Top Takeaways from the 2021 Ragan Crisis Communications Virtual Conference

For more than 15 years, I drove around with a small, black backpack in the trunk of my car.

Nestled inside were crisis quick guides, employee messaging templates, distribution lists and a phone tree with contact info for about 25 of my work colleagues. With it, I was ready to join leaders and co-workers in responding if a crisis occurred outside of working hours. For me, this included a couple of hurricanes, a tornado, a building fire, an epic ice storm, and one wild pig running loose on the grounds. Intense at times, but manageable.

Then there was 2020.

And 2021 (so far).

I don’t need that satchel in my role at Dynamic Signal these days, but clearly the past couple of years were capable of breaking the back of just about any well-intended crisis comms backpack or playbook.

At the Ragan Crisis Communications Virtual Conference on June 10, I had the opportunity to meet with industry experts to regroup and learn ideas more in keeping with the “always-on” approach that has become the crisis comms model in our new disrupted world.

Living in crisis mode 

Keynote speaker Matthew Hutchison, CCO, Dow Jones, captured the mind shift in one sweeping thought: “Crisis has moved from the periphery to the core.”

Matthew Hutchison“Crisis communications is integral to planning and shaping a proactive narrative built on trust,” Hutchison said, and he called on fellow communicators to serve as the conscience of the organization to make sure that core is solid. “Consider all the issues that could potentially pull at the threads of trust in an organization, beginning with how your employees could be affected.”

The importance of trust is mirrored in the recent findings of the 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer, which revealed employers as the most trusted institution for the first time. And with employees having more material impact than ever on the success of their organizations, trust will surely factor into the ability to thrive beyond the pandemic.

The Trust Barometer also indicates that the majority of people believe CEOs should hold themselves accountable to the public and not just to the board of directors or stockholders. “This is especially important in a time when the truth is one click away,” said Megan Rokosh, Global CMO, Havas Health & You.

Mind the gap

A good measure of that trust, according to Nick Lanyi, Media Relations and Crisis Communications Expert, Ragan Consulting Group, has to do with aligning words, action and company purpose. “In the midst of crisis, don’t make promises you can’t keep or act in ways that don’t line up with values,” he said.

Most organizations have discovered that employees are actually ok without immediate and well-orchestrated solutions in a crisis situation, but they do expect honesty and clarity from leaders – even if it’s to confirm what’s still unknown or unsolved.

“No transparency leads to no context. No context leads to no awareness. And no awareness leads to mass confusion, discord and disarray,” said Sukhi Sahni, Head of Corporate Communications for U.S. Card and Retail Bank Divisions at Capitol One. No one wants to sign up for that, but there’s a thin margin of error between responding quickly and making sure you’re ready to act as an organization.

According to Matt Fields, Head of Corporate Communications, US Consumer Bank, Barclays, communicators can play a critical role in providing leaders important perspective and a cross-divisional view as situations unfold. “In times of crises and change, leaders are often far ahead of the change curve and need to guard against the leadership gap,” he said.

Amanda MintoOne of the hardest change curves to manage – during a pandemic or otherwise – are employee layoffs and furloughs. But in a time when unemployment soared into the triple-millions worldwide, leaders and communicators were in the hot seat a lot. Amanda Minto, Director of HR Communications, Technology, Product, Xperience, Comcast, offered four important tactics in preparing those communications:

  1. Get the story straight from the start.
  2. Find your spokesperson (and it may not always be who you think).
  3. Create statements that are authentic and empathetic.
  4. Organize your approach (who you tell first matters).

Are you even listening?

Listening to your employees, analyzing facts, and knowing how you want to show up as an organization are foundational components of a healthy crisis communication strategy.

Although Barclays conducts regular employee surveys, Fields said his organization transitioned to monthly pulse surveys during Covid 19 to get a more timely read on the changing employee experience. Through these surveys, leaders heard directly from staff about issues such as workloads, the stress of family care, and email habits that were creeping into employees’ personal time. With insights in hand, leaders were able to address those situations with people managers, offer resources and reset expectations.

Brandi Boatner“Feedback is a gift,” Brandi Boatner, Manager of Digital Advocacy Communications, IBM, said.  Survey responses from IBM employees revealed that stress levels were higher for women during the pandemic, but at practically double the rate for Black women. That information served as the catalyst for a program specifically designed to bring Black women employees together for discussion, validation and support that lead to greater retention and belonging.

“There has to be a marriage between the data and your insights,” said Shannon McClendon, PR Manager at American Nurses Association (ANA). Following the death of George Floyd, for example, McClendon said there was no question the ANA would issue an official statement because audience data had already revealed social justice as a priority for nurses. “We know what our audience cares about, and we knew we had to say something,” she said. “But we had to find our lane and use the data and insights to drive the response.”

Thank you, next crisis

Several speakers discussed the importance of upskilling in the area of crisis communications. Michelle Rosinski, Lead Security Monitoring and Response Analyst, Mastercard, recommended these starting points:

  • Build familiarity with the entire crisis management program for your organization.
  • Enhance confidence and competence of your team members with regular discussions about crisis comms essentials.
  • Identify areas that need further development and attention.
  • Explore and prioritize strategies for highest-risk scenarios.

David Johnston, Head of Social Media for The Department of Defense, suggested that the strongest crisis communications effort organizations should commit to is one that doesn’t involve a crisis at all. “Build employee engagement and credibility with your workforce before a crisis so they’re prepared to advocate and come to the rescue when you need them most,” he said.

Now that’s backpack-worthy.


Post Author

Becky Graebe

As Senior Director, Communication Expert at Dynamic Signal, I work with a great team of people to connect, align and engage employees in modern and meaningful ways, wherever they are and in the manner they choose.