The Stakeholder First Strategy

March 16, 2007

Facilitating the crisis management scenario for the Texas Public Relations Association conference in Houston last week was one of the most fun things I’ve done in a long time. That’s because it was my job to try and confound four top notch crisis communication experts on the panel in front of an audience of about 150 communication leaders from private and public organization in Texas. The panelists were:

– Tim O’Leary, head of communications for Shell Alternative Energy and head of crisis management for Shell in North America
– Jon Harmon, former head of communications for Ford and communication manager during the Ford/Firestone crisis, now heading his own PR consultancy Force for Good Communications
– Terry Hemeyer, former chief spokesperson for the US Air Force, for Pennzoil, for SCI and now a professor of PR at U of Texas and Rice Universities
– Mike Breslin, manager of the Houston office of Hill & Knowlton

A great group. My scenario was a national non-profit pet rescue agency using celebrities as pitch people. The executive director gets sideways with former employees and a blogwar turns into a full-blown media frenzy relating to charges of impropriety with young, female staff. And then we get a bird flu scare. And then Bill O’Reilly calls.

It was fascinating for me (and the audience I think) to hear these great minds think outloud about dealing with a challenging crisis situation. If you are interested you might check with the TPRA to see if they have tapes of the session. What was somewhat surprising is that while there was great general agreement among the panelists on certain approaches, there were also some very specific differences. And that is important for those involved in crisis communications and PR in general to understand. There is an art to this, and the one holding the brush and making marks on the canvas makes a tremendous amount of difference in the outcome. While there is no one single path to success, it is clear that different crisis counselors will take different paths.

In thinking through their approaches, it occurred to me that one of the greatest differences between my approach and the most common one I hear from other experts is what I might call the “stakeholder first” approach. By that I mean, it is just so ingrained in our profession in a crisis involving the media to have our focus of attention on dealing with the media first and foremost. But that can be a mistake. One of my basic principles when it hits the fan (actually well before it hits) is to ask the question: Whose opinion about the organization matters most for the organization’s future? Whatever that answer is, determines to a large degree the strategy, the message, the response, the speed required, etc.

In this scenario, the opinion of the celebrities was critically important because of how they could support or damage the organization. The opinion of key donors was absolutely critical. The opinion of employees and their families was also critical. The media in this way of thinking becomes one of the channels of communicating with those key stakeholders–but a particularly poor one, because there is no control over what they say and they have their own entertainment agenda to follow. So communicating directly with key stakeholders becomes the driving concern, even while the media beast is being fed. It is far too often forgotten that today’s information technology can allow very fast, very direct communication via web, email, phone, text message–multiple forms– with key stakeholders. But, most organizations in my experience don’t understand the importance of this direct communication and therefore don’t put the policies, plans, people and platform in place to deal with it. It’s a major problem and a key reason why too many fail when it hits the fan.

That point was made by the panelists in the discussion, but I would critique them somewhat by saying that the stakeholder first point should have been much more to the forefront. One panelist in his opening remarks noted that they key concern needed to be how to stay in business. For that, he gets my award.

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One Response to “The Stakeholder First Strategy”

  1. Mark Harris Says:

    The “stakeholder first” approach is, in my opinion the only way to develop communications around a crisis. I have always believed that it is fundamental to map out your stakeholders in “peacetime” against a number of potential scenarios so you have an understanding of what their agenda will be, what they might say to the media, and what they will want to hear from you, the organisation/company in a crisis. Add to that, the ability to get details on who within the stakeholder organisation you should be making contact with, plus their alternate, and how they want to be contacted, then you should be able to cut down the lag time from when something goes bang to informing them to almost immediate. Thus filling the “information vacuum” before somebody else does.
    Stakeholders should not hear it from the media, plus they should know what you are doing about the issue/crisis so they can support the overall response when apporached by the media.
    Time and again, I have been with executive teams facing a crisis situation and they have been in danger of positioning the media as stakeholder number one and devoting too much energy to feeding. The media is not number one, the media is one channel of communication, and as you say, one that can often change your message. So, ensure websites are consitent with press releases, with spokespersons, with blogs (if you choose to use one) etc, and consistent with direct contact with stakeholders, to ensure correct information is getting out through as many different mediums as possible.
    Therefore, know your stakeholders and what their attitudes will be before a crisis occurs, maintain a dialogue with them when something happens, and monitor their performance during the incident to make sure they are “on message”. I hope this makes some sense and endorses your approach.


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