Finding tomorrow’s crisis communicators today – by Abdulwahed Juma

Training, experience and qualifications should all play a part, says du's exec VP of brand and corporate communications

By Abdulwahed Juma, Executive Vice President Brand and Corporate Communications, du

In the communications industry, we have always argued that crises are never a matter of ‘if’ but ‘when’.  Unfortunately, the global Covid-19 pandemic has put any question of that argument to rest. No brand, regardless of size or geography, has been immune to the repercussions of the virus. With lockdowns and the subsequent economic fallout, corporations have struggled with not only their bottom lines, but also with their communication on how they are mitigating the ramifications to both an external and internal audience.

If the current situation has taught us anything, it is that it’s imperative that brands prepare for the next crisis. Whether this next crisis is a natural disaster, a collective consumer grievance, or an internal discourse gone public, any crisis may – and in most cases, will – detrimentally affect business operations or brand reputation. That being said, most brands do have a crisis or issues management plan in place; the attention now has to turn to the crisis management skillset of not only the leadership, but of everyone in the organisation’s communications domain as well.

This may seem like a large ask. However, as managing the reputation of an organisation is the prime objective of any communications professional, crisis and issues communications cannot be isolated from this role. The pandemic has shown that the world is, in fact, unpredictable and volatile, and there is almost a desperate need for skilled crisis communications professionals at every level. No longer should this role be associated exclusively with seniority, as the impetus is that all communications professionals should be top-down ‘crisis-ready.’

But how to identify – and ready – the next generation of communications professionals in crisis communications? What steps can be taken to ensure the future communications leaders are truly in the position to manage what they may face tomorrow?

Do background checks

The environment that we were raised in shaped us to whom we are today. Take a moment to consider how much a teacher, a coach, your siblings or your parents have influenced not only your beliefs and character, but how you respond when you find yourself in a bind; consider your experiences as well, and how you reacted to a problem. This is the ‘crème de la crème of crisis training; life, in fact, prepares us well for uncomfortable situations and tests our resolve. The necessity is to identify individuals from the outset who have truly been tried and tested by what life has offered them and to delve deeper into their backgrounds – beyond what any resume or CV can offer.

Give them more (college) credit

Universities and educational institutions must provide a comprehensive theoretical and practical training in crisis communications. The topic is touched upon for communications majors, but its importance requires a course of its own. Moreover, although PR and communications professionals are expected to be knowledgeable in the field, all majors should be required to take it, as crisis management – communications or otherwise – is not a skillset that should be monopolised by one group over another as crises, by their very nature, do not discriminate.

Make it mandatory

Within the organisation, crisis communications training should be made compulsory for everyone. Not only is this to ensure consistency in messaging across the organisation, but as crises evolve to become more complex, crisis communication itself requires approaching these problems with new thinking. To address this, it is important that diverse viewpoints are heard and constructively debated. A training regimen for key employees – if not all – would ensure that differing viewpoints have a platform on which they can be shared.

Warren Buffet famously remarked that “it takes 20 years to build a reputation and 5 minutes to ruin it.” And to prepare for those five crucial minutes, it will require a rethink on how to acquire – and secure – our future crisis communications talent.