Communicate Influence

How PR and communications can manage in turbulent times

Bob pickard

Economic and political turbulence are the new norm. For communications pros, this era presents unprecedented challenges, unlike any experienced in recent decades. How can comms and PR pros manage important issues or even crises in the current turbulent climate?

We turn to leading global public relations executive Bob Pickard for his value insights into how communications and PR can approach their roles in this age of instability.

Bob has worked for more 28 years throughout North America and Asia Pacific, guiding leaders and delivering campaigns for their organizations. He’s frequently interviewed by the media, including BNN Bloomberg, to comment on business stories involving issues such as crisis communications and reputation management. This is the first part of our conversation, with part two coming soon.

How PR and communications can manage in turbulent times

Economic, global, and social uncertainties mean that a company’s reputation may be easily be exposed. How can PR and communications identify real threats and, internally, quickly develop the messaging required to help ensure the reputation remains intact?

Social media has massively increased the risk profile of every company in the world. It’s also made it almost certain that controversial private corporate problems will explode into the public domain.

What has been the greatest shift in communications?

When I started my career in the 1990s, the accent was on ‘early warning’ radar in media monitoring and having in place a rapid-response capability. That remains the case. However, but the information flow now is almost instantaneous, meaning there is far less time to think about whether or how to communicate.

Therefore, at a time when text communication is being eclipsed by the rise of video communication, we see the decline of ‘thinking’ in corporate communication and the concomitant rise of ‘feeling.’

Why are so many companies and comms pros unprepared for a crisis?

Owing to status quo inertia and what is frequently an incumbent fogeyism, many companies remain remarkably unprepared for identifying, intercepting, and addressing issues which may metastasize into full-blown crisis communication situations (all of which play out online).

Like generals who have drawn up plans to fight battles using the outmoded thinking of the last war, many top communicators in the c-suite still rely on analog era crisis communications manuals which are collecting dust on the shelf (or the intranet). In some cases these documents haven’t been updated or simulation tested for many years (including sims that take social media into account).

Can communications predict how a crisis will play out?

Given the volatility and unpredictable nature of social, it has become effectively impossible to plan with confident forecasting how things will play out in a way that one knows for sure will come to pass.

This reflects the shift from the old-fashioned ‘interval’ form of communication — where companies would communicate information at milestone moments through press releases and news conferences — to a highly fluid always-on communications context.

How should PRs and communicators respond to a crisis?

The key thing now is not ‘replying quickly’ or ‘getting ahead’ of the story. Instead, be tuned into the media with real-time leadership communication that strikes the right emotional chord in the present moment of public opinion.

Agile and nimble communication is thus essential, enabled and amplified by the latest technology. There are some very exciting AI-enabled social intelligence platforms today, some of them attracting round after round of VC financing. Consider Zignal Labs or Signal in London.

Should comms pros respond to disinformation?

The use of disinformation seems to be greater than ever, and can really gain traction via social media. Should comms pros always try to respond and manage this? If so, how? Is there ever a case for simply riding it out?
I do not believe that disinformation needs to be reflexively ‘corrected’ because often the result — as evidenced by study after study — is to make even more people believe that the initial fake proposition is somehow true.

Rather than confront disinformation head-on, I would say in many cases the best approach is to deflect or pivot by introducing a new communication thread to change the course of the conversation. Resist reacting in a knee-jerk way by creating a tit-for-tat argument that gives the disinformation more credibility through false equivalency than it merits.

Bob Pickard, leader in the international communications industry

Bob Pickard is Principle, of Principal of Signal Leadership Communication, a social public relations consultancy exclusively serving senior executives dealing with digital disruption. He built successful public relations businesses based in the United States, Japan, Korea, Singapore and Canada. Bob was recently named by PR Week to its Power Book list of “the most important people in the global PR industry”​ (and the only Canadian national listed).

Find Bob on LinkedIn and Twitter.

Sheelagh Caygill

Sheelagh Caygill is an award-winning content marketer, communications practitioner, and journalist. Based in Toronto, Sheelagh has worked for media outlets including The Edmonton Journal and The Northern Echo, as well as the corporate and non-profit sector in Canada and the U.K.

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