The End of Crisis Communications

About a month ago, there were a couple of posts that I came across that really resonated with me. I know that the majority of my posts here deal with crisis communications and emergency public information, but this post kind of turns that whole thread on its head. Or reinforces my thinking. It’s not very straightforward, which is why this post has sat so long without being published.

On March 8th, Gerald Baron asked his readers if they thought crisis communication was, “going the way of the dodo.” Was it becoming obsolete? A quick scan of the internet shows that as a career, there are few specialties as hot as crisis communication right now. And there are a million people (myself included) who spout off on who did what right and (more likely of the two) wrong in response to a crisis. Self-proclaimed “experts” and “gurus” and even “ninjas.” So, one has to wonder, why the disconnect? Why does someone whose made a sawbuck or two in this field think it might be over?

Gerald says:

Because as companies and organizations shift from a mass mediated engagement with their audiences, to a far more direct engagement, crisis communication becomes simply a part of the on-going, direct conversation that they have established with the people important to them.

And

Organizational communication is becoming more and more like an on-going conversation. In a crisis, the event that occurs becomes the dominant topic of conversation. But it is just seen as a continuation of the conversation—faster, more intense, more important—but not substantially different from the day to day conversation you have been having.

The thing is, I think I agree with him. Granted, this is a ways down the road. Crisis communication will continue to be a hot thing to have on your resume or LinkedIn profile. But as day-to-day communication gets better and easier (see the slowly blossoming field of Community Managers) and the public begins to realize, en masse, that communicating directly with companies and agencies is more effective than anything else out there, the need for crisis communicators will start to fade away.

The biggest reason that I think this might be happening is because of single, disparate tests and efforts and beta tests and rogue bloggers (points at self) trying this stuff out. Take, for example, the work done by the Walsall Council, a dot in the middle of the English island. (West Midlands? Apologies for my poor understanding of English geography, but I’m on a bus here.) They recently held an event dubbed, “Walsall24.” The idea was that local government employees would take 24 hours, beginning at 6am March 4th, and tweet everything they did. And they did, 1,400 times. On police deployments, on noise complaint investigation, on classes being held, on meetings, on materials being made available to the public, on what’s going right (and I hope what could be done better), you name it, they tweeted it.

The idea behind the effort was to give the folks who live in Walsall an idea of what local government does for them. (On a side note, I LOVE this project for that single reason. The vast, vast majority of people have no clue what their government does for them. They think we just sit around and play Solitaire all day, when the truth is that we work harder and do more to protect and support them than they could possibly imagine. We should all strive to tell those good stories about the great work we do.) They’ve established that local government can be open as possible and still get stuff done. The next time something like this happens, perhaps the tweeters will be allowed to engage in discussions with the public. Why they’re doing something, why they’re not doing it differently, what can be done better or faster or cheaper, and on and on. (We’re already seeing some of that in Cory Booker’s snowstorm tweets.) Combine Walsall24 with Mayor Booker, and well, you can see where things are heading in government. It’ll take a while, no doubt, but I totally see the dodo-esque nature of what we’re all doing.

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2 thoughts on “The End of Crisis Communications

  1. Jim,It would have been a quality post had you *just* said nice things about Walsall24. Thank you for those. It’s actually genuinely humbling when someone says good things about what you do.What makes it a brilliant post is because a) you’ve got what we were trying to do with the project. But b) you’ve taken the ball and ran with it.The intention of Walsall24 was to tell people what we did. The little things that we never shout about rubbing shoulders with the big things we want to write press releases about. Combine them together and you get a rich tapestry of things that we do.We intended that Walsall24 should be a first for local government. But we’re also keen that within a short space of time it would be eclipsed by bigger and better things. In short, we knew it would be a ZX ’81 compared to, hey, a Commodore 64.There’s so much you can do with this idea of live tweeting.Soon after our experiment, a hospital in Southampton tweeted for 12 hours from a children’s ward. It was compelling stuff. They also put names and faces to what they did, by naming nurses and patients (with their permission) before explaining what they were in for.You can check out the premise behind it here: http://bit.ly/dVEvnQYou're on to something about about crisis comms. When you’re already communicating with people hour by hour in the format of their choosing, where actually is the crisis?

  2. Hi Jim.Ditto all that my colleague Dan has said. Dan didn’t mention the chance comment that sparked Walsall24. We pay “council tax” in the UK. It’s a locally collected tax, based on the value of the residential property a family lives in. Council tax accounts for, as far as I know, somewhere between 15 and 20% of the funding available to councils (local government) in the UK. And the chance comment? This was a council employee, in an internal meeting, who asked what did they get for their council tax apart from their refuse bins (domestic waste from households) being emptied. Interesting. If council employees don’t know what the Council does, how could we expect the council tax payers to know?We have a system in place for our residents to make “corporate complaints”. These are the “I’ve reached the end of the road, I’m really annoyed now and I want someone high up in the organisation to deal with me” type of complaint. So, to go back to the inspiration for Walsall24, what’s all this about refuse bins? Given that we offer in excess of 700 services to our residents, it might be a surprise that between one quarter and one third of our corporate complaints are about refuse collection. Is that because the service we give is awful? No. Not at all. It’s actually rated as a good service. It’s not just me saying that – we have to report performance to central government and we also do local surveys. People just really care about having their bins emptied – it seems to be the number one big deal. Is this a Brit thing?Maybe it’s because bins are on the street, in view and everyone uses them? If so, maybe we need to do still more to positively publicise other work that goes on. As part of our Walsall24 initiative, our intrepid press officer Tina camped out from 10pm to 6am with the social care staff who operate a 24/7 service looking out for our most vulnerable, mainly elderly, residents. These residents have pendants they can wear and/or pull-cords in their homes, so that they can call for assistance in an emergency. You can see for yourselves some of the calls for assistance via #walsall24 on twitter. The council funds this, just like it does the collection of bins; it’s just not as widely known.As a result of Walsall24, we now have more of our services actively tweeting and engaging with our communities. No big launch, no big noise, but mission well on the way to being accomplished :-)

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