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Crisis PR & Communications

Some entrepreneurs think change is easy – “I’ll lead, you follow.”

For others, it’s hard; we like what we are doing, just the way it is. Yep, the ‘stick-in-the-mud’ lot who make change hard work.

Whether it’s a digital disruption, as with the newspaper industry, or an Obamacare-type legislative transformation (in Australia the introduction of the NDIS), or a merger/acquisition, we’ve found that attention to detail in a transformation, and constant vigilance, especially with messaging to different stakeholders, is critical. Assumption fathers most stuff-ups.

There are loads of examples, but I think the best way to learn is watching politics. Think of almost any partisan campaign and watch those politicians who succeed and those that fail.

Transformation rules

The path to success depends on:

  1. Creating a sense of urgency and the need for change, “To survive we must change.” This is the most important message, and in business it’s often overlooked: fear drives most change. Think about it: politicians in a democracy can rarely create change if they can’t scare people about the consequences of not changing.
  2. Constant communication: bringing critical stakeholders on the journey, and being prepared to argue/debate the case. It’s a general rule in transformation that you can only move as fast as the slowest critical stakeholder.
  3. Articulating a clear vision, simply explained, of what success looks like. Explain how it’s worth the pain. Some change takes years – the newspaper sector has been undergoing transformation in earnest since 2004. The NYT is the paper that, for me, has most effectively communicated the need for change and the pathway to success.
  4. Milestones of success along the journey.
  5. Support people through change.

The trouble comes when a small group doesn’t see the need for change. A rebellion. At a certain point, if the best communication fails you have to ‘crash or crash-through’; in newspapers, managements have mostly had to ignore the militancy of journalists.


This is when the going gets tough. Generally the rebellion becomes a media event, the controversy stoking division.

And these are the success/fail points:

  1. Unity of purpose: we will need a unified board and executive. Stress levels sky-rocket with negative media commentary and mid-crisis it’s almost always negative. Some decision makers may waver in their confidence in our direction.
  2. Strong spokesperson: can make or break a campaign. A high-profile leader is often the difference between transformation success and failure. Again, think of any political campaign and how important the lead politician has been to success. If the leader is a poor communicator, hard becomes much harder. In business, gone are the days of quiet achievers at the top.
  3. Winning messages: clear, concise messages rooted in good policy almost always win long term. Good research and strong case studies are two factors that contribute to winning.
  4. Simplicity: To the untrained eye and ear, a disruption and the required transformation can appear a complex issue. The skill of the leaders is to keep it simple. If we watch the clever politicians we can pick up tricks. The fail-point is to confuse stakeholders with a plethora of data. Focus on outcomes, not outputs.
  5. Nimbleness: We need to be ready to quickly decide whether to engage in debate, or not. Is our cause advanced or hindered by engaging? It’s best if two (max three) people make the daily decisions, once the board has agreed on strategy.
  6. Resourcing: be realistic, it’s expensive to run a complex marketing campaign to multiple stakeholders.
  7. Vigilance: don’t lose focus and pay attention to the detail.

And remember, it’s all a learning experience.

Author Peter Wilkinson

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