A New Paradigm for Crisis Communication

10 years, 7 months ago


n order to emerge from the quagmire of a crisis with reputation intact, organisations need to court stakeholders and build alliances strong enough to withstand media attack. By Stephen Elliott.

All too often, the PR profession focuses on only the press as a conduit to reaching their clients’ audiences. From time-to-time, analyst relations and shareholder communications play into a PR programme – especially for crisis communications. Public relations has become exclusively synonymous with media relations.

“What if you had to design a crisis programme for a client but could not include the media?” This is a conundrum posed to me by my old boss when I first moved to London 10 years ago. My answer was simple: “Build yourself a copper-bottom stakeholder relations programme and co-op their opposition – early, before anything happened.”

Often it is not your client who the press seek for ‘the real news and information’ about a situation. The press will devote more airtime, column inches and frequency of coverage to third party ‘experts’ or sources, in an attempt to get a more complete and near-as-objective picture of your client, their crisis and the issues surrounding it.

Peripheral vision

Those quoted are often only peripherally involved, but will have credence because of their association with an organisation, class, or professional title. In reality, they might be the village idiot or prejudiced against your client for personal reasons. However, no one will be the wiser – to your client’s detriment.

The media will speak with pundits, competitors, regulators, politicians, pressure groups and anyone else who has a stake in seeing your client succeed or fail in their mission or situation. Stakeholders are important to the media because they can deliver the ‘holy grail’ or ‘silver bullet’ that the media want to make their story outstanding: the perceived objective opinion.

Ideally, stakeholders are those who have an unassailable reputation and are uniquely qualified to deliver an objective opinion or insights that cast your client and their situation in a favourable light.

You need to get as many of these people and factions on side before your client has a crisis.

Who’s Who?

Stakeholders come in all shades, shapes and sizes – this is not to say that one is less helpful than another is beneficial. Stakeholders can be considered as potential allies as long as they are courted and wooed appropriately in advance of any potential hazard. Take for instance their media appeal:

If you can win over stakeholders on the high media appeal side – or more sensationalistic – to some extent, then the client has a greater chance of surprising the media and its audiences, emerging from the quagmire of a crisis with their integrity and reputation intact.

Getting On Side

The best way to win over stakeholders is to start with a dialogue.

Stratagem 1: Find a middle ground and work from there. If you can get a meeting with one opposition group by identifying a common concern, using that as a reason to meet and establish a dialogue, then you can likely identify more items on which you agree, as long as your means achieves a common end. This can make almost anything justifiable.

I had a client that wanted legislation passed to give them and their peers more market entry – basically, asking lawmakers to exchange the current market monopoly for a new oligopoly. Consumer groups were not keen and did not see the real benefit to them. When we met with them and demonstrated that we shared common concerns and goals – i.e. better prices for consumers, more competition than what exists, etc. – they were enthusiastically supportive and freely spoke out in favour of the legislative and regulatory changes our client wanted. That made it not just the client’s battle, but everyman’s battle.

Stratagem 2: ‘Co-op’ the opposition; bring them onside because they have a common goal in sight – i.e. safe jobs, clean water, more recycling, books for the poor, etcetera. Meet with them for the simple reason that they share a vision and your client wants to tap into their insights to do things better. Make your client’s enemy a partner and remove their reasons for opposing them. Place their opposition into a consultative role and build a consensus from that point onward.

Another client was a petrochemical company that wanted to use an existing oil extraction technology in a new way to pipe oil out safely from a delicate environment. Before drilling began, we established a dialogue with all of the leading pressure groups concerned with the environment, indigenous cultures, and safety. The client was able to lay out their plans, demonstrate how it could/will work, explain why this operation was important, and solicit the opposition’s insights and opinions to make sure the client “did things the right way.” The client even invited their would-be critics to tour facilities, talk to local residents and special interest groups, and act as independent adjudicators to keep things running smoothly. It was a partnership between big business and their staunchest critics.

True to their word, the client did everything they promised to do – as did these new stakeholders. When problems arose, even those reported in the press, the critics actually spoke supportively of the client. In a way, the press did not have a sensationalistic story because the client’s critics closed ranks with the client and had nothing but praise for the way the client was going about its business.

Stratagem 3: Have a variety of quality supporters. Your client might have more than one crisis during the course of your long-term relationship. The nature of the crises might vary. The conventional wisdom is that opinions are like navels – everyone has one. As such, ‘everyone’ should have a positive and informed opinion about your client or the situation in which the client finds itself.

The media often look for a broad base of support for or against a current event. They like variety in that people of all walks of life in society are speaking with a decisive voice about something. The more villainous your client might seem, the more papers, magazines and television/radio advertising space they can sell…they might even win an award for being a determining factor in your client’s demise. If you have as many different types of relevant supporters to hand that will speak for your client, then the client can demonstrate an equally broad base of support. This will trump anything else the media brings out against them.


Do not overlook the role of stakeholders in crisis communication. Stakeholders are often responsible for turning public opinion in favour of a client because of their standing. Prepare the client to have frank discussions with their most ardent supporters before, during and after a situation. Never let them lie to anyone they want on their side. Integrity is the foundation of ensuring a healthy reputation – but your client will only have as strong a reputation as the public feels they have integrity.



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The Author

Stephen Elliott

Stephen Elliott, Principal, Elliott & Partners Reputation Management.

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