- The book introduces the question of how to communicate effectively and ethically in a complex and dynamic environment. It also presents a method of inquiry that involves imagining ourselves in a hypothetical situation where we have to choose a communication strategy without knowing our personal circumstances, preferences or biases.
- The book explores four different communication strategies that have been proposed by various communication theories and models: the reactive strategy, the proactive strategy, the interactive strategy and the integrative strategy. It also compares and contrasts them with the author’s own vision of the communication strategy, which she calls the everyday communication strategy.
- The book provides tips, checklists and flowcharts to help communicators and business leaders apply the everyday communication strategy in practice. It also includes a range of case studies and examples from organizations such as KPMG, Jo Malone and General Mills.
It’s inevitable that your organization or businesses will face challenging incidents or issues at some point, says PR and communication expert Amanda Coleman, but fortunately, you can learn to better manage situations that could potentially harm your business or brand. Whether a worker is behaving inappropriately or a product is failing consumers, companies must task their communicators with protecting the organization from developing issues that, if left unchecked, could become crises, she explains. Learn the basics of issues management, gaining the skills and expertise to better manage the increasing uncertainty in today’s business world.
- Prevent issues from damaging your reputation by identifying and managing them early.
- Support communicators with an issue management framework with buy-in from leaders.
- Align issues responses to your organization’s values and ethics.
- Media can spin negative narratives about your company or help you. Developing good relationships is critical.
- Glean data insights and stay abreast of emerging perceptions using social media.
- Make rational decisions under pressure with an eight-step plan.
- Clarify your “incident communication plan” to better navigate critical issues and crises.
Prevent issues from damaging your reputation by identifying and managing them early.
Every business faces issues – challenging and negative moments that disrupt the flow of operations. You may be dealing with an issue, if it: is unexpected; has a negative impact on your reputation; affects property and/or people; is witnessed by one or more people; is newsworthy; involves misunderstandings; triggers negative reactions (for example, offense); and/or involves the perception of injustice. Learning better issues management will help boost confidence and trust in your organization, externally and internally. However, improperly handling issues, perhaps by issuing statements that aren’t aligned with your organization’s actions, can result in diminished confidence and trust in your organization. While you may view an issue as a minor problem, consider the “butterfly effect” phenomenon: You never know when a small event will produce a major impact.
“Events and issues emerge and can threaten the reputation, market position and operation of the business. Such situations are just part of the challenges of running any organization or business.”
Issues can emerge in six primary business areas: product, people, policies, finances, perceptions and environment (which includes issues occurring around your business but not within the scope of your direct operations). The communicators on your team have a valuable role to play when it comes to issues management in the six business areas: They should act as problem solvers, crafting responses to issues in ways that reduce their negative impact on your business, moving quickly and with their own authority. They must be in a position to speak “truth to power,” explaining the potential impacts of incidents and issues to executives.
Support communicators with an issue management framework with buy-in from leaders.
Leaders must support communicators in working outside their traditional boundaries, involving them in discussions related to business risks and development. They must empower communicators to act as strategic advisers, tasked with preventing emerging issues from developing. Several communications structures exist and leaders should choose what works best for their business. You can: outsource your communications needs to an external agency; have an internal team; create a quick or joint-response team; or deal with issues in a more informal way, on only an issue-by-issue basis, with individuals looping management in first before discussing solutions (this works if you infrequently face issues or have a smaller team). All departments must be able to work together, to coordinate a swift, structured response, which demands clearly designated reporting lines.
“Communication is about more than just promoting products and services or attempting to protect the reputation of the business. It is an essential part of the way any organization or business is run and should operate as a central function and trusted adviser.”
Successful communicators need to acquire the right skills, capacities and areas of expertise to ensure they can effectively manage issues. These include news awareness, business knowledge, resilience, collaboration, awareness of human psychology, influencing, ethics, empathy, and analytical decision-making. After communicators flag an emerging problem, they should leverage their unique skill sets and knowledge to consider what an issue means before reacting (for example, not responding to a negative social media post without reflecting on its broader significance first). As a communicator, you should pinpoint the potential impact the issue could have on the business, identifying all known and unknown details to forensically deduce what may have caused the problem. Reflect on the individuals the incident involves and the influence they potentially wield, developing your understanding of the problem before taking action.
Align issues responses to your organization’s values and ethics.
Organizations must train communicators to uphold an agreed-upon code of ethics. Failure to behave ethically, perhaps by issuing responses that individuals perceive as “greenwashing” or “gaslighting,” will only exacerbate existing issues. Communicators must reflect on whether the potential impact of a situation and their response to the people it affects aligns with corporate values. Choose your words carefully, reflecting on the narrative you’re creating and how those outside of your own organizational bubble might view your statements. The words you choose when responding to a situation should embody your organization’s values, connecting them to the response you’re taking to manage the problem.
Embrace the following principles of ethical decision-making when managing issues:
- Independence – Provide people with as much high-quality information as possible, empowering them to decide what they think for themselves.
- Beneficence – Focus on supporting people and having a positive impact when managing a situation.
- Justice – Aspire to treat people equally, being transparent when this isn’t possible.
- Fidelity – Honor your commitments, ensuring you can deliver on your promises when managing a situation.
Media can spin negative narratives about your company or help you. Developing good relationships is critical.
If the media is telling an unflattering narrative about your company, changing your positioning isn’t a simple overnight process – it takes time. First, consider any allegations being made publicly about your business, searching for ways your organization could present its own version of events. You may initially need to publicly acknowledge the situation itself, explaining that you will provide a more detailed response later. After taking time to review your problem and clarify your positioning, search for appropriate ways to engage journalists and anyone affected by the situation. Be sure to describe the events surrounding the situation, correct any misinformation and share your organization’s plans to resolve the issue.
“Where possible, work with the media rather than against them. This means investing time in understanding the media and how they operate.”
There are three main tactics you can leverage when working with media. Firstly, you may initially choose to stay silent, simply saying “no comment,” while directing your efforts toward repairing relationships with those negatively impacted by the situation themselves. This tactic enables you to wait until after you’ve corrected the problem to speak to the media, should you choose to do so. However, communicators must be wary of the fact that the media may weaponize their silence against them, taking it as a sign that a company is failing to take the matter seriously. You may also choose to issue a limited response initially, allowing the media to follow up as you resolve the issue. Finally, you may choose to be more proactive, embracing openness and honesty, while accepting responsibility when necessary – but only use this tactic if you already have good media relationships.
Glean data insights and stay abreast of emerging perceptions using social media.
Ensure you have a robust social media strategy that includes monitoring social media to stay on top of potentially challenging situations. Whether you use a free or paid social monitoring system, there are some important business-related words you should create alerts for, to monitor social discussions and public perceptions, which include mentions of your CEO’s name and other prominent individuals at your company, your main business locations and buildings, and your specific products and services. Try not to neglect closed groups either, perhaps appointing someone, for example, to join a residents’ association in your area to gauge emerging perceptions.
“Whatever the organization and those at the top think of social media, it is something that must be considered, planned for and engaged with to be effective in managing issues.”
Your social media strategy should also clarify the ways in which you’ll glean data insights (which you can do using a social media analyst or through social media software), which will help you plan more effective communications campaigns. Use data to better know your target, reflecting on questions, such as: “What is it that people are concerned about?” and “Is the view of the business negative or neutral at this stage?” While social media can create opportunities for you to tell your own story, it can also lead to misinformation, so it’s crucial you work to correct the damage triggered by any inaccurate, misleading or libelous posts related to your business where possible. There is no need to suffer online abuse – if someone is sharing fake reviews or slandering your CEO or employees with false accusations, for example, consider taking legal action.
Leaders should help nurture a culture of learning and accountability.
Conduct a post-mortem on your issues management strategies, reflecting on what worked, what you could have done better and how you’ll do things differently next time. T0 determine the success or failure of your issues management attempts, reflect on whether you achieved the following: a satisfactory conclusion/outcome; minimal negative impact on people; minimal negative brand or business consequences; positive social media engagement; positive engagement of media (and the resulting feedback on coverage); and supportive feedback from target groups (for example, shareholders or politicians). Avoid the tendency to blame others when crisis situations emerge. Leaders can support communicators by creating a “no blame” culture, encouraging accountability and honesty in problem-solving.
As a communicator, you should focus on the following six personal development areas:
- Risk management – You should support the organization’s broader work in risk management. Strengthen your ability to identify risks and the opportunities and challenges that exist within them.
- Diversity awareness – You must know how to connect to people across different community divides, bringing diverse voices into your communications.
- Business knowledge – More is expected of you today than simple product promotion – you must speak knowledgeably and provide in-depth detail about numerous areas impacting business, including IT, HR and finance.
- Planning and governance – Aligning your actions with your business’s planning cycles requires an understanding of the power dynamics and governance structures at play within the business.
- Influencing – Demonstrate the expertise, authority and strategic thinking required to influence those in positions of power and encourage people to take action.
- Decision-making – You must make decisions quickly under pressure. Your personal development plan should help you maintain the judgment and perspective needed to do so.
Make rational decisions under pressure with an eight-step plan.
Better manage emerging issues with the eight steps of rational decision-making:
- Identify the need for a decision – After noticing a concerning incident or emerging issue, acknowledge that a decision must be made regarding how to respond.
- Reflect on the circumstances – Assess how external global events and media trends contextualize the issue.
