10 good reasons to prioritise your risk issues

It’s not hard to think up a list of issues and problems which might potentially turn into crises. Such a list might even look impressive. But it’s useless if it isn’t linked to action. And it can only be linked to action if it’s prioritised for what you should be working on.

To do this you need n effective prioritisation process to fully assess the importance of each issue relative to others. Out of this come the priorities for issue management effort – to make sure you’re most efficiently investing resources to work towards planned, positive outcomes.

There are many different models and processes for prioritisation, some based on numerical analysis and some based on formal consensus. There are even online models which claim to be useful.

But regardless of the process itself, it’s essential to understand and communicate why prioritisation is important and why it demands top management involvement.

There are ten specific benefits which issue prioritisation brings to Crisis Proofing:

  • Commitment — Involves key players, ensures their buy-in and reduces backsliding and dissent.
  • Objectivity — Demonstrates to the board, investors and stakeholders that a transparent process was followed which didn’t rely on group-think or ‘gut feel’.
  • Confidence — Provides assurance that the organisation is not only doing things right but is doing the right things.
  • Rigour — Helps to resist pressure from individuals, sometimes very senior, who demand resources for their ‘pet issue’.
  • Speed — Can be achieved quickly without having to reinvent the process.
  • Efficiency — Optimises use of resources and minimises duplication and wasted effort.
  • Neutrality — Reduces the risk of distortion by turf rivalries or dominant personalities.
  • Simplicity — Can be implemented by senior executives with minimal facilitation once the format is embedded.
  • Flexibility — Assessment criteria can be easily adapted to fit the needs of different types of organisations, or different parts of the organisation, or different markets.
  • Repeatability — Provides a consistent basis for future updates to objectively assess whether priorities or conditions have changed.

Most importantly, issue prioritisation is not an abstract or theoretical process, or just a box-ticking exercise. It can lead to significant decisions on investment and resource allocation. It can also have real impacts including reputation; capacity to do business; investor confidence; expansion and acquisition plans; recruitment and retention; compliance cost; risk exposure and crisis prevention. These consequences should be the direct responsibility of the top executive group. That’s why prioritisation needs a strategic team approach, with senior management directly involved.

And for any doubter who wonders whether formal prioritisation is worth the time and effort, consider Derek Bok, President of Harvard, who once said: “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.”  To paraphrase Bok: “If you think a planned response to issues is expensive, try enduring a crisis.”

Compared with the time, expense, business disruption and reputational damage from a crisis, identifying, prioritising and proactively managing issues is a great investment.

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Barbecued ‘dog’ stunt masks a more serious issue campaign

A stunt by PETA to barbecue a fake dog in the CBD of Sydney last week created predictably outraged headlines around the world. PETA’s message was “If you wouldn’t eat a dog, why eat a lamb?”

However the barbecue street theatre was just the ‘click bait’ end of a much more serious international effort to force less consumption of red meat.

Tabloid journalism thrives on an endless supply of stories about the latest food fad or dubious diet – often linked to some photogenic celebrity. And we are all too familiar with proposals to tax sugary drinks – supposedly to combat obesity.

Less well known is the organised offensive against meat and the growing calls for a meat tax – said to be driven by concerns over health, under-nutrition and climate change.

Regardless of your view on more meat, less meat or going vegan, there are important lessons in issue management to be taken from this determined campaign.

Last month the British journal The Lancet published the “planetary health diet” proposed by the EAT-Lancet Commission “to improve health and avoid potentially catastrophic damage to the planet.” The report recommended a maximum of 14 grams of red meat a day, or about one hamburger patty a week, as well as no more than one and a half eggs per week and similar restrictions on fish and chicken.

Then, last week The Lancet followed up with a report from their Commission on Obesity spelling out how taxes, bans and regulation should be used to achieve this dramatic change towards a largely plant-based diet. The Commission also proposed a $1 billion taxpayer-funded war-chest for lobbying and social advocacy to help “create public pressure for healthy policies.”

In a scathing analysis in The Spectator, Christopher Snowdon of the free-market Institute of Economic Affairs claimed the red meat issue campaign is following the well-proven blueprint developed by the anti-smoking lobby. He says the international Lancet Commission sees the problem as the undue influence of transnational food and beverage makers, and the solution as higher taxes and more state control.

“Rather than deal with awkward politicians in liberal democracies” Snowdon argues, “they intend to bypass the electorate entirely and focus on the least accountable of global institutions [such as the World Health Organisation, the European Union, and the Pacific Forum] to use their constitutional provisions to develop legally binding agreements.”

Specifically, the Commission proposes a Framework Convention modelled directly on the WHO’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) which helped drive the campaign against smoking and cigarette advertising. The FCTC, which came into force in 2005, is one of the most widely supported treaties in the history of the United Nations.

