Your 2021 Crisis Is On Its Way: Where Will It Come From?

An image of a protest to illustrate the concept of a crisis.

A year ago today, I spent the entire day on the phone with my travel agent, booking tickets to half a dozen speaking engagements, choosing hotels, ground transportation, etc. I was figuring out what I’d wear at the upcoming PR News Conference in Miami, and deciding which weeks I would turn my house over to Measurement Base Camp and the Summit on the Future of Measurement.

We know what happens next in this story. I went to only one of those conferences, my travel agent retired in June, and Measurement Camp and the Summit were held virtually. Instead of cleaning my house and arranging tables and chairs, I bought a web cam and a microphone, and brought in an A-V specialist. I haven’t worn a skirt or high heels since March, and I now have a nice collection of “Zoom Jackets” that make me instantly virtually presentable.

If 2020 taught us anything it is that predictions are crap, crises will come from unexpected places, and your worst nightmare will be driven by events you can’t even imagine.

Get over it and get prepared. Give your culture and policies a thorough exam, brush up that crisis communications plan, and make sure your social and traditional media listening/monitoring is listening for anything or anybody that might end up trending on Twitter.

The reality is that infectious disease experts and other smart people predicted we’d be hit by a pandemic eventually. Just as activists could have told you that streets would eventually fill with protesters when that tipping point was hit. And maybe someone would have taken the bet that all that would happen in 2020 because it was an election year. Or because we all needed to have our lives come to a grinding halt in order to rethink our values and our priorities. But let’s face it, no communications professional was prepared for 2020.

We can’t prepare you for everything that might happen, but we do have a few ideas as to where your next crisis might come from. (Tip: Check out Full Intel or one of the other tools in our just-updated Vendor Selection Guide, and they’ll probably do a pretty good job of at least spotting that crisis before it forces you into your personal situation room.)

Most crises will be self-inflicted.

In times of uncertainty most people rely on gut instinct or close advisors to decide what to do. Not nearly enough turn to data. So, before you respond to a news event, or worse, try to newsjack something for your own benefit, at least look for some data to find out how that tactic worked in the past. There is very little cure for the self-inflicted crisis.

Employees will be involved.

Whether it’s the quiet guy in IT who ends up with an undesired cameo on CNN in the middle of a riot, or the harassed employee who finally gets sick of HR ignoring his/her pleas and turns into a whistleblower, the degree to which your culture is one of empathy, caring, and inclusion will correlate directly to the likelihood of you spending a weekend in the war room. The best way to a avoid an employee crisis is to make sure your culture, your D&I, and your purpose are all aligned and well-known by all your employees.

Politics is coming for you; you might as well embrace it.

Traditionally, organizations try to avoid the political spotlight but these days it’s impossible. If you are big enough to have a public affairs/lobbying department, chances are every contribution you’ve made in the last decade can come back to haunt you. Your competition and your opposition have grown a lot savvier since 2016 and there are many more outlets that may be receptive to their pitches. Communicate the heck out of your purpose, your effort on the environment, diversity, and good governance, be as open and transparent as you can possibly be, and avoid sounding defensive.

The way back to “normal” will be filled with potential calamities.

No matter how much we want our old lives to come back soon, they aren’t going to. As we learned early on in 2020, a governor might say that things are open or closed, but it’s the customers who decide when they feel safe. Invariably there will be customers, partners, and employees who either haven’t had the vaccine, are still reluctant to be close to anyone else, or have moved on to different pastures, and no amount of marketing or persuasion will change their minds. So be prepared for a perilous passage. Exude empathy and understanding, listen a lot, and don’t assume everyone is on the same page as you are.

Listen carefully for the next controversy.

We love it when athletes, influencers, and celebrities wear our brands or embrace our Instagram posts. But they can all be idiots from time to time. When you’re trying to avoid a crisis, they’re potential predicaments. So, first of all make sure you’re listening to all the influencers in your industry and especially those that you have a relationship with. Do a thorough vetting, not just of potential influencers, but, again, of anyone you have a relationship with. Do you know what horrible thing they did to themselves or others during the pandemic?

The path to your war room may be paved with fake news.

For years people have been warning about the dangers of “deep fakes” and the perils of Russian troll farms. All those predictions came true in 2020. Rand called it two years ago with their investigation of Truth Decay. Their latest advice on how to combat it is must reading for every communicator. Everyone needs to have a healthy does of skepticism when looking at your media coverage, social or otherwise. Focus on the media that matters, but listen for opponents, competitors, or others who may want to distort your messages.

Your “communities” just got wider and more numerous.

Years ago, we used to advocate for organizations to not just be the “employer of choice” or the “vendor of choice” but rather be the “neighbor of choice” in their local communicates. Southwest Airlines has focused on the communities they fly in and out of for years and credits their strong employee engagement and financial performance in part to that commitment.

The problem in 2021 is that there’s a good chance your corporate HQ is half empty and will shrink even more in 2021, as employees and their bosses realize how little they need to be in the office. Complicating that fact is that all those employees now have communities of their own, where they can either be heroes or idiots. Make sure you have good, strong, enforceable guidelines to ensure that employees know how to be good citizens and represent your brand consistently.

As much as we hope it will all get better in a new administration and with lots of vaccines, I’m sure there will be crises and catastrophes we haven’t even imagined yet. But with a bit of preparedness, we may just spend more weekends playing with friends, and fewer in the crisis war room. ∞

Thanks for the image to Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona on Unsplash.

About Author

Katie Paine

I've been called The Queen Of Measurement, but I prefer Seshat, the Goddess.