Crisis Communications and Issues Management

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Date: October 6, 2016
In this webinar: You will better understand the issues management process, grasp the crisis management life cycle and appreciate the key components of a crisis/issue communications plan

Panelists: Larry Parnell, Associate Professor and Program Director at the George Washington University


Annie: Okay great. Thank you everyone, again, for joining us. So welcome to the George Washington University Master’s in Strategic Public Relations Program webinar and again, thank you for taking the time today to join us. We have Larry Parnell, the Director of the Master in Strategic and Public Relations Program on the calla and he will be discussing with us what are issues management and also crisis communications and the steps to planning it. Let me just introduce again, and welcome our speaker, Larry Parnell. So Larry is an Associate Professor and the Director of the George Washington University Master’s in Strategic PR Program in Washington DC. Now, previously, over a 30 year career, Larry has held senior communications positions in consulting on the client’s side and in politics. He was most recently the VP and Group Leader of the Corporate Communications practice at Hill and Knowlton Canada. He came to H&K from Barrick Gold Corporation in Toronto where he was Senior Vice President, Corporate Relations with responsibility for corporate, financial and internal communications.
In New York, he served for four years as Director of Global Public Relations at Ernst & Young LLP. While at E&Y he was named PR Professional of the Year in 2003 by the PR Week magazine. Larry’s previous corporate experience include senior positions at GTE Corporation; People’s Bank of Connecticut and Gavin Andersen & Co Inc. Early in his career, Larry served as a Speechwriter for the Mayor of Atlanta; Press Aide for the Jimmy Carter for President Campaign and Speechwriter for the Attorney General of Massachusetts. Larry is a frequent author/speaker on communications topics and a member of the National Investor Relations Institute and the Public Relations Society of America.
So, before I pass it on to Larry, I would like to do a short poll, just to facilitate the presentation that Larry is going to [speak] with us today. So, if you would take a moment and just let us know how many of you guys have managed a crisis recently? Okay, I hope you’ve gotten a chance to answer that. And Larry, I’m going to pass it over to you.

