Sunday, 12 December 2010

The crisis war machine

I've just finished Eric Dezenhall's book Nail 'em, Confronting High-Profile Attacks on Celebrities and Businesses, his first book on crisis communications. Coming before Damage Control: Why Everything You Know About Crisis Management is Wrong there's a marked difference between the two books. In an effort to describe some of these differences I'm going to try and review both and draw out some of what makes Dezenhall one of the finest resources for good lessons on crisis comms.

The reason I personally like Dezenall is
that he actually looks at a crisis as what it is, conflict. The immediately frames the issues of crisis communications in their most useful setting.

Dezenall sets up all crises with 6 key components:
  1. The victim: Essentially the person who initiates the crisis, the wronged party, usually a private citizen or group of citizens who have been hurt by another party in some fashion, either physically or emotionally.
  2. The villain: The company or individual who did the hurting of the victim. These are almost invariably rich and/or powerful entities.
  3. The vindicator: The entity which will right the wrongs inflicted on the victim. Usually some form of activist organisation of some sort.
  4. The void: This is the space that's hardest to define, essentially the crisis must play into the passive expectations of everyone else, otherwise its not interesting to the media, and thus the audience doesnt exist. For example, big chemical companies are expected to dump harmful chemicals on people, thus the void can be filled with this.
  5. The vehicle: The mechanism by which the victim delivers the attack on the villain e.g. the internet, media or any other form of dissemination.
  6. The value: The justificaiton for the attacks, e.g. public safety, "right to know" etc.
In my experience this list holds true in pretty much all cases, its never this simple of course, but it does form a useful checklist, and a good way of framing any crisis you experience.

One of the reasons I like Dezenhall is that he emphasises speed and an agile response above everything else. It wouldnt seem out of place to read some of his phraseology (albeit slightly reframed) in a Marine Corps memoir. He also makes a solid case for defining victory early on, and allowing for flexibility in what definition, not every battle is supposed to be won by beating your opponent, some crises are best solved by settling with a victim out of court, others by full fledged battle.

One weakness of both books is Dezenhall's relative lack of knowledge with the internet and the opportunities it presents for attackers. Its not a criticism, but its clearly not where he is at his most comfortable. He scrapes the surface, and does a good job of it, but the pervasive and undying nature of internet rumours arent really explored in the way that more conventional attacks are. Its fair to say that these types of attacks are significantly harder to deal with anyway, and thus a discussion of them is less relevant.

What is excellent is the portrayal of the media as crisis junkies, who validate and reward members of the public for wildly overeacting (or inventing) problems and going after companies. Its a fair point, every journalist wants to break the next Watergate or the cigarette companies, unfortunately they want to do it over the weekend and be ready for print on Monday. Thus they cut corners and find stories which really arent worthy. Its rare to go a month these days without seeing the word -gate applied to the end of a word. This year we've had bigot-gate and cable-gate, just off the top of my head.

The problem is that companies and public figures havent grown any more comfortable with the battlefield environment they find themselves in. Responses remain muted, and too often the temptation is to bunker down rather than fighting back. In boxing the right response to being punched is to counterpunch, not fall back, as it is with communications. Of course wildly swinging doesnt help either, you've got to try and figure out the right response, but you've got to do it within minutes or at worst hours.

One of the most important things to remember is that ultimately all responses are based on gut instinct. Theres often very little time to get data togeather, although flash polling and other data gathering tools can be used, but at some point you have to take a breath and decide what the heck you're going to do.

Dezenhall paints a vivid picture of crisis comms at its best and at its worst, and how both can be achieved. He makes sage points on how you can turn weaknesses into strengths and the importance of finding ways of reframining the debate early to your advantage.

These are books about how to win, by any means avaliable. There's a Malcolm Tucker quote which fits rather well (and crudely) from the final episode of the 3rd season:
Their hordes of f**king robots, they're coming over the hill towards us, and all you've got to do is this, bend down, pick up any f**king weapon you can and twat the f**kery out of them
I'd love to post a link to this, but I'd be breaking the law if I did. If you do want to see it I absolutely don't advise you to go onto YouTube and search for "In the Thick of It" Its the final speech Malcolm gives.

In closing, one final quote from Nail 'em by Otto von Bismark, summing up much of what Dezenhall can teach us:
We live in a wonderous time where the strong is weak because of his moral scruples and the weak is strong because of his audacity

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