Opinion: PR is the foundation to avoid business crises

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THE English word crisis is reported to have been first used in a medical context to refer to a point where survival was not guaranteed, writes Lyndon Johnson. Specifically, it was the point at which a decision needed to be made which might tip the balance. In many cases, a perceived ‘pr’ crisis is – in actual fact – an operational problem that has caused damage to key strategic relationships – customers, prospective customers, partners, investors, journalists. Left untreated, it could create a greater risk to the long-term success or survival of the organization. 

An organization relies on relationships in order to do anything: relationships with employees to deliver core activities; relationships with customers to generate revenue; relationships with partners to scale or get products manufactured or supplied; and relationships with investors to get the capital it needs to grow. Damage to any of these key strategic relationships threatens the long-term prosperity of the organization – the definition of a crisis.

While many public relations and communications specialists talk about never wasting the opportunity created by a crisis, what if we, as practitioners, were able to help the organizations to avoid the crises from happening in the first place? In the same way that nobody wants to end up in the emergency room – no matter how good the medical care – the nature of a crisis means that it creates an existential problem that should be avoided at all costs. Avoiding a crisis is, I’d argue, the true strategic value of communications and would go a long way to demonstrating why communications deserves to rightfully be considered a strategic management function.­

It all starts with relationships – the stronger an organization’s relationships with key stakeholder groups the lower the risk of a crisis. Helping organizations build strong mutually-beneficial relationships is the core activity of public relations, and when a crisis occurs it often reflects the success (or failure) of the work done by practitioners in building them. Where strong relationships exist a crisis can be avoided or mitigated quickly. Any missteps will be understood as rare missteps or an isolated incident that does not reflect the standard operating procedure of the organization as a whole or as something that, while needing to be addressed, will not have a detrimental impact on the key strategy that an organization needs to achieve its commercial goals.

Unfortunately, much of the work of public relations is perceived to be about message control and dissemination in an attempt to have people perceive an organization in a particular way. When a crisis happens it often provides a glimpse behind the curtain to the truth of an organization. Where the reality doesn’t match the reality of the message it can cause considerable damage and make building (or rebuilding) relationships much harder. Where strong relationships have been built with key stakeholder groups the risk of a crisis doing damage is significantly less.

Many organizations have a risk register and assess it regularly to help identify potential sources of risk, but, in many cases, communications risk is often not considered. The primary risk of any crisis is relationship risk – the risk that damage will be done to the key strategic relationships that are critical to an organization functioning operationally and achieving its desired outcomes. Whether employees, suppliers, customers, investors, or partners, any crisis that damages any of these relationships risks creating an existential threat to an organization – the very definition of a crisis.

Rather than solely helping organizations to manage crises, we should be helping them to avoid them. The key to doing this is to ask colleagues and client contacts to assess the relationship risk of everything they do operationally – and help them to identify and build the key relationships necessary to help mitigate operational and reputational risks in the event that an operational failure creates a threat to the long-term sustainability of the organization.

There will always be a need for crisis communications specialists to help minimize damage from operational failures; things go wrong and few organizations have internal crisis management teams. But communications – and public relations, in particular – has the ability to help place organizations in a strong position to counter any potential fallout and, in many cases, prevent the escalation of a crisis.

Lyndon Johnson is the founder of THINK DIFFERENT[LY] Communications and the general manager of walk-in communications clinic COMMS.BAR in Toronto. Over the last decade, he has been developing a unifying communications theory and he is the inventor of The Lean Agile Communications Methodology™.