Olivia Pope, the protagonist in the hit TV series, ‘Scandal’, was instrumental in saving multiple politicians, organisations and personalities through a crisis and a PR disaster through effective communication. As companies get set to face a wobbly few months ahead, with plummeting end user demand, lack of migrant labour to run plants, and the threat of corona not receding; crises—both natural and artificial are bound to hit the roof with social media playing the villainous catalyst.
In these ‘one-in-a-century’ times, business leaders (and politicians) can adopt some of the principles Olivia Pope leveraged, to effectively communicate during a crisis.
Take control of the narrative by being honest, direct, and frequent
It is a no-brainer that communication during a crisis has to be regular with accurate updates and direct answers. In such a situation, silence and a prolonged absence is seen as an admission of guilt. The world is going gaga over the New York governor, Andrew Cuomo, with his style of daily briefings with accurate updates and conveying a picture of calmness, gravitas, and trying to be in control. Similarly, business leaders need to be frequent, accurate about their communication, and answer the toughest questions (e.g. potential layoffs) directly. It is doubt that acts like the real virus during the times of a crisis. Olivia often resorted to public briefings where she would address the press pro-actively with a set of messages that were accurately crafted and timely in nature.
Put forward your star performer in case you have nothing to hide
In times of a crisis, the person with the maximum credibility should lead the communication as trust is the most important currency at that point in time. Think of Amitabh Bachchan when the Cadbury fiasco happened a couple of decades ago or the repeated addresses of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to calm a nervous population or Sachin Tendulkar when the Indian cricket team was facing flak after a brutal defeat against Australia in the 2003 Cricket World Cup. Business leaders need to communicate directly with their customers and vendors only if they are respected, seen as polite and credible. An arrogant communicator can create havoc in times of a crisis as some countries with their leaders during the corona briefing updates have witnessed. Olivia often brought credible and trusted parents or relatives of the protagonist in question to address the larger ecosystem to secure the trust deficit.
Storytelling and symbolic gestures always helps in building a common vision
It has been repeatedly documented that the human species has thrived because of building a common vision deploying the tools of symbolic gestures (think of the mask in movies like Joker and V for Vendetta) and effective storytelling. This is one of the reasons, that in an environment of negativity, politicians actively encourage symbolic gestures of co-ordinated applause, lighting a torch as a mark of showing respect to the front line warriors. In times of crisis, business leaders can focus on effective storytelling articulating their company purpose to a greater sense of emotional benefit (e.g. helping humanity thrive) and reducing negativity among its own ecosystem through a set of co-ordinated gestures (e.g. innovative merchandising elements highlighting the company purpose). One of Olivia’s smartest moves was to often make internal stakeholders remember why they were rooting for the protagonist in the first place.
Be prepared to wash your dirty linen in public
In times of crises, where survival is of paramount importance, competitors are likely to adopt a flight or fight mode. It is reasonable to expect that competitors are likely to leak the most unpleasant secrets of an organisation in the market along lines of key people quitting, loss in key client accounts, poor business, poor liquidity, data security breach, reported numbers being artificially inflated. As some of these dirty secrets might be part fiction and part reality, organisations need to be prepared to expect the worst and if the need arises, communicate with key clients, vendors and employees at one go. When the bomb blows up, time will be at a premium and hence the communication needs to be swift and timely. One of Olivia’s famous lines was always, “what is the worst they can hit us with?”
Crisis communication is a specialist job that is the need of the hour. Olivia Pope maintained a dedicated team that assisted her in managing reputations and brand equities. Given the uncertain times, a crisis management cell is likely to become a permanent feature in most organisations to help them navigate through the current murky waters and potential icy droplets that lay ahead. For instance, after the Maggi fiasco, Nestle has deployed a dedicated team of communication experts to engage with regulators and government authorities in most states.
After all, no one should forget that it takes one indisciplined bat to create a potential billion crises.
The author is an MBA from IIM Bangalore and a strategy course holder from INSEAD. He has been a strategy consultant for over a decade. He is the author of two books, ‘Yours Sarcastically’ and ‘Satan’s Angels’.