Crisis prevention through Communications

This article was first published in the March 2018 edition of ‘Voice’, the journal of The Institute of Internal Communications.

Another month, another expose of the latest omnishambles. The Commons Select Committee summons senior executives to explain their actions. Meanwhile, personal and brand reputations self-destruct.

Watching powerful people squirm to answer MPs’ questions is certainly entertaining. This was MP Peter Kyle to Michelle Hinchcliffe of Carillion’s auditor, KPMG: “I wouldn’t trust you to audit the contents of my fridge.”

It’s fun for a while, but I suspect most people’s attention is superficial and quickly fades until the next time.

As communications professionals, we are duty-bound to take a much closer interest. While such events are invariably portrayed as leadership failures, we know that if we look close enough, they also point to communication failure.

Why did no one speak up? And if they did, why weren’t they heard? What stopped the message reaching high enough and being acted on? Good communications can prop up poor leaders for a while, but bad communications will almost certainly topple the best.

Considering the published case studies, the legacy of valuable learning from countless public enquiries, all the crisis management advisers, you’d think we’d be seeing fewer crises – that lessons would be learned and acted on. And yet the likes of Oxfam and the Presidents’ Club, to name just two organisations making headlines recently, continually blunder into preventable situations, apparently without a clue.

Why is this? And what can we do to try and prevent it?

When leadership failures blow up publicly, there are many underlying reasons. Here are some of the ones I’ve spotted.

No one knows who’s safeguarding the organisation’s reputation

We know crises can originate anywhere from the boardroom to the front lines, and at any point between. They can also originate externally, usually in supply chains; especially when complex and extending to far-flung corners of the world. Places where no one is really looking.

Who, then, is responsible? Can we really expect the CEO to carry the entire burden? Isn’t every employee capable of originating a crisis and, therefore, at least partly responsible? Asking these questions points to the first management failing: everyone is responsible, so no one is responsible.

Without clear responsibility, there can be no personal accountability. And one of the fundamental things we know about effective management is this: clear accountability focuses the mind. It serves as a check on wayward behaviour.

No sense of organisational self-awareness

What many found so appalling about The Presidents’ Club was not just what The Financial Times exposed at its events. It was also the sense of entitlement associated with the charity’s name choice. And the casual acceptance of misogyny because the charity supported worthy causes. How out of touch with public sentiment were those who ran it?

A non-executive director’s role is to guard against this sort of thing by bringing an outsider’s objective view to the boardroom. But most seem to be more interested in protecting their lucrative positions than speaking out.

Leadership team complacency

Often the bedfellow of hubris, this is when leaders convince themselves that “it could never happen here”. We’ve all met people at work who believe their own bullshit. Others only ever see upsides in everything.

They learn early on in their careers that acting in an excessively positive and over-confident way tends to be rewarded. If there’s one thing most line managers don’t want, it’s problems pointed out to them. So the organisation pushes these people upwards into senior positions. This is where an absence of self-doubt can do real harm.

The phenomenon is part of what entrepreneur Margaret Heffernan labelled “wilful blindness”, and which became the name of her best-selling book in 2011.

Siloed-thinking

Most organisation designs still comprise teams working in separate functions: finance, HR, marketing, operations, procurement, IT and so on. Humans are tribal. We tend to identify first with our own work group, and second with the wider organisation. Everyone else is “other”.

Heads of these functions don’t always have a seat at the top table. Finance always does, HR sometimes does, and communications seldom does.

Any absence of peer-level parity can breed professional rivalries. Or a tendency to dismiss as less important the views of those functions unintentionally flagged as “lower value” in the organisation design.

Worse still is when turf wars occur between functional heads. In these situations, great ideas can be killed off before they ever see the light of day. The shutters come down and cross-functional co-operation stalls.

Technology-enabled communications failure

There’s something about technology that tends to bring out some of the most irrational management behaviour. Technology is sold (and bought) as the panacea to most problems. It rarely is. In their hurry to stay ahead, companies move too early in the hype cycle (AI, anyone?).

Managers invest significantly in enterprise systems like Business Intelligence or communications tools like Workplace, Yammer or Slack. They then puzzle over why the promised benefits haven’t happened. Maybe they don’t realise that technology should always come last, behind people and processes.

Remember the value of the once-popular Management by Walking About? Celebrated management thinker Tom Peters was on to something when he called this approach the “technology of the obvious.”

Now it seems we have too much management by device – an unquestioned substitution of effectiveness by shiny-new-thing busy-ness.

Ideas for consideration

Faced with intractable issues like these, it’s tempting to dismiss any attempts to change things as simply too difficult. Or, in the words of the Polish proverb, not my circus, not my monkeys. Don’t succumb to this.

Continuous improvement is the professional duty of all communicators. We need to be more assertive, more confident of our value to senior executives. And less fearful of the consequences of speaking truth to power. Here are some ideas that may help.

Reading Wilful Blindness would be a good starting reference. People often talk about “being the change you wish to see”. On that basis, consider how you can encourage an open, questioning culture; one where people can speak up and be heard without fear. Start with your own team or department. Understand the important difference between useful scepticism and energy-sapping cynicism.

If you haven’t done so yet, familiarise yourself with and practise active listening. This is a proven psychological technique that helps people talk.

Go talk to people

In The Washington Post newsroom, editor Marty Baron reminds reporters of their fundamental role using a simply worded but powerful poster. It urges them to “Go talk to people”, with a hand icon signposting them towards the exit.

We communicators should also get out from behind our screens regularly and we should encourage others to do the same. Build trusting, authentic relationships with people in all major functions. Especially those who do entirely different jobs. Explain to each other what you do and why.

In particular, if you’re not already part of this department, get closer to HR. This is where the change agenda is usually set and influenced. And HR decisions can sometimes blow up in undesirable ways for Communications and the wider organisation. This recent and easily preventable Tesco story is just one example of how.

Minor crises like these are a great opportunity to remind management of the importance of building a more proactive internal communications strategy; one that is ready for such events, but also one that supports longer term business goals.

Encourage inter-function communications projects. For example, finance people could probably add value to your management reporting of communications effectiveness. And they’ll benefit from understanding how what you do adds intangible value, as well as the numbers and ratios they’re more familiar with.

You will know what good communications look like, but do people elsewhere? Do you have an in-house comms-for-comms education process to build that knowledge? It could cover good and bad practice, the contribution good communications make to organisational goals, the value of dialogue and openness, and what you’re doing to improve things.

If you have a process already, is it still fit for purpose? Review it at least annually to ensure it reflects new insights and current trends in communications; channels tend to increase and change in popularity.

The same applies to the crisis preparation plans you’ve made. Nothing demonstrates your value more powerfully to the board than the communications aspects of this tested in a real situation and shown to be up to the task.

People tend to overestimate the long-term damage caused by major crises. Although The Presidents’ Club charity is now closing down, others, such as VW and BP, proved resilient enough to recover. Which way Oxfam goes remains unclear.

The only certainty is that these won’t be the last organisations tipped into crisis by poor reputation risk capability. When it comes to prevention, building an open, frank and safe internal communications culture is the arguably one of the best investments companies can make.

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