Larry Parnell: Alright, thank you very much Annie, I appreciate it and welcome everybody to the call today, I’m glad you could find the time to join us and I hope you’ll find it interesting, you’ll learn something and perhaps might pursue learning more about our program. So, what we’re going to try and accomplish today in about 30 minutes or so, is to do an overview of this year’s management and crisis management, discuss the differences between the two and there are significant differences, although they very much are related [to] summarize that and then look forward to your questions and answers. So that is the plan, that is the agenda on a going forward basis, let’s get started. So we have some results here. So, interesting Annie, we’ve got pretty well an even split plus or minus, although the people who were fortunate to not have been through a crisis recently, 54%, slightly higher with the rest of us who are in fact, going through one or have.
The reality is, from this slide, we can tell this, but the reality is you will have man-made, natural or otherwise, situations that present themselves, that affect your company, your client or your organization and what we’re going to try and do today is walk through how you might approach those and perhaps have better luck getting through them in one piece.
So let’s begin with issues management, because sequentially, in my view, that’s how this is best done. Issues management is the process, simply put, that you undertake to manage and control situations before they become a crisis. In almost every case you can think of, recently you can look at Samsung, you can look at Mylan and their EpiPen, you can look at Wells Fargo, just to take some things that are in the news right now, those were ongoing situations inside those companies where they – if they stepped back and looked at the situation, they knew this was developing into a problem. The fact that it becomes a crisis, hopefully they had done some planning and some work before that, but certainly you can anticipate in many cases, crisis situations and in some cases, if you’re lucky, with organizational changes and strategic initiatives by your leadership, you can offset and prevent a crisis from happening.
So, it’s diagnostic, it’s also preventative if you’re lucky. If you do issues management properly and if it – it does not necessarily [reduce] a crisis situation, it’s still a good way to have your stewardship of maintaining your relationship with your key stakeholders on an ongoing basis. So let’s take a look at a model that we work with that sort of helps you identify an issue and to respond to it. First and foremost, we have to understand our role as communications professionals is to be, you know, you’ve heard this many times, the eyes and ears, the awareness person of what’s going on, not only inside the company as much as possible but in the external marketplace factors, issues and challenges in the legislative arena or the political arena or the government arena or the business arena, that have the potential to impact your client or your company.
This is the scanning process that we’re talking about here, as and if you identify something coming up, such as, let’s say if you’re inside Wells Fargo and you understand there’s a lot of pressure on the banks and a lot of concern about privacy and about security and the costs and the income associated with banks these days, you would be thinking about what is going on, what are we doing as a company that might create a problem. So you’re scanning the environment, you can create a situation analysis, [the sort of way] how you build a document, you build a plan.
The situation analysis really very [distinctly] it says what’s going on, what are the issues, what are the ramifications for our company or client and how might we respond? As this process – you move down the list, you’ve scanned the environment, you identified an issue, you’ve assessed its impact or potential impact on your reputation or your business, you have a goal that you’d like to have it not have that impact or not impact your reputation or have your company not be criticized for its business practices in this case Well Fargo, you know, cross selling the accounts and credit cards to people who didn’t ask for them, etcetera, etcetera and you just sort of work your way down the process and what you’re doing is building a classic communications plan, who are the stakeholders? What are the messages you want to get? What are the tactics we’re going to follow? What resources do I need? How am I going to measure my results? A key thing here to keep in mind when you’re identifying stakeholders, especially in issues management, is that you have to take into consideration both the people that you would normally think of, like employees and customers and management and government and other people, but also your competition and any activist groups that would like to see you fail. In other words, stakeholders are not only people rooting for you but they can be people rooting against you as well and if you – your plan doesn’t take that into consideration, then you’re going to be surprised and have a problem down the road.
So, let’s distinguish an issue from a crisis. So if issues management is this concept of anticipating emerging issues and managing them so they don’t become a crisis, then a crisis is, by definition, an issue that either has gotten out of hand or moved beyond the stage of being something internal to the company and this is where we get into a cycle if you will, and this is an attempt to represent how that kind of process can work and its impact on the – the intensity is on the one access and the time is on the other. So, in the early stages it’s very much low key, it’s not intense because it’s inside your organization and as the situation escalates, again, think in terms of Wells Fargo, and it reaches a point where you’ve got customers that are complaining, members of Congress that are complaining and your CEO has been called to Washington DC to testify, that is clearly a crisis. As and if you manage that thing, you take corrective action and the situation tends to settle down or somebody else has a turn in the box and it’s not Wells Fargo anymore the people are worried about, then you’re moving to the dormant stage. But what you need to really be aware of is what happens after that and we’ll talk about that in just a few minutes.
