Thursday, August 25, 2011

Crisis Communication

Last week I had the pleasure of attending the National Investor Relations Institute (NIRI) Southwest Regional Conference in San Antonio. I’m on record as having said this before, but I like to repeat it: I believe that the Southwest Regional Conference is a better learning experience for investor relations professionals than the National Conference. I say this because the Southwest Regional Conference is shorter – a day and one-half as opposed to two and one-half days and thus more focused and, with a smaller number of people in attendance, you actually feel as if you have a chance to get around and talk to everybody.

This year, under the leadership of Lee Ahlstrom and Scott Winters of the Houston NIRI chapter, the Conference once again took an interesting departure from the usual lineup of talking heads you normally get at these conferences. The first morning saw everyone engaged in a case study examining a crisis communication situation. The case required everyone to participate, as each table of eight assumed the role of the investor relations/corporate communications professional. They soon found themselves barraged with information in the form of management meetings, memorandums, twitter feeds, media inquiries and videos of the plant explosion in question. In the middle of trying to parse through the data, they found themselves being interviewed by a reporter and asked questions by a sell side analyst. While all of this was going on they found themselves having to recommend media and disclosure strategies to management.

Everyone I talked to said that the exercise was one of the best simulations they had seen on crisis communications. While that’s nice to hear, when I do case studies in my class, I always like to wind up with some key takeaways from the experience, so for the benefit of both the people who were at the conference and those that may wish to learn a little something about crisis communications, so here are the points to remember from the exercise:

1. 1. To quote Dwight Eisenhower, “In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” In other words, the crisis you wind up with rarely looks like the one you planned for, but the exercise of planning for a crisis causes you to think through the process. This planning process is what helps you to deal with the crisis you do get.

2. 2. There is always somebody important you can’t reach when the crisis breaks. This may seem surprising in this age of interconnectedness, but people go on vacation to remote areas, cell phone coverage tends to break down under the stress of a crisis and there is always someone who is just out of pocket for some random reason or another. Having a clear chain of command as to who acts in the absence of others is important.

3. 3. The need for speed. People have to meet on short notice. Large amounts of data have to be absorbed quickly. Investors want answers right away and if you don’t respond to the press they will come up with their own version of events. There is no time for multiple editing rounds of your press release.

4. 4. You almost never have all the facts you need when you need them. In a crisis information is often garbled, late and sometimes just wrong. This means that the best messages you can send to your audiences are based on simple factual statements.

5. 5. Differing people have different agendas. The corporate counsel may not want to disclose anything at all. Business managers may not want certain facts to come out so that customers, suppliers and creditors don’t get upset. The reporters want to sell newspapers and get good video footage. Analysts care about how the event will affect the company’s stock and what collateral damage there may be to other companies. Good crisis communications has to deal with all of this.

In the end, there is no set formula for how to deal with a crisis, as each situation brings its own unique set of facts. Practice and planning can help however, which is why this year’s NIRI Southwest Conference was so well received.

Before I finish, I have to relate an interesting story from the conference. This year I decided to participate in the golf outing at the conference. I was out on the golf range practicing before the event (I need a lot of practice) when the person on the next practice tee looked at me and asked, “Are you the blogging professor?” I guess there are worse things you can be known as – it even has a sort of ring to it –“The blogging professor.” Maybe I’ll have it put on my business cards.