This column is spurred by a conference where veteran corporate communications managers will share how they handled major unanticipated events. This will be a panel at The Conference Board's Annual Corporate Communications Conference May 22-23 at NYU. I will emcee the panel.
Perhaps a company can somehow foresee the unexpected, though. Communications managers can enhance anticipating (and preparing for) unexpected events. Here are some ideas.
Make best friends in the company: Establish a coterie to be litmus tests on the business environment. For Dale Heydlauff, SVP, Corporate Communications at American Electric Power, the core network looks like this: "The Chief Customer Officer and heads of HR, IT and governmental affairs are probably most strategic for me." Heydlauff also has frequent touch-points with the CEO. "I am responsible for our bi-yearly Leadership Summits that deliver updates on our strategic direction and high priority issues for the company. This is for the entire leadership team from frontline supervisors to senior officers."
Heydlauff triangulates data from sources inside the company to gauge important issues. (Dale is on the panel at NYU.)
Do a gut-check on corporate culture: Real openness and possibly even uncomfortable questions can be a challenge when organizations may not want total reality. Some people feel so correct, so expert, that other input is ignored even if it needs to be known.
A social norm, the "Earned Dogmatism Hypothesis," says experts can be excessively doctrinaire and closed-minded to different ideas. On one end of the spectrum, maybe it is wearing blinders. On the other end, hubris. Some companies have it, some don't, but a Harvard Business Review article says, "Our world is increasingly self-centered, overconfident, and deluded," and warns not "to mistake confidence for competence." That's a big idea, and a big challenge as a manager tries to deepen internal "what-if" dialogue.
Human nature strives to reduce cognitive dissonance. The challenge is to constructively air potential problems and avoid the mental fence that block listening. The upside is good analysis and being ahead of the curve as an organization. The downside for a manager is being perceived not as a person trying to prevent a threat, but as someone not playing nice in the sandbox.
Engage the staff. A communications manager cannot be a lone wolf. Communication staffs also need alert antennae. Does the communications staff know what tidbits of conversation mean more than others? Can they pick up meaningful cues? As a communications staff shares their tidbits, data points form patterns. Leveraging the eyes and ears of communicators helps peer into the future.
Envision extreme scenarios: Some events have happened before: storms, injury, accidents. Others take greater leaps of the imagination: technology obviates a competitive advantage, a whole workplace becomes unusable long-term, unusual reputation crisis. All can go viral, too. Think ahead, think differently.
The opportunity is to anticipate responses. Scott Thomsen, senior strategic advisor in communications at Seattle City Light also teaches communications across the country to public information officers. He says, "Planning for these events and practicing those plans makes a huge difference in your effectiveness if a bad thing happens, whatever it is. Consider the worst events that could affect your organization. Develop three messages for any of those situations in the past, present, and future context: This is what happened; this is what we’re doing about it; and this is what we’re doing to prevent that from happening again."
Thomsen reminds people, "Your context is your core corporate value system. Discuss your values and what they mean in a response." Companies that have pre-rehearsed seemingly extreme situations have more homework done.
Define the context. Remember the difference between risk and crisis communications. People deal with risk every day. Few organizations may diligently put understandable context on the risk. Thomsen again: "Boldly tell your truth. Stand on the good work you are doing. As you engage with getting your messages out, monitor what people say back to you. What percolates up at city council meetings, review panel meetings, or in civic groups?" Communicate, assess, adjust, communicate.
Design your own barometer: Creating a citizens advisory panel (CAP) can be an even earlier warning system. A CAP is also an investment in credibility. The CAPs I managed were assembled through citizen-led processes (objectivity); the company educated CAP members about the industry (context). The more they asked and we answered, the reputation of openness and honesty grew. Townspeople started asking questions of CAP members, who brought them to the company. I am convinced we heard those questions earlier because of the CAP.
Anticipating events is about discovering information, finding patterns, and planning. Discover and mitigate simmering problems. Manage change on your terms. Develop a thick skin, too. Discomfort as a core characteristic of raising potentially difficult issues. It's no party. Better, though, to ask the tough questions internally before they may be public, bigger, and a threat to business.
About the Author
Scott Carlberg leads strategic corporate and nonprofit public affairs initiatives, highlighting corporate departmental turnarounds and catalytic special projects. He has experience in the full range of public affairs, such as video, media, e-communications, live events, specialized venues for highly targeted audiences, human resources, and strategic planning. He leads Talking Points, LLC - Public Affairs Management. Previously Carlberg was director of communications for a global research organization, the Electric Power Research Institute. He has also worked for Duke Energy and Phillips Petroleum; and was President of E4 Carolinas, a two-state energy industry trade association. He is based in Charlotte.