Interview: Crisis communications, risk management and organisational resilience

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THE Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) recently launched its new Crisis Communications Network, writes Orla Clancy. As part of an open and inclusive forum, CIPR professionals from across the globe can come together to learn and share best practice in crisis communications. The network aims to spread and explore lessons from crisis case studies, past and present, while bringing the latest academic and real-world thinking in crisis communication and reputation risk management to a wider audience of PR professionals.

I recently interviewed the inaugural chair of the CIPR Crisis Communications Network, Chris Tucker (pictured), who told me that the aim is “to bring the latest thinking on crisis communications from the brightest minds working in this sector to the PR community. PR professionals are well-placed to help their organisations identify, manage and mitigate risks to reputation. We aim to be an important resource to help them perform this role.”

When asked why the network was established, Tucker said, “It’s no coincidence that we established the network in the wake of the Covid crisis. Crisis communications is an integral part of mainstream public relations. If you look at classic PR theory, it talks about public relations helping organisations to negotiate their way through the environment, deal with challenges and resolve issues. With the Covid crisis, PR professionals found themselves centre stage and there were varying levels of experience in crisis management. The objective of the network is to capture industry learnings,” she said. “A lot of the thinking behind the network is to identify what we can learn and do better in the future.”

The Crisis Communications Network’s mission is to champion excellence in crisis communications; promote the understanding of best practice; provide practical, useful and relevant services to CIPR members in the field of crisis communications and reputation risk; develop and provide access to tools and training in the field where appropriate, and support and promote professional standards and ethical behaviour. Elaborating on the objectives of the network, Tucker said, “Building organisational resilience is central to the objectives of the network. Senior PR professionals very often make important strategic decisions for an organisation – and very quickly. Building a network of support is important for the industry as is ensuring fellow PR professionals are aware of the latest thinking and learnings around crisis communications.”

We spoke about the role of communicators during the pandemic and Tucker said, “When the crisis hit, it was an equaliser in terms of senior leaders. Very quickly, senior leaders relied on the communications department as Covid was a huge communications challenge. The reputation of PR has been enhanced. Crisis and reputational counsel has been hugely relied on during the crisis and that reliance continues. The expectations of stakeholders are increasing exponentially, and not just in terms of Covid, but also when it comes to ESG and climate change.”

I then asked Tucker what key changes organisations have made to their crisis communications strategies post-pandemic. “Crisis communications is a relatively new discipline that emerged from business continuity; it has now developed into risk management, which is a particularly strategic role for PR professionals,” she said. “There are opportunities for PR professionals to build on their enhanced reputation and role. The demand for this type of counsel won’t fade away. The helicopter view that PR professionals have of the whole organisation and the environment in which it operates is key to organisational resilience and survival – and this is now more recognised by organisations.”

As the conversation came to a close, we both agreed that crisis communications has gone through many developments. It’s now firmly in the centre of strategic PR. Behavioural science and how it applies to crisis communications is another area of focus. Overall, reputational risk management is now central to how business leaders perceive PR.