Advise and Consent: How C-Suites Engage Crisis Counselors

October 2, 2018

By: Paul Omodt, APR, and Dr. Michael Porter, APR

“How the C-Suite Engages Crisis Consultants: Lessons From 10,000 Crises” is a featured PD session at the PRSA International Conference in Austin, Texas, on Oct. 7-9. Check the program or app for details.

Behind the scenes of every well-managed crisis for a major organization, an invisible adviser arrives to leverage his or her experience in coaching leaders on how to respond.

Most research on this topic has examined strategies and tactics for managing crisis communications with company stakeholders, but ours is the first to look at how crisis specialists find their way to an organization’s table. Our recent inquiry provides insights from consultants who collectively have participated in more than 10,000 crisis situations. Our investigation focused on the relationships among executives in pulling together teams to implement and maintain crisis strategies.

Our research involved first-person interviews with a broad range of business executives and PR professionals, including CEOs, corporate counselors and senior communicators.

The interviews followed a snowball-sampling design, in which interviewees recruited other interviewees, starting with an elder statesman of crisis communication, Jim Lukaszewski, APR, Fellow PRSA. His referrals led to people he considers peers, and then to their peers. Since these senior consultants each have 20 to 35 years of experience, we conservatively estimate that together they have handled well over 10,000 crises.

Our analysis of the resulting data has produced two major insights that can help elucidate the how, why and whom of effective crisis-communication management.

Selecting a crisis counselor

The first revelation provides context through a detailed process map of the various paths taken to identify, and secure on short notice, a trustworthy crisis consultant. This process map can serve other senior teams in validation of their own processes.
We begin by illustrating the challenge that senior executives face to vet and engage this crucial external resource during a crisis, when there is no time for a formal pitch process.

The baseline divergence in the process stems from whether the organization has an existing crisis plan — and if so, whether it identifies who the crisis consultant will be. If the answer is no on both counts, then the process we describe becomes more nuanced.

A CEO’s criteria for selecting an outside crisis specialist may be influenced by a number of factors, including the leader’s previous crisis experiences; his or her trust in corporate counsel or senior communicators; the leader’s relationships with other CEOs, board members or peers; his or her perception of the crisis; the type of crisis and its perceived trajectory or speed.

Consensus among the crisis consultants we interviewed suggests that regardless of who the CEO chooses, the choice must be swift.

In long-standing organizations that regularly face issues or crises, a gradual turnover occurs in all members of the teams responsible for crisis communication, from the CEO down. Many of the old-guard consultants we interviewed have relationships with organizations that transcend internal personnel changes, or at least outstrip the tenure of some key players.

Identifying key personas

The second revelation comes as an extension of “personas” that align with two central crisis consulting styles; out of the research, two unexpected personas consistently emerged: the “Mercenary” and the “Butler.”

While some consultants are hired to play one role more often than the other, which one they fulfill depends on how senior management approaches an individual crisis or crises in general. Our data reveal the ramifications of both choices. Better understanding the roles of mercenaries or butlers can help business executives and crisis counselors ensure the efforts put forth by either persona provide what companies need and expect in crisis situations.

The mercenary may be known only to one person on the senior team, or may arrive solely on the recommendation of a trusted peer of the CEO or other ranking executive. This consulting persona usually works alongside the executive team to set strategy and tactics and direct workflow during a crisis, and most often has no direct contact with the organization’s communicators or agency of record.

By contrast, the butler has already engaged with both senior leadership and the communications team before a crisis to build a plan and establish relationships across the organization that will allow the plan to be implemented when needed. 

Such consulting relationships place the butler on the sidelines, observing and predicting an organization’s needs about issues that may percolate into crises. The butler is ever-present in the background, working to ensure the house runs smoothly.

Consider the crisis consultant who has worked with a major corporation for 30 years. Having weathered the transitions of multiple executive teams, he serves that firm as a butler — helping manage issues in a proactive, attentive manner.

Contrast this with the mercenary role, wherein a referred consultant appears in the boardroom as if from nowhere, yet seems to already understand the firm’s stakeholders more intimately than the executive team did before recruiting this external adviser.

Butler consultants seem to take an approach similar to one described by a CEO we interviewed: “The more you can get your C-Suite on the same page, when responding to a crisis 50 percent of your issues go away. [Crises] don’t arise [in the first place] because you have already answered the question.”

In contrast, the value a mercenary offers is reflected in the words of another CEO: “It helped that [the consultant] seemed knowledgeable and really understood the psychology of our critics without even meeting them. I was very impressed that [the consultant] knew more about our critics in a five-minute phone call than we knew after three or four weeks of interacting with them.”

Wearing multiple hats

Our research also shows that the complex world of crisis communications follows some simple truths: A CEO’s influence in selecting and accepting a crisis counselor is vital for organizations to understand, as are the distinctive roles that crisis counselors play once they’re brought on board.

For their part, crisis counselors have to understand their own roles as mercenaries or butlers, and realize that the hat they don depends on the situation, the organization and relationships within it. Regardless of which role is fulfilled, a crisis counselor’s job is to help the organization manage a crisis, communicate to stakeholders, and not let the hat they’re wearing get in the way.

Paul Omodt, APR, is the owner and principal of Omodt & Associates Critical Communications, a full-service communication firm based in Minneapolis, and an adjunct professor at the University of St. Thomas.

Dr. Michael Porter, APR, is a Distinguished Service Professor at the University of St. Thomas Opus College of Business and a member of the PRSA Minnesota Chapter board of directors.   


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