February 1, 2019

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The top seven crises to grace The Holmes Report’s “Top 20 Crises of 2018” span allegations of a CEO’s embezzlement, a sex scandal, the world’s second-largest cybersecurity breach and the knowing use of cancer-causing ingredients in consumer products. Unfortunately, one of these crises could happen to any of our clients or companies. Are you and your team prepared for the challenge?

While the decisions and behaviors of senior executives who make the types of decision that result in scandal are not our fault, it becomes the responsibility of the communications team to mitigate the fallout and communicate with affected stakeholders. We must manage the short- and longer-term reputational hit and help our company’s leaders to see clearly and make wise communications decisions at a time when they would like to hide, hunkered down in survival mode.

From a crisis communications perspective, the best possible outcome, of course, is that nobody ever hears of or learns about our clients’ or company’s woes. The second-best outcome is that we have an opportunity to shape the narrative when the story breaks, at least so that our client or company’s side of the story is heard. But more often than not, we are running to catch up, and brought in after the crisis is discovered and reported. It can be frustrating, no doubt. But if done correctly, it works. We know this for a fact.

Crisis communications is a science, not an art. There are tried and true ways to prepare for a crisis, to act during a crisis, and to work down the long, slow path after a crisis to regain your key stakeholders’ trust. And stating the obvious: because of the ubiquitous nature of the news cycle (24/7) and social media (there is no place to hide), long gone are the days when companies could bury their heads in the proverbial sand and hope for the best during a crisis. Today, many of the best companies proactively offer up the bad news, move quickly and decisively to fix whatever it was that went wrong, and work hard at being transparent and honest.

Look at Starbucks closing down every store around the world for mandatory employee sensitivity training. Or Samsung pulling all faulty Note 7 phones from the shelves. Or Nike plunging into bold social issues at the same time that some of its critics were looking at issues within its own headquarters. It is safe to say that a senior communications person—whether in-house, or an external crisis expert, or both—had a seat at the table, and the ear of the executives making those bold decisions.

If you’re a public relations professional who likes to have a seat at the table, at moments that are of material importance to a company, consider a role in crisis communications. It’s exciting. It is increasingly necessary for every company, from non-profits to large public-sector organizations. And you know what? It’s emotionally rewarding. Because in the end, you get to help a company or an organization save itself, and live to fight another day.

Steve Burns, Executive Vice President & Managing Director, West Coast at BCW Global