Your Truth, Their Truth: Public Perception Is Valuable at Times of Crisis

A thing is not necessarily true because a man dies for it

Your Truth, Their Truth!

One of the key insights from the deliberations at the recently concluded19th Annual International Public Relations Research Conference (IPRRC), held at Miami, reads – “It does not matter if it is your truth or theirs, you have to deal with public perception”. This is a very critical realization when it comes to managing crisis. It reminded me of a crisis situation I was involved in, which I was managing a few years back.

The Case Study

A number of Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) raised allegations about labour welfare issues in the supply chain of a global player. The immediate response strategy of the company was to highlight the poor state of the worker’s welfare in the industry in general and in this context exhibit how things are better in its supply chain.

Media and public in general did not find the response satisfactory. Despite efforts of the company to highlight various measures it has taken to provide the workers, enhanced welfare in its supply chain, negativities in public increased manifold boosted by social media outrage. At this critical juncture, the management decided to listen to the suggestion on doing an objective review of the state of affairs in its supply chain to spot any shortcomings.

The assessment established that the company was not wrong with its explanation about better condition of its supply chain vis-à-vis the industry in general. It also observed that the expectations of the CSOs, and public in general, from the company were very high owing to company’s sustainability vision, ingrained in its brand and recognized globally. Finally the management realized the risk of negative impact on its brand if the public expectation and related perceptions are not attended to. The issue took a very positive turn from this point onwards. The company rolled out a structured, time bound action plan to enhance various areas of worker’s welfare identified by the assessment. Required resources were aligned quickly and the execution of the plan were initiated. While the actions were in progress the same were communicated to media and stakeholders regularly. With this the criticism died down very quickly. While the criticism about the poor state of worker’s welfare at the larger industry level continues to be there, the company which was at one point the target of all such conversations, does not feature in most of them anymore. In fact the action taken by the company is being cited by media suggesting similar action for the peers.

If you consider a targeted stakeholder engagement programme the base for your brand communications, attention to public perception will be the cornerstone for development of such a programme. This holds good even at the time of crisis. In fact, public perception plays an even bigger role when an organization is going through crisis situation.

Team Meeting

 

Empathy – at the Core of a Crisis Communication Plan

Empathy – the willingness and ability to view yourself through the eyes of your stakeholders –enables you to spot these critical perception issues. You need to be able to ask these hard hitting questions and you will find answers that are not painted by your predispositions:

  • Does my organization stand true to the brand promises made?
  • Are the actions/ responses of the organization to the developments, aligned to its code of ethics and brand promise?

Unfortunately, most of the time you’ll find organisations ‘bury head in the sand’ and take a very defensive position. As a crisis communications counsel or a manager, you know this is happening when the brief is – “Please enhance our communications to highlight the great work we are doing”. The stance would not change till the crisis aggravates to a point where review of the approach becomes a necessity.

To Get Through the Impasse

In a situation like this, how do you present management or leadership a point of view that bonds with their current position?

The three essential actions you can take that will help you break through the roadblock:

  • Delta Analysis: Do an analysis of how things are appearing when looked at objectively.
  • Scenario Mapping: To make a quick scenario mapping to address the situation. The map would include the step by step guide to understand the crisis, to jot down the possible solutions and also the probable fallout – including the impact it can have on its brand if the prevailing perception issues are not properly addressed.
  • Action Recommendations: Draw up relevant action recommendations to mitigate issues spotted through the delta analysis. Also provide challenges and opportunities of the various actions taken.

This approach enables one to put up a mirror in front of the leadership to look at how the brand is reflecting in public eyes, and visualize issues with brand and organizational reputation and take an informed decision on the actions they need to take. One needs to make them realize the importance of paying attention to “their truth”. On a number of occasions, as a crisis communicator, I was relieved to see things falling in place after these steps.

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About the author

Aklanta is a communications practitioner providing corporate and crisis communications counsel. Over the past decade he has provided crisis communications support, in traditional and social media, to companies in sectors including energy, engineering, IT, pharmaceuticals, food and beverages, and healthcare etc. @aklantak

Crisis: An opportunity in disguise!

“A crisis is an opportunity riding the dangerous wind” – Chinese proverb

You may ask, “How can crisis be an opportunity?” Yes, the opportunity, at the time of crisis, is to present facts and perspectives with empathy, speed and transparency. These should help one ride through the tide of crisis and come out stronger in the aftermath.

What about the ‘dangerous wind’ that a crisis rides? It’s the confluence of negative emotions like anger, disgust, fear, etc., that grows and spreads wild during crisis and if not attended in time, can take the shape and size of a tsunami.

Copy of “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you'll do things differently.” – Warren Buffet (1)

Recently, I read two articles that explains these perspectives. The articles also throws light on interesting viewpoints about the importance of managing emotions during crisis situations.

Crisis communications expert Melissa Agnes in her article “Successful Crisis Management Reaches the Heart Before the Mind” observed that emotions can germinate crisis within crisis situations, making management of such situation really difficult. One who can overcome these emotions will be in an affirmative frame of mind to understand any logic. Owing to this it becomes really important to be able to monitor negative stakeholder emotions and take hold of the situation and address their cause. Existence of emotional connect with the stakeholders, supported by trust comes handy in managing negative emotions during crisis situations. If one does not have the buffer of such emotional connect with stakeholders,  crisis communication and management efforts will have to be weaved around the understanding of negative emotions, rather that the use of logic.

Also, Brandon Brewer in his article “Managing Negativity and Rumors During Crisis” wrote about the importance of ‘maximum disclosure with minimum delay’ to mitigate information vacuum. During times of crisis, people get upset and think negatively. Affected people would want to know ‘how’ and ‘why’ the crisis happened and if people don’t receive information they would come up with alternate truths. Brandon quotes Dr. Vincent Covello, of the Center for Risk Communication while emphasizing that people need to hear with a positive bent of mind when they’re feeling threatened, insecure or angry about something.

Drawing on these insights and my experience of advising organizations on managing communications during crisis situations, below are the three action recommendations I would make to organizations to be able to effectively manage crisis situations:

  • Monitor Stakeholder Emotions – Monitoring emotions and handling them should be done not only for the affected stakeholder, but also one’s own.
  • Tell Your Story– It is not necessary that truth will always be a good news. But at the time of crisis one can accept bad news more than accepting uncertainty. As they say, “If you don’t tell your story, someone else will.”
  • Attend to Negative Emotions– Trying to present logic to justify a position would be of no help. The dominant negative emotions needs to be attended through empathy and affirmative action.

Remaining unaffected by the emotions and being able to cut through the negativity and confusion is essential for management of a crisis situation. Information vacuum creates breeding ground for rumours. It is really essential that emotions are addressed adequately while one communicates with the stakeholders, thus raising the trust of the stakeholders.

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About the author

Aklanta is a communications practitioner providing corporate and crisis communications counsel. Over the past decade he has provided crisis communications support, in traditional and social media, to companies in sectors including energy, engineering, IT, pharmaceuticals, food and beverages, and healthcare etc. @aklantak