Negative events can go viral these days — easily. For this reason, effective crisis management skills are incredibly valuable for marketing communications professionals to master.
In this interview, Melissa Agnes, a globally recognized and leading expert in crisis management, shares some of her field experience as well as how she helps professors bring crisis management best practices into their classrooms to help their students build and hone this critical skill set.
Karen Freberg: What journey did you take to be a leading expert in crisis management?
Melissa Agnes: I've been an entrepreneur my entire adult life pretty much, and nearly 10 years ago, I was doing brand strategies for the digital space, so online branding and social media and websites. One morning, I was just catching up on my morning readings, and it just struck me, all the changes that were going on with digital, with technology in general, and the impact that it was having on organizations, or at least the impact that I saw it having on organizations in a negative capacity — and the realization that nobody at that point in time was talking about it. Nobody was addressing it. Nobody was asking questions about it.
Quickly, my brain went to, "There's so much risk involved in this. Nobody's talking about it, and yet all of this risk is so easy to mitigate if we do start talking about it, and then if we get to that level, then the opportunities for crisis communication, for crisis management, for emergency management just becomes unprecedented." But we have to have these conversations in order to get there. And so that kind of triggered something within me in that moment.
Note: Agnes' immensely popular book, Crises Ready is available for purchase.
KF: One thing you've really promoted across your channels and in your work is about being crisis-ready, so what does that actually mean, and why is it important?
MA: There's a difference between crisis readiness and crisis prevention or the typical kind of status quo of crisis management. The typical status quo, unfortunately, to this day remains to be leadership kind of says, "We need a crisis management plan," and somehow they invest in a plan of some sort, and they put that plan on a shelf. And they think that, "If a crisis happens, we're ready. We have that plan." But the reality today is that by the time you reach for that plan, whether it's a viral issue or a crisis, the incident is already taking off. Stakeholder demands and expectations are already surging in. It's already going a mile a minute.
You're already behind, so the whole concept, the whole premise of being crisis-ready is that you're not dependent on a stagnant plan that's sitting on a shelf somewhere. Instead, you're looking at crisis readiness as a cultural component whereby one, you are culturally, proactively, every day preventing the preventable risks. Not every risk is preventable. In the event that an incident happens — be it an issue or crisis, it doesn't matter — you have an entire team that is instinctively and intuitively able to detect it in real time, which gives you a head start on managing and responding to it effectively.
They're able to assess its material impact on the organization, so they can look at an incident, say, "Is this an issue versus is this a crisis, and what does that mean? And as a result, what do we need to do with it internally and externally?" And they're able to manage the incident not just in a way where it mitigates further escalation and further long-term material impact, but it actually builds upon the brand equity.
KF: Could you elaborate how crisis readiness is more than just a plan?
MA: The foundation of it starts with knowledge. It starts with education, so bringing everybody up to speed on the difference between an issue and a crisis, which brings me to something I call a crisis response penalty. The crisis response penalty is completely preventable. The crisis response penalty, CRP, is the material impact of a crisis on an organization as a direct result of mismanagement. Setting the stage as a baseline education across the board is important. From there, you're building out a program, so you're taking a deep dive into identifying your organization's high risk scenarios.
Understanding what your high risk scenarios are; where the threshold lies from taking a scenario from an issue to a crisis and then back down again; and being entirely prepared, so taking the time to do a deep dive into each one of these scenarios and again, preventing the preventable; and then developing a program that looks at everything from your governance structure to your escalation processes to your dissemination and cascading processes, your protocols, to just everything that's involved with having every single member of the team.
Crisis management is cross-organizational. It doesn't happen in a vacuum, so making sure that everybody across your organization is very familiar and very comfortable with all of these aspects, all of these processes and protocols and just the things that need to happen in order to detect, assess, and respond, and then going through regular training to really ingrain that into the culture.
KF: What is the difference between an issue and a crisis?
MA: I'll start with why it's important. Today, in this day and age with sensationalization and just heightened emotions, it's very easy for an issue that goes viral to feel like a crisis. But virality is not the indicating criteria of what a crisis is. Just because an issue goes viral doesn't necessarily make it a crisis, or if you mis-classify an incident, you risk either overreacting or under-reacting or responding inappropriately.
Crisis is a negative event or situation that stops business as usual to some extent because it requires immediate escalation straight to leadership. It requires taking leadership out of their busy days, out of their meetings to look at the situation because it threatens long-term material impact on one to all of the following five things: people, the environment, the business's operation, its reputation, and or its bottom line.
The difference is that an issues doesn't stop business as usual because it doesn't threaten that long-term material impact on any one of those five things. An issue is very unpleasant to have go through and to manage, but because it doesn't require escalation straight to the top of leadership, I see it as kind of business as usual on hyper-drive. If it's in your department or you're faced with it, it's not a crisis, so it's something that you and your team have to manage, it's the unpleasant side of your job, and it's an important side of your job.
KF: What are some common mistakes you do still see professionals make in the field?
MA: The biggest mistake is not becoming crisis-ready. That just leaves you vulnerable. Some other mistakes that I see are fear to communicate, and therefore, a lack of communication leads to massive CRP. Successful crisis management requires simultaneous and effective action, so the right actions to be taken to actually manage the incident while you simultaneously communicate effective with everybody that matters to the brand, every stakeholder group that needs to be communicated with.
Often, the communication side of things can be very nerve-wracking. It can be very intimidating. It can feel like, "Oh, if we do that, it's going to make things worse," when in fact, that's the complete opposite of what it does. Or it's looking at in the past, legal tended to say, "Just say no comment. That's how we're going to mitigate our legal risks." No comment just augments the risks and CRP levels. A third one that I see often is not having the right people, basically not having every stakeholder group represented at the crisis management table. When that happens, you do not have a 360-degree insight into the different impacts or the full scope of the impacts of the incident on the organization and its stakeholders.
KF: What are some upcoming trends we should be looking out for the coming year?
MA: The biggest thing that I really am trying to just create discussion around is looking at societal trends. A lot of organizations, they understand what their high risk scenarios are. If they've taken the time to identify them, then from there, they say, "We know what those are. We understand that, and we're banking them." But if you're not in-tune with all of the trends and the movements within our society, then you're missing all new exposure that could potentially apply to you as well as opportunity. What I mean by that is things like, for example, the Me Too movement and everything around that, that that wasn't just a moment in time; that was a beginning of something needed and new in our society in terms of progression forward. It's here to stay.
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Want to learn more about crisis readiness?
West Virginia University’s Reed College of Media offers an Area of Emphasis (AOE) in Public Relations Leadership, existing within the larger framework of the Integrated Marketing Communications (IMC) graduate program. By pursuing a specialization like Public Relations Leadership along with your graduate degree in IMC, you will learn all about crisis management, public relations, brand communication, and so much more. Mastering these skills will prepare you to handle a myriad of issues and crises in the context of marketing communications.
If you're interested in learning more about pursuing the IMC degree at WVU as well as the AOE in Public Relations Leadership, we encourage you to request more information today!