Emerging Trends in Crisis Management

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Between fresh technology, greater sophistication among activists, and political partisanship metastasizing to the broader population, the landscape of modern crisis management is more daunting and difficult to navigate than ever. Most crisis managers are routinely confronted by events of the here and now, but it's important to pause and take the time to see—or at least try to get a handle on—what lies around the bend. Here are 10 key trends we see shaping the crises of the future.

  1. Mixed Missions
    For most of corporate history, the business of business was business. But increasingly, companies large and small are involving themselves in a variety of "social responsibility" initiatives. Whether the initiative is focused on the environment, health, or social and civic involvement, it creates a new dynamic for crisis managers who must now seek to balance the sometimes contradictory goals of "social responsibility" and providing high investor returns through the diligent application of free-market principles.

  2. Diluted Science
    Science has long been a refuge of companies seeking approval of their products. In the past, you could get a venerable person of science to proclaim your product safe, and voila, it was safe. Not so much today. Mainstream scientists are coming under more scrutiny, and woe to the scientist funded by industry sources; industry-funded research is quickly and almost universally considered tainted. Conversely, anyone who claims expertise in science can have such expertise conferred upon him or her by non-governmental organizations (NGOs), activists, and any number of institutions that have nothing to do with science but have your interests in their crosshairs.

  3. Money Talks
    The days of corporations having PR resources, lawyers, and lobbyists that vastly outclass those of the opposition are gone. Over the past 20 years, advocacy groups, not-for-profits, and NGOs have managed to build enormous financial and legal resources they can bring to bear against their targets. It's estimated that the top 10 environmental NGOs have collective revenues that exceed $10 billion—more than enough to mount a concerted, effective campaign against any corporation. Winning a financial war of attrition with such parties is no longer realistic, meaning damage control will have to accommodate new tactics.

  4. Media Lite
    The news business, as a business, is getting tougher all the time. Once the heralded loss leaders among television networks, newsrooms today are facing growing pressure to become profitable. Already we're seeing younger, less-experienced (read: cheaper-to-hire) reporters covering more stories with less research and less due diligence. Combine this trend in journalism with the near ubiquity of camera cell phones and handheld video cams, and you have exposure to all manner of miscreants looking to make trouble.

  5. Wall Street Shakedowns
    Capital is the mother's milk of business, a fact not lost on activists who have modified their tactics in recent years to target offending industries. A good illustration of this is animal rights extremists, who have recently started targeting Wall Street traders and bankers with a variety of intimidation tactics to make them back off from doing business with companies conducting research involving animals. With companies perpetually beholden to shareholders to deliver profits, look for this trend to grow.
  6. The New Media
    The establishment media ain't what it used to be. Internet media, weblogs, video-sharing websites, and other new media entrants are demonstrating increasing clout. Today's pajama-clad bloggers, web-based news outlets, and "citizen journalists" have a stunning impact on events. Just look at former CBS Evening News anchor Dan Rather, whose tenure was short-circuited by the Internet media after they exposed the phony documents used in a 2004 hit piece about George W. Bush's military service.

  7. News as Comedy
    Readership of major national and metropolitan newspapers continues to wane. Network news audiences are still contracting. So where are people getting their news? More and more of us—mostly younger people—are getting our "news" from late-night comics and cable programs like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. Injecting your side of the story into this sort of narrative is no picnic; if you think a corporate CEO is uneasy facing a network reporter, watch 'em squirm in front of Jon Stewart. It involves a different mindset—one that demands a greater sense of humor, self-deprecation, and the ability to laugh at oneself.

  8. Making an Example of Your Brand
    If some group of activists has a problem with, say, artificial hormones used in dairy cows, the smart ones don't rail against the image of a syringe containing a harmless compound with a name as long as your driveway. Instead, they'll glom on to an iconic symbol to make their case, like Starbucks, which used to use milk from such cows until it was targeted by self-proclaimed health advocates. A successful brand takes years of effort and investment to cultivate, and activists love to piggyback on those efforts to make their point. It also creates the perfect David-and-Goliath scenario for organizations to use in fundraising drives.

  9. Eroding Intellectual Property Rights
    It takes a ton of creative brain power to create a new drug, write groundbreaking software, or produce the Next Big Thing in music or cinema. Common sense suggests the creators of this intellectual property are protected from infringement, but it's not the slam dunk you might think. Copying these things is cheap, quick, and easy, and perpetrators have a pretty good chance of getting away with it. Most people view theft from a corporation as a victimless crime, so a company can't expect much sympathy when its products are pirated. Companies face growing pressure to share their knowledge at a reduced rate of return, and walking the fine line between altruism and destroying the industry responsible for such creations is a necessity.

  10. The Corporate Sieve
    Many crises are the result of external forces, but many more come from within a corporation, and they can be no less devastating. Whether it's the disgruntled former employee who seeks 15 minutes of fame as a corporate whistleblower or the digital busybody spreading sensitive information across the Internet with a few keystrokes, companies are looking at a rapidly expanding universe of internal threats. Confronting them demands a fresh approach to internal communications.
As technology, tactics, and techniques continue to evolve, there will be even more ways detractors can make mischief for companies and individuals who find themselves targets of somebody with an axe to grind. Beating back such attacks will require more flexibility, creativity, and the means to exploit the new opportunities that come with new risks.

About the Authors:

Eric Dezenhall and John Weber are CEO and President, respectively, of Dezenhall Resources and the authors of Damage Control: Why Everything You Know About Crisis Management is Wrong.
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