Crisis management, so proverbial, moving from the frying pan into the fire, right? Crisis is, as we all know, from having been through them, at least half of the people on this all, it’s a significant threat to your operations, it can have negative consequences to your company, it can be a – it can be a situation that impacts your organization, your stakeholders – keeping in mind stakeholders are everybody with a stake, positive or negative in your company – or your industry. Interestingly enough, to point out here, very often when a crisis situation affects a company, if it’s more than one company, they will turn to their association and there are associations for every industry you can think of here in Washington DC and elsewhere around the country, and very often those associations will take on and manage an issue for a company before it becomes a crisis. Sometimes they will also step in in a crisis situation and take it away from the brand so it isn’t all about Samsung for example. So this is something that you would keep that in mind if you’re trying to solve a problem.
There are two kinds of crisis situations; I mean, there are ones that are naturally occurring disasters like – looks like it’s about to happen unfortunately to Florida with the onset of a hurricane. That is an emergency situation that requires an immediate response that requires all kinds of resources to be brought there. But that is really not a situation where, unless you don’t manage it well, that is not a situation where the company is necessarily faulted for that. If you are, you know, happen to be in that area and the hurricane causes damage, etcetera. Man-made or self-inflicted if you will, crisis are much more of a problem that we as public relations professionals have to deal with and here we’re talking about industrial accidents, we’re talking about management [unintelligible 00:11:36], we’re talking about product recalls, we’re talking about industry challenges or issues that are the kind of crisis that really test a company more than a natural disaster would from a reputation perspective.
This is – I mentioned this just a minute ago, but we’re talking about, these are things – the list here indicates a lot of different types of things that can happen, only one of these, natural disasters, is really not the company’s fault in the public’s mind in most cases, unless it’s random workplace violence, but still then there’s going to be the criticism of the security was not as good as it should be and the company is going to be held accountable for that. When you get into the process of managing the crisis as it’s going on, understand there is no exact science to this, there is no formula, there is no clear way that it will always be this way, it will always work if you do this, it’s intuitive, it’s judgmental, you’ve got to figure out as things go along, but you have to keep some basic goals in mind. Throughout the time, you as a communications person in particular, have to make sure that the company doesn’t lose sight about maintaining its credibility, controlling or at least participating in the dialogue, both with the media, the public and online, you have hopefully done your work with the key media that follow your industry and your company in your geographic area, so you know the press and you can talk to them. It’s not the time to get to know reporters when you’re in the middle of a storm. And keeping in mind, employees and customers are very important advocates, or put a different way, if you ignore them and don’t communicate to them, the crisis will be that much worse.
Annie mentioned that earlier in my career I worked in the banking sector and I can tell you that in a crisis situation affecting a bank and the views of the stability and the financial security of the bank, customers don’t call the CEO’s office, they don’t call the public relations department to ask if the bank is okay, they go into the branch and they talk to the teller or maybe they talk to a manager or a loan officer and want to know if the bank is okay. You have to understand how your business works, if you’re in a retail situation you have to be aware of the fact that you will have people who will be asked questions and if you’ve not prepared them with some basic information as to what’s going on, what they need to do, you run the risk of them saying the wrong thing or best case scenario they say I don’t know, nobody tells me anything and the impression that creates of the organization is not a good one. So don’t forget, your employees [your] customers are also people you cannot ignore and you must satisfy.
So you know, in any case you’re talking about situations that put a great deal of pressure on an organization and it’s most important that you have accurate and complete information on a timely basis. Now you’re not going to be able to have all the details, all the time. It’s going to be a fluid and dynamic situation. It is perfectly appropriate to say – you know, you begin by acknowledging what’s happened, you’re aware of the situation, you are dealing with it. You don’t have all the answers yet but you’re going to get that information, you’re going to address them and you’re going to respond appropriately and make your customers whole again if that’s the nature of the situation. You don’t have to wait until you know all the facts before you start to respond because the facts will be created for you if you don’t do that.
So let’s look at the cycle, this is a cycle that well known author Tim Coombs put forward as a way to sort of look at crisis management. We’ve talked already about the pre-crisis issues management part of the situation. We were just talking about how do you respond when you’re in the middle of it, where you were trying to be timely and accurate with your customers or employees on social media, with the government and monitoring what your competitors are saying and doing. Any activist groups that have an agenda, plus or minus, have to be monitored, it’s a 24/7 thing, no question about it.
The next step and the most important one that most people forget, in my view anyway, is the recovery. There’s a tendency after a bad situation, both personally or professionally to say I’m glad that’s over and you just want to move on. It’s a missed opportunity number one, and it’s also a problem, number two. It’s a missed opportunity because if you do not do a fairly quick analysis of what happened, what worked, what do we need to fix so we don’t have this problem again and what can we learn about this going forward, you miss a great learning opportunity to improve your crisis management that may – that may entail criticizing yourself and the organization. It may also be – make you aware of an activist group you weren’t aware of before and you haven’t addressed. So this process of doing the post-mortem becomes very, very important.
