Crisis Communications: A book review by Bob Morris

Crisis CommunicationsCrisis Communications: The Definitive Guide to Managing the Message
Steven Fink
McGraw-Hill (2013)

Why you should never “pick a fight with anyone who buys bandwidth by the geobyte”

I read and reviewed Steven Fink’s previous book, Crisis Management: Planning for the Inevitable, and recall two chapters (13 and 14) in which he explained “controlling the message” and “handling a hostile press.” What we have in this brilliant volume is all that Fink knew then and has since has learned about effectively responding to these two challenges. As he observes, the two chapters were written “before the Internet explosion and the advent of never-ending 24/7 news cycles, cell phone videos, the runaway profusion of still emerging social media, ever-lurking-in-the-bushes paparazzi, blogs and websites devoted to ‘gotcha’ journalism, and electronic mob-mentality consumerism/activism.” So, Fink needed to update and expand the material in those chapters to accommodate the major developments to which he refers.

Here is a partial list of the key issues he addresses. Please imagine that each is preceded by “How to….”

o React immediately to a crisis
o Articulate an appropriate response that is (key word) truthful
o Manage both internal and external perceptions of the facts that are known
o Avoid the most common mistakes
o Defer assignment of blame to focus on resolving the given crisis
o Shape the communication updates to stakeholder segments as well as media
o Deploy spokesperson(s)
o Manage social media
o Cope with crisis-induced stress
o Prepare for and (when appropriate) conduct post-crisis evaluation

Years ago, when Ann Mulcahy was named president and CEO of Xerox, she asked several of her closest friends and mentors for suggestions. She said the best advice she received was that she had three tasks: “Get the ox out of the ditch, find how it got in the ditch, and then make certain that it never happens again.”

Keep in mind, Fink’s focus in this book is on the communications portion of a much more comprehensive process that also includes contingency planning, for example, and allocation of readily available resources. He cites dozens of corporate exempla (for better or worse) of real-world crisis communications that include (in alpha order), Audi, Avery Denison, Bank of America, BP, Firestone Tire & Rubber, Johnson & Johnson/Tylenol, Pennsylvania State University/Paterno & Sandusky, PepsiCo, Susan B. Komen for the Cure, Toyota, and U.C.L.A. School of Medicine’s Neuropsychiatric Institute. Don’t expect a provision of silver bullets, recipes, quick fixes, etc. Rather, Fink creates a mosaic of especially important do’s and don’ts for those who need an expert (if not “the definitive”) guide for “managing the message” during a crisis.

I wish to conclude this brief commentary with three observations of my own. First, I strongly recommend that both of Fink’s books be read in tandem. Crisis Management creates a context, a frame-of-reference, for Crisis Communications and the latter should be viewed as an updated and expanded coverage of the material in Chapters 13 and 14 in Crisis Management. Also, it is impossible to over-prepare for a crisis, whatever its nature and extent may prove to be. Meetings convened should identify the 3-5 worst possible crises and then focus on what to do if one occurs. Finally, in that event, speed is imperative and truth is the currency of the realm. I agree with Steven Fink: “Don’t hesitate. Rise to the occasion and take charge of your crisis with confidence, conviction, and character.”

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