Containing a Crisis in the Era of Stakeholder Engagement

Published in O’Dwyer’s Magazine, January 2021 (Special Issue on Crisis Communications)

No PR practitioner worth their salt would dispute we live in a new era of stakeholder engagement. A company’s constituents, from employees to customers to shareholders, have a newfound voice and an ability to disseminate their sentiments on social media to impact perception about leadership, valuation and brand. Further, the challenge of managing a crisis is amplified in an environment where disinformation may travel many times faster than the truth, and is often magnified by a divisive political climate where culture and ideology now permeate corporate communications.

How does all this affect your ability to handle a crisis?  The good news is that many of the traditional rules still apply.  Not every crisis is a rapid-fire immediate development – in fact most are a slow burn, where the company has learned of a problem or likely public attack in advance and has some time to prepare for disclosure.  In many cases, the company still controls the timing and can use it to prepare.  The bad news is you must prepare more rigorously than ever before.

Your message must resonate with all stakeholder groups.

The days of segmenting your message for different stakeholders are essentially gone, as anything you say can be forwarded or tweeted about in an instant.  Your response may be criticized by any group from any angle, so arriving at a thoughtful position and striking the right tone has never mattered more. Think like an investigative journalist or a fierce litigator as you game out the toughest questions the company could face from each stakeholder group. The communications must address the vast majority of the issues right away, without rambling or muddying the waters.  You must also be prepared to confront questions about things you don’t yet know, or haven’t determined how the organization will ultimately address, in a way that preserves credibility and demonstrates that you are factoring in stakeholder concerns.

The rollout must be seamless.

Opinions now can form and gain critical mass in an instant, so delivering the message in the right manner to each stakeholder group, and determining who will deliver the message and how, is critical.  Preparing for a disclosure in an 8-K SEC filing or a press release is one step that clearly merits focus, but be sure to arm the media team with additional background points and the toughest Q&As. Employees need to be contacted directly by leadership, so consider whether a simple employee note will suffice. Perhaps more is needed, including scripts and rehearsals, for senior managers addressing the employees and sales teams who will be on the front lines with customers that may have been impacted. And always be mindful of the need to coordinate time zones. Just as importantly, establish a system to capture feedback in real time and adjust as necessary.  Monitoring all stakeholder channels for feedback is also key to determining if more may need to be done.

Prepare for escalation (but not with an itchy trigger finger).

Many adverse developments start with a disclosure and reach an inflection point where you must consider escalation.  Key to this determination is reflecting honestly on the coverage and feedback you are receiving – and outside advisors who have seen scores of similar situations can provide a valuable and objective perspective. There will always be critics, and any negative news will result some negative coverage. But if your messaging is resonating in general, you are on track. Just as importantly, if a situation is not isolated to your company and impacting others in the space as well, don’t step forward and own it more than you have to.

Monitor social media, but remember what it is you are monitoring.

Social media can be a fascinating window into the reaction to your message, but don’t confuse it with empirical data or direct feedback from important stakeholders.  Watching both the quantitative data and qualitative tone on social media can be an extremely useful tool in deciding whether your message needs refinement or additional communication, but keeping it all in perspective is key.  Often the best – and most difficult – decision is to do nothing, let things die down and let Twitter move on to other topics.

In the end, focusing on the perspectives of your various stakeholders – and the related impact on message, rollout and escalation plans for various scenarios, is key in any negative situation. If stakeholder views are rigorously assessed and incorporated as the plan takes shape, including necessary modifications as things go live, the client stands a strong chance of containing the crisis. And while it is not always readily apparent, some of the best crisis advisory work is done by exercising judgment weighing all the factors, including convincing clients when to stick with the plan and not take the bait.

View the full issue here:


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