I recently attended the Americas Region meeting of the Worldcom Public Relations Group, where I conducted my first meeting as head of the Crisis Practice Group.
There were more than 20 public relations firms in this meeting – all the way from Argentina to Canada and literally all points between.
I wasn’t surprised that these firms reported that the demand for help in issue and crisis management is rapidly growing, just as it is for us. Troubles, it seems, abound.
But what was a bit of a surprise was the deepening nature if not just the expanding number of crises.
Many issues and crises that we discussed were matters that in the past might have escaped attention, perhaps being localized if even noticed at all.
This global warming of issue and crisis management is fueled by professional media – largely the 24/7 news cycle where speed is more important than facts in reporting – and personal commentators – social media posts dramatize issues and attract trains of comment – and together these reports go viral. Here briefly are two examples of what I am talking about.
The ‘Pink Slime’ Firestorm
First, most specifically, there was a discussion about the “pink slime” issue that was so highly sensationalized a year ago.
Pink slime is the name that a regulatory agency scientist gave in passing to “lean, finely textured beef,” which long has been used in fast-food burgers and even school lunches.
Lean, finely textured beef is a food additive that is used in ground beef and processed meats – after it is exposed to ammonia gas or citric acid to eliminate bacteria.
While there were some number of stories in the last five years that questioned the healthiness of the product, it does not appear that industry groups around this product perceived any real threat.
But two stories a couple of months apart in The New York Times escalated attention to the issue. And a change.org petition by the mother of schoolchildren questioning how safe this product then went viral.
For a company or industry or anyone facing an issue, there can be no scarier word than “viral.”
Suddenly the issue exploded into public consciousness. And media – social and news – discovered the “pink slime” comment and attached the name to the product.
In some ways, perhaps, the industry never had a chance. When the media name your crisis for you and simultaneously you are slow to respond to the challenge, you face a perfect storm of rising heat.
Second, among the matters handled by Worldcom firms sitting in the crisis meeting were “conventional crises” e.g. labor issues, regulatory actions, natural disasters, shareholder battles and more.
But there were so many more and different issues that were not individual incidents but rather escalating trends, some of them shocking, which threaded through the conversation.
These included rising incidents – or perhaps rather rising awareness of incidents – involving pedophilia, elder abuse, environmental justice, LGBT discrimination and more.
And, it is not just one or two public relations agencies in disparate cities, states or countries but rather multiple agencies throughout these regions that are dealing with such rapidly emerging issues.
These may all be issues that have occurred before. But few of them ever exploded into public consciousness – and stayed there – along with those conventional crises. They certainly are now.
Communities Demand Attention
Here is one specific example that we discussed in our Crisis Practice Group – community relations.
Obviously this is not a new issue. Companies long have worked to build relationships and resolve conflicts with the communities in which they have operations.
But now companies are facing problems in their communities such as they’ve never experienced before.
For example, mining companies – Worldcom PR Group members represent many companies in the mining and natural resources sector – face increasing challenges in local communities around the world and often these are isolated rural communities.
The confluence of professional journalists and citizen commentators gives voice to these communities, often indigenous peoples who use the attention to support their own particular agendas. Often these are as simple as efforts to create more local jobs or enhance existing jobs for local residents.
Attention is power – that is the perfect storm created by the superheated attention of professional journalists and citizen commentators – and more persons, groups and organizations around the world now bend attention to serve their particular agendas than ever before.
What It Means for All of Us
Crises are more likely to hit you than ever before and around anything and everything that you might never have considered potentially problematic in the past – and from any and every direction.
The pace of crisis – global warming in communications as it were – is quickening.
Crises can attack you from seemingly nowhere and everywhere, and with an intensity, ferocity, speed – and yes, heat – that will stun you.
Certainly a crisis manual is de rigeur for any company. It is the price of admission to a linked world where people everywhere closely watch every action of organizations in their midst.
It is not enough.
You also need, for example, a “skinny crisis plan.”
That is, you need a plan for the first 5 minutes – responding as soon as you’re aware there is a problem and even before you know anything about the issue – then for every hour in the first day.
This approach will help prompt your response even if you are stunned, and help you preserve your reputation and protect your business, which always are your objectives in any crisis situation.
That is really what global warming means to me – if you aren’t ready for it, then the accelerating pace and sudden appearance of an issue or crisis can melt your reputation and your business.