Although the Commission on Obesity report accepts that “food clearly differs from tobacco because it is a necessity to support life,” the issue management strategy is clearly stated. They want more taxes on food, more advertising restrictions, a ban on new takeaway food outlets in some areas and “the banning and pariah status of key products.” And they see it as a global crusade.

So while it may be easy to discount the PETA ‘dog’ barbecue in Sydney as a headline-grabbing stunt, there is no doubt that a planned and persistent campaign to drastically change what we eat is well under way.


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Here’s some brand advice – Stop asking people to post their love

Why would a high-profile company think it was a smart idea to launch a hashtag asking customers and the public to share photos and messages about how much they love the brand? Recent history is littered with the corpses of such epic social media fails, yet it seems to be so easy to ignore what has gone before.

The start of a New Year is a good time to look back and say what have we learned? So let’s consider the case of defence technology company Lockheed Martin. In the middle of 2018 the world’s largest weapons maker tweeted: “Do you have an amazing photo of one of our products? Tag us in your pic and we may feature it during our upcoming #WorldPhotoDay celebration on August 19!”

Incredibly, the tweet came less than a week after a Saudi-led attack on a school bus in Yemen, which killed dozens of boys and their teachers. CNN reported that the weapon used was a laser-guided bomb made by Lockheed Martin, one of many thousands sold to Saudi Arabia as part of billions of dollars of weapons exports.

The response to the Tweet was as predictable as it was brutal. Angry Netizens uploaded photos of bloodstained UNICEF backpacks and fragments of the bomb. And comments such as “Here is the product of your products” and “Great product! Killed 40 children. @LockheedMartin is the best.”

The company’s Tweet was quickly deleted, but the question is not “What response did they expect?” but “What were they thinking?” Have they no appreciation of how likely it is to go wrong when an organisation gratuitously invites the public to share photos and messages of appreciation.

Consider what happened in 2014 when the New York Police Department Tweeted “Do you have a photo with a member of the NYPD? Tweet us & tag it #myNYPD.” The hashtag quickly took off when people began tweeting photos showing cops wrestling with demonstrators or swinging weapons at civilians. More than 70,000 people tweeted about police brutality, ridiculing the NYPD for a social media disaster and recalling the names of people shot dead by police. Next day Police Commissioner Bill Bratton gamely disputed that the effort was a failure, claiming he welcomed the images, and that sometimes police work isn’t pretty. (He apparently had better issue management training than whoever thought up the NYPD #Fail.)

Then there was the notorious McDonalds Twitter campaign using the hashtag #McDStories hoping to inspire “heart-warming stories about Happy Meals.” Instead, it attracted thousands of predictably negative responses. But, unlike the NY Police Commissioner, McDonalds admitted it “did not go as planned” and pulled the plug after just two hours.

And who can forget when the Victorian Taxi Association invited passengers to share their personal taxi stories with #YourTaxis as part of a campaign to take on ride-sharing service Uber. They got a torrent of horrors stories about smelly cabs, geographically-challenged drivers and worse. Taxi boss David Samuel said the campaign “did not match our intention” and they sacked the social media agency.

So, looking back, the question has to be why anyone today would STILL think such campaigns are a smart idea when the risk of reputational damage is so obvious. It might be easy to blame keen young social media mavens with no knowledge of history. But for senior managers who approve such imprudence there is no just no excuse.

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Whaling reverse shows issue management can be a marathon

Public relations is often focused on short term measurable gains. But issue management is one area which is typically more a marathon than a sprint. And there are few issue marathons as long and as tenacious as the campaign against commercial whaling.

Now the Japanese Government has just announced it will resume whaling in its own waters and withdraw from the International Whaling Commission.

Overall 2018 was not a great year for the anti-whaling issue, with Iceland resuming whaling after two years and Norway announcing an increased quota of whales to be killed. In fact there was even a report of the Norwegian Government backing a marketing campaign to promote whale meat to young people as “hip and trendy.” And Australian international law expert Professor Ed Couzens conceded that the issue appears to have “gone off the boil” in Europe.

However anti-whaling campaigners show no sign of giving up, which underscores the special challenges of fighting a protracted issue campaign.

A good comparative example is the ongoing crusade by public health activists to limit the damage caused by cigarette smoking, and the dogged counter-campaign waged by the big tobacco companies, which has been continuing for more than five decades.

Although it is rare for issues to continue at a high level of intensity over such a long period, the tobacco case illustrates an important lesson about marathon issue campaigns – namely that assessment of success needs to reflect the incremental nature of the strategy. In this way, the campaign against cigarettes has seen progressive advances over decades, even though eliminating cigarette smoking as a public health risk is still far from being achieved.

