Academic Editorials / Crisis Communication / Opinion

Top 10 lists are for Letterman, not crisis communication

Enough with “pop” crisis communication already, ok? In the wake of the 2008 financial crash, Hurricane Katrina (US), Japanese tsunami, Haitian earthquake, BP’s spill in the Gulf of Mexico…that is to say our crazy world today it seems like more and more people are hanging their shingle as crisis experts when they just are not.

Try googling “crisis communication” sometime and what you end up with is an unending list of links directing you to resources (or at least that’s being generous) or top 10 lists that read much like David Letterman’s nightly ‘top 10’. More obnoxiously, these lists are put together in blogs, on PR sites, and promoted in social media as though they’re based in substantive practice. The reality is that most of it is bunk or so darned obvious as to be meaningless.

Many so-called crisis consultants are taking peoples’ money to prepare crisis documents with these kinds of amazingly complex <insert sarcasm here> documents that include things like:

  1. Identify your crisis communications team – and then they identify the most common-sense folks possible. No kidding the CEO, PR, legal counsel, and ‘advisers’ are going to be a part of a crisis response team.
  2. Identify spokespersons – here the awesome advice is to pick people who are good communicators. Really? That’s a gem.
  3. Spokesperson training – fair enough, but this isn’t a ‘go to a training, hang out with other people’ kind of thing.
  4. Establish a chain of communication – so make a phone/email/SMS tree?
  5. Identify and know your stakeholders – again, the substance is overwhelming.
  6. Anticipate crises – alright, here we have a viable and important type of recommendation, except that they recommend kum-bay-yah brainstorming sessions and not genuine risk assessments.
  7. Develop ‘holding’ statements – you know, trite and generic ways to be strategically ambiguous and yet completely devoid of genuine messaging like, “We have implemented our crisis plan, we value <insert generic company purpose here>.” Or “Our hearts and minds are with those who <insert generic negative thing that could have happened”. Future posts are going to get into the depth of lunacy associated with these types of statements, but suffice to say that research shows that people see through this kind of stuff.
  8. Assess the crisis situation – no kidding… being reactionary is a problem, huh? Who’d have thought.
  9. Identify key messages – again, no kidding, but what I love about this one is that if a company has actually anticipated crises effectively, as we learned from Tylenol in the 1970’s, then this shouldn’t start after the crisis begins. Yet, these types of recommendations would push companies to exactly the type of ‘shoot from the hip’ messaging that they claim to work against.
  10. Buckle in and be ready for a bumpy ride – I love that most of these Letterman lists always tell people to keep their cool… really? Because who thinks that running around like a chicken with their head cut off is useful? Of course, sometimes people have to be reminded of that during a crisis, but seriously?

Here’s the reality – crises are incredibly complex with a lot of variables that affect stakeholders, the situation, and certainly the appropriateness of response. Anyone who tries to package their top 5, 7, or 10 steps to ‘manage’ a crisis is … frankly no one/no company… that should be managing crises or helping organizations manage the context/ situations that lead to crises.

Let me be clear – I don’t think these practitioners who put together these lists are being deceptive or anti-intellectual on purpose, what they know is that people like to believe they can be or are in control of risky situations. Putting together a checklist creates the illusion of control in light of the fact that the ‘crisis expert’ cannot explain the nuances of crisis management.

These types of folks may be good in the heat of the moment, but the reason I know they can’t explain the nuances is because we still have a lot to learn about crises. What we hear from these folks are ‘in my experience…’ statements without a whole lot to back them up. So, it’s not that they are trying to mislead or may not be more useful than an untrained professional, but they honestly do not know why what they do works, how it might translate to different situations, nor do they know how to match up messaging, audiences, and situations because no one in the world has a tested and reliable typology for this yet.

The sooner that we, as a community of professionals, of business people, and of academics can stop focusing on top 10 lists and metaphors involving furniture and start having an honest conversation about what we know and don’t know in the field, the faster that theory and practice will advance.

It’s time to get rid of the flash and focus on the substance. 

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