The Upside of Downturn: Unlocking the Hidden Benefits of Crisis

October 2, 2018


By Mike McDougall, APR, Fellow PRSA, and Aimee J. Lewis

“The Upside of Downturn: Unlocking the Hidden Benefits of Crisis” is a featured PD session at the PRSA International Conference in Austin, Texas, on Oct. 7-9. Check the program or app for details.

For years, a medical device manufacturer had been battling crisis after crisis: product recalls, a takeover bid, plant closures and a revolving door of leaders. When the head of Regulatory Affairs arrived with another U.S. Food and Drug Administration inspection report, the issues management team resigned itself to bad news.

“Look, this isn’t good, but I’ll tell you what is,” he said, looking at the skeptical faces. “We’re getting better. It’s how we’re handling these, how we’re putting better systems into place. These crises are making us stronger.”

I can’t say that skepticism was misplaced. Complimenting a firefighter on her improved stamina during an inferno will fall on deaf ears. Her focus is on suppressing the flames, saving lives and getting out alive.

It’s often similar in communications settings where professionals are in the thick of the fight, obscuring their ability to observe the broader scene. Yet like a department chief manning the command center, a crisis calls for leaders to gain a more holistic perspective, and with it, experiences that pay dividends beyond the current situation.

Understanding crisis

Remember learning how manufacturing economics thrive during and after wartime, as production demands climb and unemployment shrinks? It’s true, but few promote war for the sake of financial prosperity.

While it could make for a Netflix conspiracy series, we’re not recommending creating crises to reap their benefits. But when they occur, tapping their energy makes sense. The secret is knowing what to look for amid the chaos.

• Team and people development

Our research into the power of belonging shows that individuals who have suffered together share significant bonds. This foxhole principle comes into play among teams who recount escapades over a beer, and organization-wide when celebrating post-event milestones (e.g., a post-hurricane resumption of operations). Crisis creates cohesiveness.

It also serves as a forum to evaluate employee resolve and resilience, observing how they operate in the face of uncertainty and stress. While this is a core competency for the communications profession, other departments may not hire or train for this skill. PR leaders are in a unique position to offer assessment tips to their functional counterparts.

• Principles and values demonstration

“Integrity is doing the right thing when you don’t have to — when no one else is looking or will ever know,” writes Charles Marshall in the 2003 motivational book “Shattering the Glass Slipper.”

Of course, when all eyes are on you, it matters as well, especially for organizations that are fond of exclaiming their management philosophy at every turn. When it counts, though, do those beliefs hold water?

If so, communicators can use a crisis to reinforce foundational values. How U.S. airlines have handled recent passenger incidents is an example. It comes as no surprise that consumers can believe in Southwest Airlines’ values (e.g., Live the Southwest Way: Warrior Spirit, Servant’s Heart, Fun-LUVing Attitude), even following tragedy. Other carriers haven’t fared as well.

A crisis can rapidly pinpoint sites, employee clusters and executives who aren’t in agreement with the organization’s principles and desired behaviors, setting up discussion, realignment, training or even dismissal. On the flip side, employees and third parties (e.g., suppliers) who exemplify how values can be highlighted when confronted with difficult events can be pointed to as models.

• Process, procedure and program improvement

It’s one of the great fallacies of an uneducated manager with an unopened crisis communications plan: This document has all the answers ready and waiting. But we know the truth.

A playbook is only 100 percent accurate before the game begins; your crisis communications plan begins eroding within seconds of a problem occurring.

Similar erosion applies across the organization, whether for business continuity plans, service contingencies or even old-school phone trees that didn’t anticipate a failure of mobile and landline service.

As good as simulations may be, there is no better substitute for testing the effectiveness of plans and systems than actual deployment.

Getting to the root cause of process breakdowns is essential, yet often postponed because of other time commitments, the arrival of another crisis, or a feeling of failure. Who wants to relive what has just been put to bed? The best communications professionals, that’s who.

Post-assessment, organizations can be more open to allocating resources for plan development and training that have been underfunded. This extends to programming such as corporate social responsibility initiatives.

• The comeback

A minor-league sports franchise had seen declining attendance, its stadium landlord was dodging major maintenance obligations, and the new owners were bleeding money.

So when the announcement came that the team would take a hiatus, with the situation laid bare in a matter-of-fact manner, it was reasonable to believe this was the beginning of the end.

Within days, fans had rallied to attract new season ticket holders. Companies asked about sponsorships. Former adversaries spoke up about the legacy that could be lost. The media covered the team more extensively than it had in years. The once-revered franchise had become the underdog — and we know how America loves an underdog.

Assuming a strong organization responds to a crisis in a timely, ethical and sensitive manner, it can be poised for the comeback campaign, with long-term potential outweighing the more recent declines.

Making it work

Building the infrastructure to approach crisis from an alternative perspective is neither easy nor quick. But it can be effective in the hands of a persistent and confident communications leader.

Success depends on how crisis teams are staffed, structuring fact-finding and insight generation to occur before memories fade, and beginning rebuilding efforts in parallel with issues resolution. It’s also a function of educating peers on the dual threat-opportunity model, building that into response mechanisms and mindsets.

No one wants a crisis, but wishing them away isn’t fruitful. When the next one arrives, be ready to give it a new look, discovering the upside of downturn. 

Mike McDougall, APR, Fellow PRSA, is president of McDougall Communications ( and former senior executive in the health care and consumer electronics industries. His team collaborates with organizations in the Americas, Europe and Asia-Pacific on a range of strategic initiatives including crisis and issues planning and response.

Aimee J. Lewis is an independent PR and marketing consultant, and a former senior administrator in K-12 and higher education. Today she works with nonprofits across North America to advance health care and education issues and campaigns.


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