Also, this is a time when you pay off, so to speak, on all the promises you’ve made. [We have to] look at today’s news coverage to see how this can be a problem. There’s a big story making the rounds today about Samsung, which has been in the public eye for some period of time, over their batteries and their response was to recall them and to provide people with new phones, but guess what just happened? One of the – apparently, one of the newer phones, with the new batteries in it, set fire to somebody’s – you know, ignited in someone’s pocket on a plane in – on a South West jet, I forget where it was, maybe in Tennessee and you know, now they’re back into this again and now everyone is doubting their ability to manage and recover. We’re past the point of understanding the batteries are a problem, they say they’ve replaced the batteries and making new ones available and now they’re back into it again because their recovery process was not done well. So the crisis is not over for Samsung and that’s something we’ll talk about in a few minutes. The international element of this is interesting, that’s a separate issue.
Let’s walk through the stages really quickly, mindful of our time here. So you know, this is where we’re doing our work as communications professionals, spotting problems, looking for vulnerabilities and figuring out ways to address the problem before they become a crisis. The next stage is where we are in this point of responding, as I mentioned to you, you know, you’ve got to show some leadership, you’ve got to monitor the news media, you’ve got to keep communicating on a consistent basis. Understand that the story is going to be done over a long period of time and also understand that the news media is not – does not operate under the same rules that you do, nor does social media. There are less and less – especially on social media, people can say – make claims, make allegations that they don’t have to substantiate. They tend to gain currency and become a news story, mainstream media will say social media, Facebook is reporting or people on Facebook are saying this is happening, it absolves them of the responsibility of reporting something that they haven’t checked out. This happens all the time. Media, if they don’t get an answer from somebody, fair or unfair to say, well, find somebody to talk, who may or may not know what they’re talking about but sounds good, give [some] copy, they file because they’re under pressure to file and you’ve now got to react to a rumor, misinformation at the same time you’re in the middle of trying to put out a fire.
Jim Lukaszewski, who you may know his name, is a well-known crisis expert, describes it this way. He said sometimes breaking news is broken news. And think about that. So you know, CNN and others that rush to broadcast or rush to publish, may have not done all their work and they may get around it by saying well Facebook reported it or some other media reported it or you know, Gawker reported it and that makes it okay to repeat something. So the news media can make things worse or they can help, but it’s not an automatic that your statements and your comments are going to find their way into the paper and be clearly explained to people who are then going to take the appropriate action. So assume problems in the translation.
Some principles in general to keep this in mind, are good for any kind of public relations work but particularly in a crisis, you know, don’t make stuff up, if you don’t know, say so, tell the facts as you have them, you need to acknowledge responsibility, the company needs to be the person – the people to talk. One of the debates, and this brings up what I was going to say before, one of the discussion items is always when does the CEO – when should the CEO be the response person versus a communication person versus somebody else? This is an interesting situation. The problem – when you go that point, when you go to the CEO level there’s nowhere else to go, so make sure you play that card at the right time. If you go right to the CEO from day one and put him or her in a position of being the primary responder and he or she does not know all the facts and may get tripped up or may not be prepared or may not be adept at this sort of thing, [big VP], you know, I want my life back, that kind of stuff, that’s a problem. What’s also a problem is that you can’t – there’s no higher level person in the organization that you can go to. So when you play that card, make sure it’s the right time to play it.
What’s interesting here, I was mentioning before about the Samsung situation and there a case a few years ago, having to do with a Korean owned airline that had a crash in San Francisco. International companies operating in the United States which are not US based, have had to learn the hard way, that the rules and the expectations here are different. Aegean Airlines, the one I was mentioning before, was criticized very heavily because they dispatched junior people, so to speak, to come and address the concerns of the victims and the families and the regulators because the culture of this company from Korea in particular, and this is also true [unintelligible 00:22:13] Samsung was that the CEO was not going to be the one to come in and do that whereas in the United States there’s an expectation at some point in time the CEO is going to be the person who comes forward and does all the talking and these companies have had to learn that if you operate in the United States, you have to operate by the rules in that country. So similarly, if you were the company that has multinational operations, you need to make sure that you respond appropriate to that country and that culture and that’s an important consideration that people find out after the fact that they missed, so …
The recovery I was talking about before so won’t spend too much time on that, except to say that this is really important that you do this recovery and this notion of what did we do, how did it go and how could we do a better job next time. And what are you going to do – and people want to know three things; what happened? Whose fault is it and how are you going to make sure it doesn’t happen again? This is where that comes into play, how am I going to know that if I ever buy a product from Samsung again, the battery is not going to spontaneously combust? That is a real issue for that company going forward, they’ve got some work to do there.
Now to look at it, sort of summarize it, first get your message out, be accurate, say what you know, don’t say what you don’t know, say I don’t know but I will find out. Be right, in other words do the right thing by don’t mislead people, don’t provide misinformation, don’t get yourself in a situation of responding to wild rumors and you must be credible. People have to believe that you understand the problem, you’re concerned about the problem and you’re going to fix the problem. So this really is about having a plan, which we’re going to talk about now. And here we have a little fun from our friends at the [unintelligible 00:24:07] where, clearly, these guys are not ready. So we thought we’d out that in for fun and to break up this a little bit.
So let’s start – let’s have another moment here, Annie, you want to walk them through this?

