How PR Pros Can Shape a Brand’s Culture to Avert Looming Crises

Every day, another organization finds its way into the headlines embroiled in a once-preventable crisis that threatens its reputation, financial health, even its very survival. In this age of instant global communication, no organization is immune. Entire companies and their stakeholders can suffer from the consequences of poor decisions made by people at every level of the organization. Often, powerful cultural influences in an organization disguise the warning signs that can identify smoldering issues that spell disaster.

Effective crisis management and crisis prevention in particular include a systemic approach to identifying issues and correcting them. Crisis management consultants often advise clients to implement an early-warning system to surface issues early enough to prevent or mitigate them before significant damage occurs.

Deborah Hileman, President/CEO, Institute for Crisis Management

As it turns out, communications and culture are key parts of such a warning system. As important members of the crisis management team, communicators can and should work with executive leadership to build the cultural dynamics needed to support an effective crisis early-warning system centered on transparent communication.

A culture of transparent communication across the organization is fundamental to the success of such a system. An organization’s culture plays a defining role in how employees communicate, make decisions and solve problems.

How do you know if your organization’s culture discourages employees from raising legitimate concerns? Consider the following:

Shooting the messenger: In many organizations, it’s common for members of senior management to blame those who bring issues to their attention. In this culture, people learn quickly to keep quiet to stay safe. Such fearful silence is toxic to the organization, creating abundant opportunities for manageable issues to become costly crises.

Passing the buck: On his desk, President Harry Truman had a sign that read: “The buck stops here.” In other words, “I am ultimately responsible.” All too often, though, in a culture where people fail to take responsibility for decisions, crises can smolder for months or years before they erupt.

Mixed messages: The potential for smoldering crises to escalate intensifies when management routinely sends mixed messages to employees. For example, the company mantra may be “quality first,” but when employees are directed to cut costs or take shortcuts to meet a short-term financial goal, the mantra is undermined, creating ideal conditions for a crisis to grow.

Groupthink: Coined by Yale’s Irving Janis, the term refers to behaviors where group members’ desire for unanimity overrides their motivation to consider alternative courses of action. Groups may develop an illusion of invulnerability that encourages extreme risk-taking behaviors. Group closed-mindedness occurs where warnings or other information are discounted or ignored. Groups may apply peer pressure to those who express strong arguments against a course of action, causing individuals to self-censor their concerns.

Management by committee: Especially in medium-to-large companies, this drives individuals to avoid taking decisive action out of fear of being blamed for a mistake. Critical decisions are not made, resulting in crises.

Changing a culture takes time and often involves a lot of collective pain for leaders and employees. Cultural modificationis not a quick fix. In a larger company, it can take years to effect meaningful change. Clearly, then, culture is an important risk factor to consider when developing and implementing an early warning system.

In an effective culture, communication is reciprocal, transparent, consistent, frequent, timely, appropriate, managed up and down, supportive and empathetic. When all team members can communicate effectively with one another and with those outside their immediate group, issues are resolved, good decisions are made and the company succeeds.

What can leaders do to create the culture of communications and disclosure that encourages employees to speak up when they see a problem?

Transparent Communication is KEY

Most organizations have articulated a mission and stated values or principles. When trust and transparency are part of the culture, interests of employees are balanced with those of the organization in a process that demonstrates the shared value of disclosure.

If your organization has not made transparent communications one of its core values, I encourage you to work with leadership to revise them to include this as a clear element.

Communication Training: Ineffective communications contribute to more failures in business than any other cause. Every employee, from line staff to CEO, is responsible for effective communications. Yet far too few companies offer values-based communications skills training to teach employees how to share information with peers and supervisors.

Collaborate with HR or the training department to develop communications skills training for all employees, starting with managers. A strong example is set when senior leadership participation is mandatory, including the CEO. Leaders must walk the talk.

Training should include: (1) understanding diversity and different communication styles, (2) developing active listening skills, (3) shared understanding through mirroring and feedback, (4) workplace interpersonal skills and (5) resolving differences and conflicts. As a follow-up, offer coaching and support to help managers refine skills and fulfill the goals of two-way symmetrical communication.

Employee Hotline:To support a culture of transparent communications, set up a toll-free telephone “hotline” that anyone—employees, fam-ily members, customers—can use to report concerns 24/7. Publicize it vigorously.

Engage an experienced third-party vendor to manage the line. Promote it in every medium, reminding employees that a neutral third-party is taking the call. Adhere to strict confidentiality standards to assure callers can remain anonymous.

Commit to following up with callers (who provide their names). To build trust, provide regular reports to all employees regarding reported concerns (to the extent possible) and outline the actions management is taking to correct them.

Rituals of Recognition, Positive Feedback: Humans learn by example. Positive reinforcement helps make new behaviors a habit. Consider ways to enhance transparency and build a culture of communication by acknowledging those who raise concerns. Include a regular agenda item in team meetings to talk about issues. Highlight management’s corrective action, which will engender transparency and trust.

A business crisis can be a short-term disruption or spell the end of a brand. More than two-thirds of organizational crises are preventable. Leaders have a responsibility to manage issues and prevent them from becoming a serious threat. Communicators are vital to this effort.


This content appeared originally in PR News, April, 18, 2016. For subscription information, please visit: