Thursday, 2 December 2010

Crisis comms, rarely done right

Crisis communications is one of the few parts of the communications industry that gets any exposure in popular culture. The way its portrayed is usually as follows:

1) Crisis breaks out
2) Consultants are hired
3) Shouting happens
4) Crisis resolved

Of course this does happen occasionally and I would fully recommend Damage Control by Eric Dezenhall if you want to gain insight into how full blown crises are dealt with. James at The Campaign War Room sums the book up thusly:
A brilliant summary of how to run effective crisis communications operations for businesses. Unlike the vast majority of consultants, who tend to advise clients to keep their heads down in a crisis or to use CSR programmes to inoculate themselves against attacks from NGOs, Dezenhall recommends clients fight back aggressively wherever they can, through a mix of communications, legal challenges, opposition research, and other non-communications solutions. While it provides fewer case studies than his earlier book Nail 'Em, and is therefore slightly more abstract, it is a much better book. It is a must-read for anyone in corporate communications but political campaigners will find useful lessons too.
The book also accepts, but does not focus on, the simple fact that most crises can usually be prevented at a far earlier stage with careful planning.

As a consult it therefore fascinates me that you can tell an organisation when a crisis will occur, what the topic will be, and approximately how bad it will be, and they can still fail dramatically to come up with any convincing response to it.

As I alluded to yesterday, the recent Wikileaks material is a perfect example of where a goodly amount of the preparatory work could have been done to mitigate at least the public impact. I'm not in a position to comment on the diplomatic impact, and I imagine that would have been harder to deal with.

However, if you know roughly the date you're going to have a problem, roughly what'll cause that problem and yet respond with a mix of panic, anger and full blown confusion.

Here are some steps which might have been considered in order to push back on the impact of the Wikileaks revelatons, not just this time, but also during the releases on Iraq:

Good communications: The narrative that these releases 'threatens national security' was never going to work. For one, people won't believe it until they've seen the material, and once they've seen the material your national security, if it is threatened, goes out the window. More effective would have been to try and soften the impact by taking the most important step, getting there first.

Getting out ahead of the issue: If you know what your opponent is going to be saying before they say it, you've got the opportunity to actually release what they have in your own time and with your own narrative surrounding it. In this case, there wasnt complete clarity on what Wikileaks actually had, but I'm willing to bet that someone had a reasonably good idea. I can't believe that Bradley Manning could stick a USB stick into a computer and download tens of thousands of documents without there being some sort of record being kept. I would have suggested getting out as much 'safe' material as possible and let the media deal with it as they will. It'll be embarressing, but it might actually mean that when you claim the material you havent given the media is due to its impact on national security, you might have some credibility, as you'll be seen to have gone part way.

Opposition research: Julien Assenge is not the great white hope of liberal democracies, nor is he a saint, bestriding the land and handing out raw justice. He has a well established agenda and is almost a caricature of himself, talking about how he will change the world with Wikileaks. Playing up to him, treating him as if he's a collosal threat to American democracy is silly, and makes it look like a collosal overreaction. Place him in his proper context when discussing him and his work publically, a man who has gotten lucky with some interesting releases a couple of times, who doesnt like American foreign policy, but who ultimately is not going to shift the way America works and behaves in the world.

However, there are some things which realistically wouldnt work:

Legal challenges: Wikileaks exists in the gray area of webspace where no one has really achieved anything with legal action. Arresting him will give him greater credibility and allow him a collosal stage from which to continue his work. It also won't shut down his organisation, which is somewhat larger than one man. Going after him legally will just make you look impotent when it fails to work. Ranting about bringing him to justice like Osama Bin Laden also reminds people that you didnt catch him either.

Direct action: Attacking Wikileaks web infrastructure through DDoS attacks or pressuring Amazon to stop hosting their site is also a pointless exercise. The information is being distributed through a network, its avaliable through websites, on torrents, via direct download, its everywhere. Stopping it at the source is like trying to plug a hole in a dam, ultimately, its going to come down and you're going to get wet.

Good crisis comms comes down to having a good story you can be confident in, which presents your side of the issue without overplaying it or giving your opponent ammunition. Panic is unacceptable and counterproductive. Anger just comes across at frustration and inability to come up with a real solution. Where possible, cut your opponent off at the knees by getting out there first in outlets who are likely to give you a favourable hearing.

Be first, be right, be consistant.

Speed kills, skill helps.
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