Annie: Sure. Everyone, we just want to also note – just to get a sense of does your company have a current crisis communication plan in place? Yes, no or maybe or you guys are currently developing one. Let us know.

Larry Parnell: Okay, so while you’re answering that, let me move on. Give you guys something to do while you’re listening to me prod along here. So, we’ve talked about the need to have a plan. Let’s walk – oh, let’s see how you guys did on your survey. There’s good news and bad news here. I’d like to know – we won’t get into ask anybody to identify themselves but a third of the people on this call today do not have to their knowledge, a current crisis plan. It does not need to be – in fact, it shouldn’t be a phone book because you know, some big heavy thick thing that people are not going to react to. It has to be a living, vibrant document that people can react to. We’ll get into the details of it in just a minute. It’s accessible, it’s tested, it’s current and so not having one that’s current, you might as well not have one at all. That’s unfortunately the reality of today’s marketplace.
So, what should be in a plan? How do you develop a plan? Well, it starts like any plan, with research. You do your audit – what are the gaps or problems, you step back as an independent observer of your company’s business or your client’s company business and you say what could go wrong? What are the problems? We’re a manufacturer, we operate in different parts of the world, we you know, make a consumer product, we make a – you know, and could there be a recall? Could there be a supply chain problem? Do we have an answer for that? Have we checked into that? Do we know that our suppliers are paying a living wage? Think about Apple here, for example, or Wal-Mart and others that have had problems. Not doing this homework creates the problem of being surprised.
It’s also important that we as communications professionals not fall into the trap of thinking everything is a crisis. Some things are a problem that need to be solved, whether it’s a nuance and information about a product or service and people aren’t using it properly, that’s one thing. If there is a manufacturing defect in the process that’s impacting people’s lives and business then yeah, that’s a crisis. So you really have to step back and think about it and don’t let – don’t get caught up in everything is a crisis because you’ll burn out and you won’t be able to be effective. You will also not be good at giving advice. You should know upfront and keep current on this information, who are your key audiences? Who are your key stakeholders? Remembering, as I said before, that stakeholders are all kinds of people, ones that like you and ones that don’t like you, they have a stake in your future. Maybe it’s a negative stake, but it’s a stake.
To the extent that you can organize and get it done, have your key people trained and ready to go, provide media training, provide presentation training as part of the ongoing executive development, you can have standby statements – when I was at Ernst & Young, Annie mentioned I was there for four years, we developed a handy book that would be – in case of us being sued, which happened a lot in the county profession back in the early 2000’s, we had a standby statement, we had a next day statement, we had a way to find out more information and track information, it’s a whole process that we had done and we were always looking at what was going on in the marketplace, if there were a lot of – back in the dot com era, there were a lot of dot com companies [that went] public, raised a lot of money then went bust. They were looking at the accounting firm saying well why didn’t you guys tell us that this company was no good? So you can think about that stuff in advance and prepare your answers or you could be blamed and sued because you didn’t tell people that – the issue there by the way is the – there’s a misunderstanding about the role [the] certified public accountant is, which I won’t get into, except to say that you only can rely on information given to by your client. If the client lies to the accountant and the accountant doesn’t know, the accountant is not investigating all over the company’s operations to make sure that they are in fact in the businesses they say they are in, that’s just not the way the relationship works. But I digress.
In a crisis situation, if you’re going through one, you have to understand where the discussion is taking place. Something important here too is that the last – the second last bullet here, you need to address the crisis where the problem started and online. So if it is a Facebook rumor crisis, then you should respond on Facebook. Don’t spread the fire by putting out a press release and calling a press conference and letting everybody know that somebody on Facebook is saying something is happening, is bad or unfair. Don’t give them – you know, don’t add fuel to the fire. So where the problem starts is where the problem should be responded to. If it moves beyond that, then you have to take appropriate steps. And there’s a lot of other thoughts here that I’ll let you read and I’ll move on.
I’ve talked about this a couple times so I won’t spend any more time about this except to say that if you don’t address the root cause of the crisis, your likelihood of having an ongoing problem is heightened. Again, look at Samsung, they are living proof in today’s news that that’s the issue. So that pretty much wraps up my prepared remarks. We’re going to have you enter in some questions now, which Annie will remind you how to do that and then we will go on from there. Annie?

