increasingly dictates the conversation and frames the business narrative, the brand communications team needs to be prepared for a spontaneous dialogue where the speed of information is much faster, the volume is greater, the context less defined, and the effect on business more immediate.

Beyond the current crises that dominate our lives, catastrophic events—whether due to health emergencies, climate change activity, geopolitical incidents, or other unseen forces—are expected to occur more frequently in the future. Post COVID-19, CCOs will be expected to protect and maintain a strong organizational reputation by employing an agile, proactive crisis management strategy.

The new enterprise mindset is about crisis readiness and agility

While we can’t be certain how long it will take to contain the coronavirus, brand communicators must continue to keep an eye on immediate risks while developing longer-term capabilities for real-time risk detection and rapid response to avoid escalations that could damage reputation, reduce revenue, or affect operations.

It’s our experience that brands tend to underestimate how much harmful content is created by instigators on the deep and dark web, and fanned by influencers on the open web, with the capacity to cause damage. Standard plans for reputation risk prevention and mitigation are ineffective in safeguarding digital marketing and communications, from consumer engagement to online storytelling and digital advertising campaigns.

Even in the midst of a pandemic and social upheaval, some brands look at crisis management as a dreary necessity rather than a potential competitive advantage. Many companies mistakenly assume “it can’t happen here.” This outlook can be complicated by traditional bureaucratic structures that aren’t designed to handle new and emerging risks emerging online.

A static, siloed approach can hamper collaboration and delay the ability to detect reputation risks that can then quickly escalate into a major strategic crisis. A reactive strategy to limit damage after the fact doesn’t substitute for a solution that helps you anticipate and identify emerging problems in real-time.

“Crisis readiness is a tangible, learnable skill that is not currently taught,” Agnes continued. “It is time to empower today’s professionals, helping them do right by the stakeholders and the communities they serve and, in the process, strengthening their business’s resilience to thrive through these challenging times.”

Part of that empowerment is taking advantage of the latest tech-enabled processes that can do the heavy lifting to proactively identify reputation risks the second they emerge. Brand communicators are rising to the challenge of increased velocity and volume of social media content by taking advantage of an arsenal of intelligence solutions offered by experienced and knowledgeable risk intelligence partners.

The acceleration of risk calls for an accelerated response

The world is facing uncertainty and rapid change, with the COVID-19 crisis intensifying existing trends, affecting companies across all sectors, and creating anxiety, uncertainty, and frustration among consumers. Risk levels for brands are rising, as are the expectations of customers, stakeholders, and society at large.

Looking beyond the trials and tribulations of 2020, an agile approach to crisis management based on anticipation, detection, and rapid response will be a critical element of brand resilience in the face of any future challenges.

Brand communicators who have learned how to navigate a volatile risk environment will need to continue to build on their “crisis mode” capabilities to make them a sustainable and evolving part of their business strategy.

Enterprises that lead with a mindset of readiness will outperform their competitors in the face of sustained external adversity. Strong brands led by perceptive communicators who embrace advanced analytics and predictive detection are less likely to suffer harm from damaging digital chatter.

Brands that want to compete in this new landscape need to listen to customers more closely than ever. This means constant vigilance before, during, and after a crisis. Proactive early-warning risk intelligence allows communication leaders to proactively monitor social media 24/7/365.

With the advantage of real-time detection of reputation risks and high-priority alerts of incidents whenever they happen, brand communicators can achieve a new level of preparedness and a rapid-response ability to avoid any escalation that could damage reputation, reduce revenue, or affect operations.

None of us will look back on 2020 with a great deal of fondness. But, for all of the misfortunes and meltdowns we’ve gone through, we have learned something important. As individuals and organizations, we have demonstrated an amazing ability to adapt and change faster than we ever imagined.

As it turns out, corporate inertia—the kind that keeps us clinging to our crisis playbooks—was all in our heads.

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