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Perspectives | Issue

Navigator’s folio of ideas, insights and new ways of thinking

Evolution of a crisis

August 1, 2017
John Ratchford
John Ratchford | Principal & General Counsel
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In an age of chronic disruption, crises have become more common – and complex.

For all of the social media and electronica in our modern lives, human beings and human nature have not fundamentally changed. The mistakes they make—and the reasons they make them—are often the same, time and time again.

However, the way organizations mitigate damage and recover from these mistakes has had to change with the times.

First, the public’s expectations of companies and their actions have never been higher. In addition to providing jobs, performing financially and adhering to high standards of public disclosure, corporations and their leaders are expected to reflect broad social values and community purpose.

Second, it is impossible to contain crises as in the past, because bad news can now have an immediate impact on stakeholders, including competitors and capital markets.

Third, a crisis inflicts internal damage, something that is frequently overlooked. Management teams tend to focus on external pressures, failing to adequately consider the lasting damage inflicted on their own ecosystems. The values they embrace in good times need to be carefully curated in bad times.

A crisis puts organizational values to the ultimate test.

The last few decades have also seen fundamental changes in the way news is distributed and consumed. These changes affect strategic choices when an organization or individual must respond to unwelcome news.

Before the Internet, news stories did not hang around very long, nor were those stories disseminated as widely. Thus, when an individual or organization faced damaging reports, sometimes the best approach was to say very little, choosing instead to focus exclusively on key stakeholders, those who would remember the negative allegations and be concerned. For everyone else, the news would simply disappear once the coverage ended.

Once the Internet came along, audiences around the globe had access to every online news story, with Google ensuring a permanent, searchable record. This demanded a new strategy: Every news story had to have a response. Every allegation had to be answered. The record had to be set straight.

Today, we find ourselves in yet another era, one in which news comes from abundant sources—specialized news aggregators, citizen journalists, social media, online content, blogs and traditional mainstream media. Consumers who “cut the cord” and opt out of cable television do not have access to regular news programming. Instead, they choose which stories to follow and on what platforms.

Many aggregators and news platforms have distinct editorial viewpoints, and they select news that fits that view. In this new universe, consumers have less confidence in traditional journalism, people talk past each other, and the term “fake news” is bandied about. In this atmosphere, it may not always be the best strategy to respond to every reported allegation. It is frequently best to narrowcast messages, which presents the challenging task of determining which news matters and to whom.

Regardless of the many changes, above all, it is critical for organizations and their leaders to demonstrate integrity. That means taking accountability for events and outcomes when things go wrong. Long gone are the days of passing the buck, making excuses or indulging in denial. Leaders who try to dodge the consequences of their actions compromise their ability to recover trust and reputation.

The steps to post-crisis remediation are clear: own the problem, say what you’ve done to address it, pivot to the future and manage internal and, above all, external expectations at every turn.

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About the author:

John Ratchford
John Ratchford | Principal & General Counsel
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John Ratchford is a Principal and General Counsel at Navigator with twenty years’ experience in the practice of law, and providing strategic communications advice. His public and government affairs experience has included serving as Counsel to the Premier of Ontario; Chief of Staff to the Deputy Premier of Ontario; and Campaign Press Secretary to Nova Scotia Premier John Hamm.
At Navigator, John handles public affairs campaigns, crisis communication projects and corporate transactions.
John practised law with a leading law firm in Halifax Nova Scotia, Stewart McKelvey, before coming to Toronto in 2000 to join one of Canada’s largest law firms, Gowlings LLP.
John serves on the board of the Sarcoma Cancer Foundation of Canada, and on the finance and parish committees of St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church in Toronto. He has served on numerous political campaigns, as a member of the boards of directors of the Arthritis Society, the United Way (Halifax), and the Parkinson Society; and on the executives of the St. Francis Xavier University alumni association in Toronto and the PC Party of Nova Scotia.
John received an Honours Bachelor of Arts degree from St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia in 1991 and his LL.B. from the University of New Brunswick in 1994. He was called to the bar in Nova Scotia in 1995 (since retired), and the bar in Ontario in 2000. He is a member of the Law Society of Upper Canada.

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