- Research – Gather data to support decision-making, gaining insight into your situation.
- Identify your options – Use your data to identify all possible solutions or your organization’s actions to manage the developing situation and any remaining decisions options you have.
- Evaluate your options – Assess the negative and positive elements of each option from a place of calm, limiting any biases that might cloud your judgement.
- Choose your next steps – Clarify the actions your organization will take to manage the developing situation and any decisions that remain.
- Implement – Reflect on what you need to put your plan into practice. Do you need additional, resources, staffing or support?
- Review – Assess the impact of your organization’s decision and its implementation. Monitor the situation to identify any further changes or actions needed.
Clarify your “incident communication plan” to better navigate critical issues and crises.
Resolve issues with efficiency, rebuild trust and strengthen your reputation with the “four As of issues management”:
- Assess – Gather all the data you can about the situation, to better understand how the problem originated and how it might develop, based on the environmental and social context it exists within.
- Analyze – Once you have gathered information, carefully review it to better understand your situation, letting your analysis guide your decision-making process.
- Articulate – Clarify your narrative of the difficult situation, using images and words to reinforce your positioning.
- Act – Respond to the developing issue by taking action, implementing a clear plan that aligns with your narrative.
“Being prepared and having an effective incident communications plan can create confidence in the response and help elevate communication to sit strategically and operate as an adviser to the senior management team.”
Leverage the “four As” to develop an “incident communication plan,” which should detail the steps your organization will take in the early stages of managing issues. Your plan should identify the audiences you hope to reach (for example, those who expressed the most concerns about the given situation or incident); the actions you intend to take; the methods you’ll embrace when doing so; and the time frame in which you’ll do everything. Include an escalation plan, detailing the ways in which you’ll respond if your situation worsens. Your incident communication plan should include your aims, organizational objectives, narrative and the governance structure that will be in place during issues management. Learn from others’ mistakes, observing the ways other organizations have responded to challenging issues, to better manage issues at your own organization.
About the Author
Amanda Coleman is a PR and communication professional and the author of the book Crisis Communication Strategies.
The book is a practical guide for communicators and business leaders who want to protect their brand’s reputation and maintain public confidence by successfully managing everyday incidents and issues and preventing them from escalating into a corporate crisis. The book covers the following topics:
- The importance and urgency of the question: What kind of communication do we need to deal with everyday problems, challenges and incidents?
- The method of inquiry that involves imagining ourselves in a hypothetical situation where we have to choose a communication strategy without knowing our personal circumstances, preferences or biases. This is inspired by John Rawls’ idea of the original position and the veil of ignorance, but applied to the question of communication rather than justice.
- The four types of communication strategies that have been proposed by various communication theories and models: the reactive strategy, the proactive strategy, the interactive strategy and the integrative strategy. The book examines the strengths and weaknesses of each strategy, and shows how they can be applied to different types of incidents and issues, such as customer complaints, campaign failure, staff comments and online criticism.
- The author’s own vision of the communication strategy that is most effective and ethical for dealing with everyday incidents and issues, which she calls the everyday communication strategy. She defines it as a communication strategy that is based on honesty, transparency, empathy and accountability. She explains how such a strategy involves identifying the problem, assessing the impact, developing appropriate messages, working with the media and managing social media to minimize negative publicity and attention. She also addresses some challenges and obstacles to implementing this strategy, such as organizational culture, stakeholder expectations and legal constraints.
- The book also provides tips, checklists and flowcharts to help communicators and business leaders apply the everyday communication strategy in practice. It also includes a range of case studies and examples from organizations such as KPMG, Jo Malone and General Mills.
The book is a valuable resource for communicators and business leaders who want to learn how to communicate effectively and ethically in a complex and dynamic environment. The author draws from her academic expertise and professional experience to offer a clear and accessible introduction to some of the major communication theories and models that have shaped the field of communication. She also presents her own perspective on communication from a practitioner’s point of view, which she argues is more relevant and realistic than other alternatives.
The book is not without its limitations, however. Some readers may find the author’s method of inquiry too hypothetical or abstract, and may prefer more concrete examples or stories to illustrate her points. Others may disagree with the author’s assumptions or conclusions about certain communication strategies or incidents, and may feel that she is too biased or prescriptive in her approach. Still others may question the author’s claim that there is only one communication strategy that is most effective and ethical for dealing with everyday incidents and issues, and may wonder if there are other possibilities or nuances that are not considered.
Overall, the book is a useful contribution to the literature on communication strategies. It is a stimulating and challenging invitation to reflect on our own communication practices and choices, and to seek the best way to communicate with our stakeholders in a way that respects their interests and values. It is also a hopeful and inspiring affirmation of the power of communication to prevent a crisis and protect a brand.