There are many breeds of crisis communications professionals. For example, compare a reputation management pro with a public information officer (PIO). While the former is most focused on protecting a brand or corporate image, a PIO is generally focused on the information required to generate the highest levels of public awareness, welfare, and safety. Where do these two disciplines intersect? And what changes do PIOs need to adopt in 2021?
To probe these topics, J.D. interviewed long-time colleague and friend Sean Fitzgerald, managing director of crisis communications at Witt O’Brien’s, one of the world’s leading crisis and emergency response consultancies. Previously, Sean held communications posts at Levi Strauss, Mattel, and a multinational PR agency— including a more than a three-year stint as head of its Greater China operations.
J.D.: Sean, for 25+ years, you’ve focused on corporate and brand reputation. Your new post at Witt O’Brien’s seems like it requires some different muscles to be flexed. What is different about your new post? And are you able to inject your reputation expertise into that post?
Sean: Well J.D., what’s similar is the real-time nature of the support we provide and the breadth because several crises can occur at any given time, anywhere in the world. Fortunately, I manage a team of highly experienced communicators based in London, Singapore, and Houston, as well as a network of 40 affiliated firms in 30 countries, to help serve our clients in the maritime, energy, government agency, and private sectors. What’s different is that our support can range from assuming full spokesperson responsibility to a more consultative and strategic reputation management role. In most instances, we’re called in to assume the role of PIO for a crisis response governed by the ICS (Incident Command System) which is part of the National Incident Management System (NIMS)—a structure that ensures that no matter the crisis, if it involves the public and/or government agencies, certain response protocols exist and must be followed. In summary, I guess you can say the old me would have focused solely on the public reputation and media treatment of a client while the new me tends to focus on ensuring a client is strictly adhering to the ICS protocols and remaining focused on the crisis itself rather than their role in the crisis.
J.D.: Candidly, I have worked with PIOs who were a bit too stingy with information, providing only the minimum required to keep the public safe and informed. Is that fair to say? And do you see room for PIOs to evolve on this?
Sean: Yes, the traditional PIO has historically been focused on “just the facts jack.” The use of adjectives is limited at best. No information is ever released until it has been verified by all government agencies involved and the status of any injured (or worse) individuals will never be released without the permission of the involved authorities and pending notification of the family members. This may be the most difficult transition for someone raised on corporate reputation thrown into a PIO role where your job is to convey only known and verified facts. Any conjecture about the cause or future impact of an incident is verboten and the personal/human side of these events is rarely discussed. However, times are changing. Today’s news is narrative focused, so it’s become increasingly important for PIOs to demonstrate a greater degree of empathy and sympathy or risk appearing too removed, unemotional or unconcerned. The ultimate goal of the PIO remains the same: tell the people as much as you can to help them understand the situation, protect themselves if necessary and provide a clear understanding of what’s ahead.
“…it’s become increasingly important for PIOs to demonstrate a greater degree of empathy and sympathy or they may risk appearing too removed, too unemotional or too unconcerned.”
J.D.: In broad strokes, reputation management crisis leaders often want to humanize the “why” of a company’s role in managing a situation, so to speak. Are you able to bring some of that into your new role?
Sean: Yes. Today the best response to a crisis is first and foremost to remain honest, transparent, and authentic—providing as much information and context as the communications lead in the ICS request. But in doing so, incorporate an appropriate amount of empathy and emotion. Equally as important, we have learned that withholding known information is equivalent to lying and will always, always be exposed at some point in the news cycle. While a client may have very limited input into the publicly released response, most government agencies will incorporate their themes and messaging—but never if it’s self-serving, dishonest, or in any way deemed promotional.
J.D.: If you had one genie-wish, what would the perfect approach look like, incorporating all sides of crisis communications?
Sean: Most importantly, clients in a crisis that involves regulatory or law enforcement agencies need to understand that in the U.S., under the ICS protocol, they are a participant in the response, not the driver. This can be a rude awakening for many firms that are accustomed to calling all the shots and managing all their own messaging. Realize that in an ICS situation you’ll be part of a team. You’ll have a strong voice in what is said but need to fully understand the motivations and objectives of the authorities and regulators involved. Leave your ego at the door and understand that it’s the public’s good that’s driving the process, not your firm’s reputation. But, also realize that aligning with a firm or consultant that has navigated this always evolving and always challenging environment in the past may prove to be an excellent ally.
The issues and crisis management capability is one of the fastest growing areas of M Booth. Contact JamesD@mbooth.com for more information on brand resilience programming.