Crisis Communication Consultants

Recently, I had the great pleasure of attending a social media and crisis communication two-day workshop sponsored by our local Task Force, provided by the wonderful folks at the Media Survival Group. (Full disclosure: I love every single session of theirs that I attend; and I’m not even getting paid to say that!) Kerry and Karen were, as usual, terrific, but listening to Kelly Huston’s (Assistant Secretary at CalEMA for Crisis Communications and Media Relations and owner of the very useful ProCommunicator website) advice got me thinking about crisis communication consultants. His presentation (piped in live via Skype) gave tons of advice in easy-to-remember bites. There were the five P’s of why you should use social media, and then the ABC method of first steps in crisis communication response.

And even today, I remember both of those things. What a clever way to teach an idea that I’ve never used. And I think, damn Kelly, you’re good. It’s just as good as these other little jingles and mnemonics I’ve heard about crisis communications. Red, yellow and green; nobody cares what you know until they know you care; the list goes on.

And that got me thinking. Why does this industry have so many cute little ditties? I haven’t heard anything similar in public health, nor emergency management . Not accounting (other than PEMDAS) or police work or nursing. What’s so special about crisis communications? And then it hit me. People who do those other jobs do them every day. There is muscle memory built. No need for tricks, just do it like you did it yesterday. We don’t do that for crisis communications. We do our every day work, something explodes, and only then do we pull out all of the cute little jingles and mnemonics. But this is problematic, because if you break down what most crisis communicators teach, you can actually divide it into two very distinct areas of instruction. The first is the actual crisis communication advice. All of those neat little tricks. And empathy.

The second part, though, is one that we all seem to forget. It’s the one where they say that crisis communication cannot be a one-off thing. It cannot be something that we only do when the thing explodes and we pull the plan off the shelf and remember the mnemonics and express empathy and when it’s over we go back to our day-to-day jobs. It’s the one where they say that the things we do today will come back in spades in an emergency, so start today. Start messaging, start building dark sites, build your presence, teach your front-line staff, exercise them, exercise yourself, write templated messages, review your operations for pinch-points where crises are likely to happen, hold after-action meetings following others’ crises. Literally, make crisis communication part of your everyday job.

But we’re not so good at that. So we have mnemonics. We have tips and tricks and five steps to success! We have everything we need to make us feel comfortable forgetting about doing crisis communication until after the thing explodes. So I wonder, whose fault is that? Why can we not internalize the whole of what crisis communicators espouse? Is it because we’ve got these handy-dandy helpers, so we can “set it and forget it,” or did our consultants come up with these because they realized that nobody was really listening to them and they needed to deliver something of value.

5 thoughts on “Crisis Communication Consultants

  1. Reblogged this on The Red Elm and commented:
    Nice piece by @jgarrow! With regard to the mnemonics, I think that’s a communication and teaching thing and there aren’t so many EMs that have developed those skills. On the other hand, a catchy phrase is only as the knowledge behind it. I think the key is to success in crisis comms is to develop better communications skills in the people who really deal with the crisis itself, as opposed to having the work farmed out. That’s going to take a culture change, though, and a very large cadre of EMs who can wear two hats.

  2. You hit the nail, Jim. I’ve been at this a while and know that the temptation to “set it and forget it” is everywhere. People think that by having a plan and a one-time training, they are all ready for a crisis to hit. Fact is, it does help, but it is only half the equation.

    In research from Altimeter, we saw that companies that maintain a culture of crisis readiness (as you described) by incorporating these practices into everyday operations have less loss and mitigate events faster. Bottom line. As a consultant, my goal is to do one of two things for a company: save them money or make them money. That is the language that turns the wheels. If we start to approach crisis operations this way, we will be able to convince people that crisis management is an investment just like inventory. You just need to convince people it’s a part of regular business operations that increases the bottom line. Otherwise, they’ll always see it as a fire extinguisher. But there is a market for fire extinguishers and everyone should have one handy. :)

    • Thanks so much for stopping by and for your extremely informed response.

      I wonder why, in the face of such research, and a full-throated consultant class that preaches it, this isn’t understood better. Well, it keeps us in business, so that’s one good thing!

      Thanks again!

  3. Very interesting take Jim. I almost attended but couldn’t justify the drive with a fear that the workshop would rehash the standard “this is facebook, this is twitter” that is common at many such workshops. Kind of wish that I had gone now.

    • It was good seeing everyone, but honestly, I don’t know how much you would’ve learned. You could’ve probably taught the class. But it was good seeing old friends and such.

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