Yet no one would seriously argue on that basis that the campaign so far has not been successful. There have been major advances, such as preventing tobacco sponsorship of sport; banning smoking in many public places; and the introduction of plain packaging. These victories (and many others) should be seen as milestones for the anti-smoking campaign along the road towards its ultimate goal.

Another activist campaign with a long-term objective is the Australian Republican Movement which was launched in 1991 to establish an Australia head of state. Despite losing the Republic Referendum in 1999, the movement remain optimistic and their website spells out a step by step strategy to achieve a Republic by 2022.

The reality is that when campaigns extend over years or even decades, a different issue management strategy is needed. Not to assess just against achieving a single outcome but rather to work on major intermediate steps towards the ultimate objective, and to persist though periods of varying intensity, as well as through setbacks like the recent Japanese decision on whaling.

For communication professionals working on marathon issues there are some clear guidelines:
•    Identify the long-term goal.
•    Agree on achievable sub-objectives which support it.
•    Develop separate issue management plans for each sub-objective.
•    Recognise that multiple IM plans may run concurrently over a prolonged period.
•    Don’t be excessively disheartened by setbacks.
•    Celebrate substantial achievements along the way.
•    And most importantly – Never lose sight of what you are trying to achieve.

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When’s the right time for corporate social activism?

Customers and employees say they want companies to take a stand on high-profile social and political issues. But that can come with a costly downside too.

The latest example is home-sharing giant Airbnb which decided to take a position on one of the most contentious political issues on the planet. They removed 200 listings in disputed Israeli settlements on the West Bank and now face a potentially damaging class action lawsuit in the USA as well as an earlier action in Israel.

This news came just days after it was announced that American outdoor company Dick’s Sporting Goods suffered a drop in sales when it removed assault rifles from its stores following the Parkland school shooting in Florida (Dick’s had sold the Parkland shooter a gun though not the one used in his deadly rampage). The company also stopped selling “virtually all” hunting items as a trial at ten stores.

Apart from the drop in sales – which was especially heavy at the ten test stores – the decision by Dick’s triggered the predictable social media response, ranging from “Please shop at Dick’s, they are the good guys” to “A lot of us will never shop there again.”

This spectrum of opinion is pretty much inevitable when a company takes a stand.  As it did just months ago when Nike shares fell sharply after their controversial advertisement featuring footballer Colin Kaepernick, blacklisted for kneeling during the national anthem to protest treatment of African Americans. However the company enjoyed an upward spike in sales, not to mention a reported $43 million worth of media exposure, and year on year share value has just risen by $6 billion.

But the case of Dick’s Sporting Goods highlights that speaking up just as likely might not reap immediate financial rewards. Yet the numbers seem unambiguous. One recent US study found that more than 80% of consumers believe corporations should take action on important issues. And 76% said businesses should stand up for their political beliefs, whether or not they are controversial.

Similarly, a Cone Communications study revealed that 87% of consumers said they’d purchase a product because a company advocated for an issue they cared about, while more than 70% would refuse to buy from a company supporting an issue contrary to their beliefs. At the same time a survey of employees at Fortune 1000 companies revealed 82% said they wanted their CEO to rally support inside the company on sensitive social and environmental issues.

While American sentiment may not be fully replicated elsewhere, it’s worth remembering that more than 50 of Australia’s biggest brands took out full page advertising in support of marriage equality before the issue was put to a national poll. And earlier this year American Express suspended advertising on Australian Sky TV news to protest an interview with a far right nationalist.

The bottom line here is that any decision to lead or participate in a public issue must be truly aligned with core values, not a decision for the moment. Moreover, it needs to be supported by actions, not just words.

As a thoughtful essay in The Holmes Report recently concluded: “If you determine your brand is ready to immerse itself in an issue, then do so for the right reasons, make it relevant to your business and employees, and be consistent. If you can’t be true to your idea of activism, it may be better to sit on the sidelines and keep preparing for when the time is right.”

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Was it OK to help Facebook smear its critics?

The world has just watched Facebook plunge into yet another reputational crisis – this time denying and then admitting it hired a PR company to smear its critics. But was the campaign itself fundamentally flawed?

According to a New York Times investigation, Facebook commissioned Republican-aligned PR company Definers to smear billionaire George Soros, who has been a very outspoken critic of Facebook and Google. They also reportedly generated scores of stories and posts critical of tech rivals Google and Apple.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg denied any knowledge of the campaign and sacked the PR company the day after the New York Times report. COO Sheryl Sandberg also tried to walk away from the debacle, but later admitted she had forgotten that material about Definers had “crossed her desk.”