Annie: Alright, thank you Larry, always good to hear from you. So everyone, just want to remind you that there is the Q&A box that’s next to the slides that – if you have any questions about what Larry has been speaking about, let us know and I’ll bring that up over the call here and have Larry address that. And also, you know, if you have any questions about the program as well, do let us know. So while you guys are typing up your questions, I’ll give you some time to type up some questions for Larry, I just want to also kind of tie back in, in terms of – you know, like I was saying, Larry is the Director of the Master’s in Strategic Public Relations of Program at GW here and aside from crisis communication we also dive into different aspects of public relations, that includes just you know – also includes public relations principles and also the new media, how to deal with the media relations in new media world and also just – and also the components of public relations, like you know, how to work with financial investors, that kind of thing. And this is a ten course program and there’s an option of having it completely online or there’s also on campus at the Alexandra Campus.
The unique thing about this program is that there is the option of, you know, as part of your capstone course, you can choose to actually participate in a Washington and Global Residency and Larry, I don’t know if you want to speak a little bit about that?

Larry Parnell: Sure, let me address that. The program is a – just to understand what the purpose of the program is, it’s an applied strategic program. Well, there is a foundation of academic theory and you are expected to write papers and on occasion take tests but it’s not that kind of a thing. This is participatory, you’re in classes, these are online or on campus with students who are public relations professionals, career change or former journalists, recent under graduates, international students, active duty military, it’s quite an interesting combination of people and it’s all about the discussion interaction that goes on in the classroom. On the online program, they tend to be more senior people, more corporate, more experience from all over the world and you can move between the two programs on one occasion if your schedule requires it or if you want to come to DC for a period of time.
The last bullet is important because this is something unique to our program. We have global residencies where our students can go to anywhere from about 8 to 10 countries, cities around the world, for one week, there’s online work before you go, a week in country we’re talking Hong Kong, Shanghai, Johannesburg, London, Brussels, Sao Paulo, Mexico City, etcetera, and then you spend a week in that city and you meet media, you meet public affairs and public relations professionals, you meet government officials and you meet non-profits, activist groups and you get a full indoctrination of how communication is practiced in a country of your choice and then you write a paper based on what the professor requires on that experience and you’re done. That’s one class, it takes a week maybe, plus the prep time to do and it’s a full three credits. It’s a very unusual aspect of our program and we’re quite proud of it.
We also have a residency here in Washington DC, if you’re interested in that, you’re more than welcome to come and sit in for the same kind of experience in Washington DC but obviously also includes visits to the White House, Congress, etcetera, etcetera. So it is a pretty cool thing to do and it’s one of the electives. There are six required courses, three electives and the capstone. The capstone is done by the student as an individual project to demonstrate their knowledge and grasp of what it is that they’ve been working on for the past year and a half, in most cases, the student does something on a topic they’re interested in, we don’t assign the residency, they do it for their employer, they do it for a company they like to work for, they do it for an organization where they have a personal interest maybe in fundraising and building awareness or they do an in depth case study which we then can capture and publish and use in our classes. It’s all very interesting and dynamic and we’re happy to answer questions about the program from there. We have questions on the question board in the meantime, Annie?

Annie: That’s right, yeah we do. So Chloe here is asking about what would you say is the recommended work experience for somebody who’s looking into the program.

Larry Parnell: It really depends on the individual. There is no expectation that you be an expert, coming into the program, as I mentioned, it tends to be – on the online market there’s more corporate and people come from that background and the face to face program here in Washington DC, we have a lot of people who work for agencies, work for the government or want to work for the government, so there is no – what we really want you to do is be sure this is what you want to focus on in your career. We’re looking for people with skin in the game, that they care about the profession, they care about the work and they want to get better at it. It doesn’t matter if you’ve got 10 years’ experience or one, what we want is the commitment that you want to get better at it and we will provide the mechanism for you to do that.

Annie: Right. And just go into this … you guys type in your questions for Larry about the program or about crisis communications in general and issues management. I just want to remind anyone that we are – there is [a next term] happening on January 17th, so we are starting class then and we are accepting applications right now as we speak, so definitely feel free to reach out to Marie, the dedicated enrollment advisor and just, you know, she can be your sound board in terms of, you know, if the program is the right fit and how the scheduling can work with your own schedule. So definitely get in touch with us. The phone number is there and also her direct email is also there. And I just want to go back to, you know, reminding everyone that the Q&A box is here, it’s on the left of your slide so feel free to submit any questions, but Larry, I do have a question from before, as you mentioned, you know, social media, making claims and – it’s hard for people to control that in a way, right? So how – what would you say? What would you recommend folks to kind of – to work around that?

