THE GRIP OF GLOBAL DETOX

The world has misplaced its confidence.  There’s a heady mix of of fear and guilt in the air.  The financial markets, unsure which way to turn, have gone safe and south.  A new generation of political leadership is pointing fingers rather than pointing the way.

The Eurozone economy is terribly unwell, while the leaders of the free world in Washington can’t agree on how to go about reducing the US’ bills.   Shopkeepers are looking to their end of year takings more in trepidation than expectation and people – from Egypt’s Tahrir Square to London’s Paternoster Square – are taking to the streets.

We’ve lost faith in the institutions of government, the banks, big business and the tabloid press.  Even the church is being challenged by sections of its congregation. It’s like everyone’s waiting for the end of the world rather than Christmas, which is only five weeks away. Even winter is refusing to make a proper appearance.

The best PR team imaginable would be powerless against the prevailing melancholy.  What’s going on?

The world lost its balance over the last two decades.  Selfishness and consumerism became global epidemics.  We parked bigger cars outside larger houses.  We began to covet those lifestyles we caught a glimpse of on our bigger screen TVs and went on a debt-fuelled rampage only to learn that the bill reduces more slowly than the value of the goods it financed.   2011 is the equivalent of a very long January after the Christmas credit card bill has arrived.  The foreboding will last well into the New Year.

Some say the world will never be the same again.  It’s less dramatic, but I think the world is enjoying a deep detox, a periodic necessity to cleanse the organs and purify the soul.  The process of detoxing can cause headaches and toxins smell a bit as they leave the body.  That’s the price of the excess enjoyed earlier.

It was the same in the late 1980s after Margaret Thatcher gave us permission to lose our heads. While self-medicating to ease the headache, we swore we wouldn’t make the same mistakes again. But like the drunk when the hangover has eased, as soon as the credit card balance eases, off we went again.

Like the pain of childbirth, the memory of recession fades quickly.  As surely as day follows night, we’ll do exactly the same again. It might take a little longer to reach full volume this time, but normal service will resume and it continue until a further detox is called for, which I suspect will be around 2025.

Image courtesy of Salvatore Vuono

 

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The birth of the internet improved much about life in the average communications department.  ‘Gum tongue’, an affliction caused by licking too many press release envelopes sealed, became a thing of the past. Out too went the hours crouched over a fax machine as it tried to connect with engaged others at newsrooms around the country before chewing the pages and refusing to spit them out.

But the internet hasn’t been all upside.  You have to be a very fast runner to catch and correct misleading stories and faulty facts when they’ve reached the information superhighway. This is never more frustrating than when you’ve been woken up at some ungodly hour to be told that something’s gone horribly, and publicly, wrong. It’s crisis management time.

The internet was invented by geeks using ‘rules’ and those rules are enshrined in internet law.  Less well known among these laws is Sod’s web law. This forbids any corporate crises from starting during normal office hours, or at any time when the comms department is fully staffed and enjoying a moderate workload.  A sub-clause dictates that at least one ill-informed, insomniac blogger or ‘citizen reporter’ with a facebook or twitter account will be available to release their views before you’re even aware of the problem.

By the time you’ve had a coffee and made the first calls to begin to understand the issue, the story that’s about to spoil your chief exec’s breakfast has circumnavigated the globe a few times.  By then, your inbox is filling up with emails from colleagues pointing you to internet links ‘to make you aware!’, when what you really need at this point is a warm croissant.

Fortunately, reputation-threatening corporate crises are relatively rare occurrences and most communications departments have documented crisis management plans in place.  Unfortunately, these plans were usually produced in the immediate aftermath of the last crisis, the one that nearly cost the top boss his job.  Today’s crisis will have moved to DEFCON 3 by the time you’ve dug it out and begun re-familiarising yourself.

That’s when the memories come flooding back of the leaving drinks for the lawyer who always answered her phone out of hours. She’s the same lawyer the manual suggests approaching for legal approval for any public statements in an emergency.

