The old crisis playbook is dead. Organizations and brands can no longer rely on neatly defined but outdated and one-off scenarios with rigid response timelines. Our latest research has confirmed what many of us who work on the front line of crises has been experiencing.
For the past two years, Covid-19 made crisis communications a day-to-day reality. However, this masked the fact that the nature of nearly all crises has fundamentally changed. As our research shows, crises simply are not blips anymore. Instead, they are frequent, connected, deeply disruptive, and potentially always-on. Crisis and recovery have become the steady state.
The reach of crises has also changed. Organizations must now respond to issues that ripple systemically through societies and economies, having impact far beyond the original cause. In turn, stakeholders across the board have become activists, from consumers and employees to NGOs and investors. Adding to the volatility, crises are further weaponized by populists and single-issue campaigners. Throw in the infodemic, with disinformation that gets amplified by algorithm-fueled highly-pressured digital echo chambers, and there’s simply no playbook on the planet to prepare you.
Finally, we are seeing the emergence of mega crises that trigger cascades of challenges and failures. We are now dealing with a succession of connected crises that can be difficult to respond to and impossible to control.
Business leaders and communicators are not blind to the new threats, but are they prepared? Our research shows that despite acknowledging the risks, less than half of executives are well prepared to handle any type of crisis on a timely basis.
Trust underpins everything, so being caught up in connected crises can quickly leave the reputation of any brand or organizations floundering, because the traditional crisis control mechanisms are unlikely to gain traction fast enough, or last long enough.
Companies and organizations must urgently adapt to these fundamental shifts. Yet this is not about becoming risk-averse — in fact, it’s the opposite. It is only possible to take risks when you understand the connected nature of the potential crises ahead, and when you understand your stakeholders and their motivations. Just as successful businesses have adopted a growth mindset, they now need to develop a crisis mindset.
Every crisis has a lifecycle. In a connected world, however, this feels more like a succession of rogue waves buffeting a firm’s reputation. That’s why organizations have to plan ahead. They must minimize risk; by building good relationships with trusted stakeholders; by boosting their brand through constant advocacy; by understanding the connection between culture and the crisis landscape; and by using real-time data and intelligence to spot emerging crises and see how they are connected to other events.
Of course, organizations don’t need to respond to everything, but when they must act, they need the right data and insights to reach their audiences with pinpoint accuracy.
This crisis mindset demands a new approach to crisis communications, one that is fueled by data, rooted in trust, connected to culture, and integrated across all business functions and digital channels.
Old-school crisis management teams acted in isolation; this used to make them efficient, now it just means they don’t have the whole picture. Communications professionals must take a more integrated approach, if they are to connect all the parts of the crisis puzzle, and earn trust in today’s digital-first world.
Hugh Taggart is Global Chair of our Crisis Team.