Bad pitches are the tip of the iceberg… we have bigger issues

posted by Brendan Hodgson

You may have noticed that I’ve been talking a lot about crisis recently. The reason being that a crisis – whether an accident or a crisis of confidence – is often an area where corporate reputations are either greatly strengthened or irreparably damaged (depending on how they respond), where journalists’ careers can be jumpstarted, and where the skills of PR practitioners are tested and scrutinized under the most extreme conditions. It’s also an area where H&K invests considerably, given what’s often at stake… be it human lives, the future of a business and the jobs it creates, or the safety of an entire community. It is PR when the stakes are highest.

And if crisis management wasn’t hard enough already, in today’s 2.0 world, reputation is no longer determined solely by what we read in the media. Consider that trust in traditional organizations and institutions continues to erode (and I’m not entirely convinced by studies that claim the contrary) and is being supplanted by a new breed of influencers, that transparency is not only being demanded but imposed, that technological barriers to entry no longer exist, and that we as a society appear to increasingly and willingly expose ourselves in order to participate, speak up and be heard.  

Consider also that news is no longer “local” and can easily reach a global audience, and that the traditional media are increasingly looking to social media for new angles, tips and story ideas in order to ride the momentum. Consider the potential for misinformation and speculation to spread through the blogosphere and social networks like wildfire if left unchecked, fanned by emotion and bias rather than a desire for accuracy and credibility. And consider the risk now posed by employees who might attempt to join the conversation without understanding the bigger picture or  the consequences of their actions if they are anything less than fully transparent.

I spent a couple of days last week back in Calgary participating in a series of crisis training sessions with Jo-Anne Polak, our national crisis practice leader. It was the first time that we had fully integrated our traditional and digital crisis philosophies and principles into a more holistic approach for this client (In recent months, I have conducted a series of training and education sessions with clients that were focused specifically on digital and crisis.). It spurred a lot of discussion and thinking around what steps need to be taken to ensure their existing policies and processes reflect this new dynamic. Discussions that need to happen.

The integration was not difficult, given H&K’s unique approach to crisis management. It reflects new realities that have shaped the media environment since 9-11, and which have been further transformed with the London Bombings, Hurrican Katrina, the Virginia Tech tragedy and the California wildfires earlier this year. It acknowledges the increasing importance of your digital footprint, the power of the search engines, and the opportunities created through social media to reach and engage audiences directly. And it questions current thinking, including the need to tie communications solely to the requirements of traditional media.

As I mentioned at the start of this post, Crisis communications is PR when the stakes are highest. And yet even as the industry looks inward following silliness such as this, I fear that we may be ignoring an even greater challenge and test to the credibility of our industry in future years. The responsibility for us all is clear.