Then outgoing Facebook Head of Policy and Communication Eliott Schrager threw himself under the bus and took responsibility for the company’s action. “I knew of and approved the decision to hire Definers and similar firms. I’m sorry I let you all down. I regret my own failure here . . . Mark and Sheryl relied on me to manage this without controversy.”

Without controversy? Some hope, given the company’s previous scandals.  In the wake of incidents like the massive Cambridge Analytica data privacy breach and Facebook’s failure to manage Russian use of the platform to interfere in elections, the news media response was swift and savage.

  • “Delay, deny and deflect: How Facebook’s leaders fought through crisis” (New York Times)
  • “Facebook comms head admits hiring PR agencies to discredit critics as horror year continues” (Mumbrella)
  • “Heads ought to roll at Facebook over the Soros smear – starting with Zuck’s” (Business Insider)

Yet, while Facebook is an easy target for just about everything that’s wrong with social media, what about the PR company which so enthusiastically implemented the strategy?

For its part, Washington DC-based Definers Public Affairs said they were proud of their partnership with Facebook and that: “All of our work is based in public available documents and information.” Which may be true, but is pushing negative stories about other tech companies and about Facebook’s critics legitimate issue management? And does it help the reputation of the public relations?

Bear in mind that all of this comes just over a year after one of the biggest scandals to rock the PR industry. In September 2017 the major British outfit Bell Pottinger was expelled from the Public Relations and Communications Association (PRCA) after being found to have breached the industry’s ethical standards over a campaign to stoke racial tension in South Africa. Bell Pottinger suffered eight million pounds worth of client losses within 48 hours and soon collapsed into bankruptcy.

Although the usual consequence of an ethical breach is seldom so brutal, the reality is that the Facebook smear story is not just about a tech company under intense pressure. It’s also about what is acceptable behaviour by communicators. The PRSA Code of Ethics says: “A member shall preserve the integrity of the process of communication.” The IABC Code starts by saying: “I am honest – my actions bring respect for and trust in the communications profession” and the PRIA Code says: “Members shall avoid conduct or practices likely to bring discredit upon themselves, the Institute, their employers or clients.”

The lesson here is that while critics may say industry codes of practice can be toothless, they are a pretty good basis for how issue and crisis professionals should behave.

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Why Business Continuity is not the same as Crisis Management

Any organization which imagines that a business continuity plan makes them ‘crisis prepared’ is due for a big and costly surprise.

Because business continuity is just one element of strategic crisis management, and failure to recognise this reality can leave you dangerously vulnerable to operational and reputational risk.

Part of the problem is confusion over terms – business continuity planning, crisis management, business recovery, incident management, emergency response, risk management, crisis prevention, crisis preparedness. The list goes on. But the risk to organizations is not just definitional. The real danger is putting a business continuity plan in place and then starting to relax – imagining that your organization is ready to face a crisis.

While arguing about definitions can be unhelpful and unproductive, recent social media debate on this topic exposed just how mistaken some communications professionals can be. No. Crisis management is not “part of business continuity management.”  No. Crisis management is not “the mode that strategic managers must enter when protective processes fail for whatever reason.” And no, crisis management is most definitely not just “how to respond to the crisis after it has happened.”

Crisis Management is a strategic management process which begins long before the triggering event and continues after the triggering event has been brought under control.  It embraces

  • Identifying and proactively managing potential crisis issues before they happen
  • Getting ready for when a crisis does occur
  • Responding effectively to the event
  • Restoring business as usual
  • Responding to the highly damaging risks which often arise when the dust has settled (sometimes called the crisis after the crisis) and finally,
  • Learning from what happened and incorporating it into future planning.

    As Singapore-based crisis consultant Kim Yang Lim has commented: “The Business Continuity Management, Risk Management and Crisis Management functions require different approaches and have different objectives. To use BCM or RM or CM as an umbrella term is misleading to company managers, who may then perceive the three functions as interchangeable and, consequently, may cherry pick what capabilities to develop and so omit an important part of preparedness. All three functions are essential but they are all different and require different skill sets.”

It’s this focus on roles and responsibilities which is critical. Business continuity is often perceived as a largely tactical or operational role to help restore ‘business as usual’ as quickly as possible, and that it’s done by logistics and technical people deep down inside the organisation. Even worse, business continuity is sometimes positioned as synonymous with recovering from IT failure. Indeed, some experts have introduced the term Technology Continuity Management (TCM) to reinforce that it is a technical responsibility.

But effective business continuity planning should address much more than just IT and other technical disasters. More importantly, crisis management should be recognised as both a tactical and a strategic responsibility which extends far beyond just business continuity and must be fully integrated into the highest ranks at a strategic level.

Without top executive commitment to Crisis Proofing, organizations will continue to be unprepared, and crises will continue to destroy organizations and reputations.

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