Larry Parnell: Well, I think the main thing is exactly that you cannot control the dialogue on social media. You should however be aware of it, you should be monitoring it, you should be having a – pretty much a 24/7 mechanism. There are services you can do this or you could do it yourself. What’s being said about the crisis? What’s being said about the company? And then you have to make a decision at some point in time, if there is one individual who is going off on a topic, you may ignore that person. If there are a number of people raising the issue about management compensation in light of the fact that the company’s been engaging in cross selling and – like the whole situation at Wells Fargo, then it requires that the company respond. So it is a listening post for you. It’s also – the good news, bad news of a social media perspective is that it allows you to communicate directly with individuals, not necessarily having to do through the mainstream media to get your points across. So if there are a number of people that are posting or writing about something, you can communicate directly with them and everyone else who’s following the case can see this as well, so that is a very beneficial aspect of social media.
The negative is anyone who has a point of view can express it and they can say anything they want, that may or may not be factual or accurate, they can try to start a ground swell of negative and you’ve got to monitor that and decide at which point there is something that you need to deal with and in some cases that you can just ignore. What I don’t recommend though is deleting posts and that sort of stuff. What some companies are doing now and more and more and candidates are doing this as well, they are removing the comment sections from their posting because they don’t want people trolling and getting in there and creating a whole separate dialogue. So these are all things you need to be aware of. If you’re going to put your management on a Q&A, you know, whether it’s Reddit or some other platform, be very aware of the fact that those things get hijacked and be prepared to respond to that and handle it appropriately.
So the good news is social media allows you to contact people directly to get information out on a very timely basis. The bad news is you don’t have control what people say or what is said about you and you don’t control how what you say is reposted, retweeted, etcetera, etcetera, so be aware of that. Also keep in mind, if you are [deciding] and our good friend, Mr. Trump is a good example of this, retweeting or reposting an article that is out there on a topic or a subject, by doing that, you then become – in the eyes of the people that are looking at this – an endorser of that person and that article’s point of view. So be careful that you don’t take an article or a statement or a tweet and repost it without knowing more about the person who posted it in the first place because you will find, as Trump did, on a couple of occasions, behind a tweet was, you know, David Duke or somebody else with a very controversial reputation, which then became part of his – he had to defend that. So that’s very important on social media in general, but in the crisis situation especially, don’t you know, in the throw, in the heat of the moment report something because it sounds like it might be supportive to your point of view, only to find out it’s from somebody who’s not reputable. That’s an important thing to do.

Annie: Right. Thank you Larry. And tying back into something that you’ve mentioned before how US and other countries might be a little different, in US, you know, at any point we might expect the CEO to kind of step up and talk about the issue. Now, is there anything that you could speak to in terms of how can we best leverage the board of directors in issues management and how to align overall outreach with the PR strategy?

Larry Parnell: Well that’s a very good question. I think that the role of the board of directors has changed. The expectations of the board of directors has changed over the past few years, maybe going back – in the dot com years or certainly the banking crisis and the real estate and the market kept collapsing in 2008 where people are wondering who’s minding the store? That’s supposed to be what the directors are supposed to do. The problem, historically, has been that directors have not been kept up to speed on all the issues that are going on and so what has happened more and more is that companies have created committees of the board, who are responsible and a report is – just like there’s an audit committee and a compensation committee etcetera, etcetera, there might very well need to be an issues management or public relations or communications or whatever word you want to call it committee where – at least a subset of the board is kept current by the communications team and/or anybody else you need to bring in there, on the challenges and the problems and the what’s going on in the marketplace, that are issues for the company.
By the way, something I meant to mention before and did not mention but that’s very important, let’s look at Wells Fargo for example, if you’re in the banking industry and Wells Fargo’s getting hammered, which they are, but you don’t work for Wells Fargo, being happy about that or being relieved about that is not the right answer. The right answer is that’s an alarm bell going off that you need to make sure that the same issue that Wells Fargo is being criticized for is not happening inside your company. So just being relieved that it’s not you that’s getting beat up on the front page of the paper, is the wrong answer. The right answer is are we next? What are we doing because what the media will do, if not in the day one or the day two story, but day three they’re going to say, is this an industry problem? And they’ll start looking at banks and financial services companies and find out if there’s other techniques like this that are causing people to lose money. So don’t be complacent if it’s not you that’s in the public docks, you may be there next.

Annie: Thank you. And [leading to] that, wanted to know if you yourself have any great examples of crisis management that you could share coming from one of the audience.

