March 25, 2021
We’re operating in an increasingly issues-driven environment. Every week something new occurs, from political crisis, to the pandemic, to social unrest. While some issues are bigger than others, and some impact certain industries or clients more than others, communications teams have been tasked with continually providing expert counsel to address these issues. When this happens, guidance generally follows one of three tacks: business as usual, pause or participate/respond.
Your counsel for your client’s course of action may change as the issue evolves, but how do you know what’s right and when? What should you take into consideration? We recently assembled a panel of our own PR practitioners, including Megan Alleston, Account Director, Lisa Heathman, Senior Partner, and Ricca Silverio, Partner, to provide some advice and best practices.
When an issue arises, before you make a recommendation to your client as to whether or how they should respond, such as pausing communications, conducting business as usual, or making a statement you want to take a few things into consideration.
According to Megan, when something like the insurrection at the Capitol happened this past January, communications teams should pause initially and assess the situation before taking action, such as posting statements on social media.
While research is conducted, insights should be gathered from credible sources (e.g. multiple respected news outlets) in order to get a full scope of not only how this situation can impact a client on both a national level and local level, but also their competitors or industry.
For example, with social movements such as Black Lives Matter, many brands wanted a place in the conversation, but consider if client commentary will provide value to the situation.
Even if the intention is coming from the place of wanting to support a community, Megan recommended asking the client questions such as: Have you taken actionable steps to address the issue or crisis? Are you part of the solution? If not, what course of action do you plan to follow to address these issues?
Lisa noted that In a challenging situation you need to process what is happening and what it means to the clients organization in terms of how that information can be used by competitors, employees, and beyond.
All these factors must be scrutinized because otherwise your client’s proactive communication may be perceived as opportunistic or tone deaf, and ultimately damage your brand.
“Our job is not to rubber stamp what a client wants to do, our job is to poke holes in it,” continued Lisa. “That sounds counterintuitive because they've hired us to help them, but our job is to get them to slow down and really think about what they're doing and help them understand ways in which that could go wrong. A lot of times that means regularly asking questions of our clients to make sure that they're doing the right thing.”
In addition, consider the holistic view of the situation, not just a specific channel such as traditional news outlets, but other methods of communication. “Long gone are the days of those siloed functions,” Ricca added. “it's really important to look at what's happening at hand from that full picture view. Even though we may not be supporting clients from a social media aspect, for example, a lot of issues that come in come through Twitter or Facebook, or other channels, so it's really important that you take a step back and think through how this is going to be perceived, not only in traditional media, but on social media channels.”
Finally, put together a synopsis of the situation for the client keeping in mind that the research is multipurpose. This research will help guide the client not only in their course of action, but also can be used as a tool to communicate that plan to internal and external stakeholders, helping ensure alignment in terms of next steps and potential messaging. These stakeholders may include lawyers especially in situations with legal ramifications, so factor in that additional time if necessary.
Next is planning your next steps then taking your course of action. The key to moving quickly on this is to prepare for any crisis, leaving you with good foundation to build upon.
I'm a huge fan of preparation,” said Lisa. “Prepare the client, for whatever it is we're going to be dealing with and that allows us the time to get in front of that situation if it transpires. Ask of your team and your client, what is the worst possible outcome of what you're about to do and then prepare for it.”
As teams counseled their clients during the first days and weeks of the global spread of the COVID-19 virus, Ricca noted that many of clients asked if the agency specifically had a pandemic plan, whether it was to help them to communicate work from home policies to employees, or changes to support for their customers, etc. As a global agency, we were able to confer with our colleagues in Asia Pacific, who had already been responding to the crisis, and react rapidly on behalf of clients in the United States.
In the end, though, part of preparation is readying your team and clients that plans may need to be changed at any moment.
“Even on a personal level, one thing that's been really wild is looking back at my own social posts and stories during this time and thinking about how much has changed since those first initial weeks and months,” said Megan. “There was so much that was unknown about the virus. The information we received was constantly changing. Over the last year of really humbling experiences we’ve had to acknowledge that plans were going to get thrown out the window, every hour, every day, every week, every month, and you just have to be ready for that.”