Crisis management has always been as much an art as a science.  Corporate crises are, by their very nature, volatile. They are unfamiliar with predictable paths. Ask any those who managed the fallout from the Gulf of Mexico oil spill at BP last summer, the recent Blackberry network outage or the unfolding economic crisis in the eurozone.

Is it really possible to build a plan that addresses an unknown and non-defined problem?  I don’t think so either.  It’s tough developing a plan that prepares for an non-defined, future event based on nothing except past events.

You can have a process designed to deal with a crisis, but ultimately, you need capable people to manage them. These are the people that know who to call, know how things work and have the inner calmness to keep their heads when others are losing their jobs.  As a rule, they’re the department’s best practitioners.

Like most other support functions, the global economy has led to a reduction in headcount in communications departments.  These declining resourcing levels adds to the already long list of reasons why updating the crisis response manual gets deferred.  Since the likelihood of a crisis impacting any business is inversely proportionate to that business’ level of preparedness to deal with one, this means short-staffed teams are less likely to manage a crisis successfully if the Gods decide it’s their turn.  It’s an area of rising vulnerability.

There is, of course, an industry that exists that’s staffed by consultants that can help companies prepare for and manage a corporate crisis.  But there’s little they can do if you call them after the dam has burst. Even with advance warning, the real work needs to be managed and carried out by the in-house who know their way around.

The speed with which information flows around the internet means without a reasonable level of preparation, well developed wits and a slice of luck, your chances of coming out on top are declining, year on year. 

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AWKWARD CONVERSATIONS

I had lunch recently with an old friend from overseas. She is director of communications at a company that has been in the corporate wars of late. She’d been learning, she explained, through practice and repetition, the art of managing profits warnings and soothing frayed nerves: her firm’s recent financial performance had failed consistently to shake hands with market expectations.

The money markets had penalised this flagging performance with a 50 percent cut in the share price in just two quarters. Deteriorating staff morale was unlikely to rise on news of an impending round of further job cuts. Customers, meanwhile, were getting increasingly anxious. The chief executive, a man for whom the term ‘alpha male’ could be considered deficient, was what press headline writers like to call ‘embattled’. She was open to advice.

The discussion followed the usual path. “Batten down the hatches on media engagement and focus on employees. Help re-build performance by creating a shared sense of employee accountability and a desire to win again. Create a positive vision for the future and work hard to bolster waning customer loyalty. When the company’s performance makes friends with predictability again, start selling the turnaround story externally with the CEO as reformer/hero.”

We were agreed. Then I proposed, with the confidence of someone in the role of passive advisor, that if that scenario was unlikely to happen in a timeframe that meets stakeholder expectations, maybe it was the time for the CEO to give someone else a chance? Chief executives get compensated handsomely when things are good. The downside risk, should it go horribly wrong, is priced into their pay and perks. Her reaction to my suggestion was no less welcoming that had I called her children ugly.

Hard-wired into the DNA of all senior PR people is a resolution to defend to the death our senior executives against the worst assaults the system can mount. Our compulsion to protect and shore up the defences is often heightened by the close personal relationships we’ve built with the individuals. It’s partly human nature and partly professional pride.

Ultimately, however, the communications team is there to listen, to monitor and respond to the views of stakeholders as well as to create and inform them. It is not in the remit to blindly defend the interests of failing leaders when these interests no longer align with the business’ bigger interest. Sometimes, it’s a necessary step to rebuilding a corporate reputation.

However uncomfortable it might be and whatever implications it might have for our paychecks, our remit is to assess stakeholder perception, highlight them and propose communications solutions that address those perceptions. Everything else, including acting as bodyguard for the fading reputation of an executive, is secondary.

Easier said than done, granted, but communicators need to be prepared to hold up a mirror to the business, to tell it exactly as it is and what stakeholders really think in difficult times. We need to do this with the same confidence we do when headlines are positive and graphs are trending in happy directions.

Unless we can have the necessary but uncomfortably honest conversations when the business needs them most, we will struggle as a profession to get away from our reputation as spin doctors and ‘peddlers of happy news’ when all the objective evidence suggests otherwise.

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