Larry Parnell: Well, too many I think, too many scars, you know, ranging from law enforcement to product recalls, to banking failures to the mining industry and what I have described here is really the output of a lot of personal experience that I’ve been through and things I’ve learned along the way in that regard. There are any number of examples that can be cited of situations that have gone poorly. In many cases, it is a failure of the organization that’s caused that to happen, whether it’s you had an issue and ignored it, or you weren’t paying attention to the issues that were happening out there and then got surprised by them, which you shouldn’t be. On occasion, it is something out of the blue like a natural disaster or a criminal act and your ability to respond to that becomes what you get measured on, but in general, the notion that, you know, you were surprised by something that happens, just doesn’t wash.
My experience is that if you looked back in the review mirror you can see, oh well that happened and this happened, this could have happened and your job as a communications professional, especially the more senior that you get, is to see things coming and prepare your company or your client to avoid them, get out of the way. You know, being a crisis manager, everybody wants to do that because it’s dramatic and exciting, it’s like being a firemen or a fire person, being called to put out a fire. First of all, it gets old very fast, believe me, it’s very draining. Number two, there are so many times when you could have stopped the fire that was maybe smoldering before it came a full blaze and you didn’t, and at some point in time, your organization is going to say well what exactly are you doing here? Isn’t that your job?
So it’s up to us to see things coming, to prevent problems from developing or blowing up in our faces and the ones we can see coming, to manage them as quickly and efficiently as we can and move on and not to get caught up in the drama of crisis management because you will find yourself in a situation where that’s how you’re viewed, you won’t be viewed as a communications advisor, you’ll be the person to call when something goes wrong. That may be what you want in your career, in which case, good luck, but if you want to be more of a senior level person providing a breadth of responsibility and a breadth of advice, your ability to see things coming, make recommendations to prevent problems and save the company the problem, will be much more valuable than your ability to put out a fire when the fire starts.

Annie: Thanks Larry. And Roy here has asked that – he’s thinking about starting in spring, which is great. He’s also thinking, you know, is there a difference between starting in spring or fall?

Larry Parnell: No, the good news is we made adjustments to the program several years back, this is – by the way, this fall will be our 10th year of offering this degree program which makes us one of the first and most established at doing this. So we get – the benefit of what we learned is that we – especially in the online environment, it’s very important that you get people to start at or near the same place as much as possible so working closely with our team at – on the subject, we’ve made it so that your first two courses will always be the introductory course and the advanced writing course, regardless of the point of entry that you come into the program. So you’re not disadvantaged by being dropped into a program or a class that is maybe class number eight because you happened to join at a certain time of the year. So we fixed that problem back several years ago now and so our students really don’t have to worry about what point they join. Historically, most people join in the fall, probably next is the spring and less in the summer. There are five times during the year you can join the program, but at any point in time, when you do, I can assure you that you will have the introductory course and the writing course as soon as possible in that process. [It’s] generally number one and number two, but you are not disadvantaged by joining spring versus fall versus summer.

Annie: Perfect, thank you Larry. And Annabelle just asked you know, if the [deck] will be available after the webinar and I should have mentioned this earlier, this is being recorded and like – the entire webinar has been recorded and after probably next week or so, Marie who’s the advisor, will be able to follow up with you to share the recording so that you can reference it later and this will also be online afterwards as well.

Larry Parnell: So the [deck] will be available for the people within about a week you’re saying, right?

Annie: From a recording standpoint, yes.

Larry Parnell: Okay, good.

Annie: Yeah. So everyone, are there any more questions? Larry, this has been a really great presentation, I hope everyone has also gotten a lot out of it. I know I did, so … again, if you have any further questions for Larry about the program or about what we were talking about on crisis communication and issue management, do let us know. You can reach us at the phone number that’s in front of you there or you can book an appointment directly with Marie to speak further and you can also look at the website – there we go, hold on – and you can also visit our program website for more information. Let me see if there’s anyone else … thank you everyone for – you know, [unintelligible 00:49:18] I just want to also adjust that, like everyone – a lot of people have also said that it’s a [great] webinar. So I hope everyone enjoyed it and Larry, do you have any last words before we wrap up for today?

Larry Parnell: No, I just think – just to summary my advice to everyone is to focus on the issues management side of this, not on the crisis management side. You’ll be valued more, you’ll be respected more if you spot things coming and help a company avoid a problem than you will be if you put out the fire once the fire starts. And this requires that you have knowledge of the industry or your client’s industry, the ability to step up and say there’s a problem here that we need to deal with and the credibility to have that said. Now hopefully, you’ve already got that in your career, you’re developing it, I can tell you that this is something that we as an industry have struggled with for a long time, but a master’s degree from a university like GW or any one of our other competitors, depending on your choices, a master’s degree will indicate to people you know what you’re talking about. So as you decide what to do, keep that in mind, your ability to be an effective advisor to your company or your client is going to be enhanced by a credential from a university like GW that will make you that much more valuable to your organization. And thank you all for your time and attention, I appreciate it.

Annie: Thank you Larry. Thank you everyone for joining us, again. Bye now, have a great day.