We recently had the opportunity to interview crisis readiness expert, Melissa Agnes, regarding the value (or lack thereof) of a crisis communications plan, the role of leadership, the impact of COVID-19, and emerging trends/technologies. Founder and CEO of the Crisis Ready Institute, Melissa Agnes is a recognized leading authority on crisis preparedness, reputation management, and brand protection. Agnes is the creator of the Crisis Ready® Model and author of Crisis Ready: Building an Invincible Brand in an Uncertain World. She is a coveted speaker, commentator, and advisor to some of today's leading organizations faced with the greatest risks.
Elizabeth Venafro: What drives your passion for crisis communications?
Melissa Agnes: Crisis communications is definitely a passion, but I would say it is more about crisis readiness holistically. There are three things -- The first is the good that it does that I get to experience firsthand. Second, it is the idea of building a better and stronger tomorrow. For example, look at this past year where organizations should have been in a better position to lead. It is building towards that. It is getting to see how we can empower people to do better tomorrow, so they are never in that position again. Third, it is extremely challenging. I get challenged everyday and that keeps me on my toes.
Elizabeth Venafro: What is your background? What brought you to this area of work?
Melissa Agnes: I stumbled into it. I have been an entrepreneur since I was 21. I had a business partner and we were focused on digital strategy around the time when brands were starting to get on the social media bandwagon. I remember a specific morning where I was going through my regular routine, reading the news and catching up on the world, and it hit me like a light bulb -- Why is nobody talking about the risk associated with the way in which the world is transforming and evolving? Not just social media, but technology and the real-time news cycle and two-way communication and the fact that consumers now have a platform.
In my mind I thought, if we start talking about this, the risk is easy to mitigate. We just need to give our time and attention to it and the opportunity is so unprecedented. The opportunity for connection. The opportunity of ultimately doing right by the people we serve and getting decent feedback and building those relationships, which translates into reputation and bottom line and brand equity and win, win, win all around.
Up until that point, I had no idea crisis management was a thing. Over the course of the next year, I spent my free time devouring everything I could on the subject matter and getting more and more frustrated at the fact that these experts out there were not talking about how the world was transforming and evolving. I remember turning to my partner and saying, "There's something here, I just don't know exactly what it is yet."
We had just launched a website for one of our clients who was a public company and the VP called me really early one morning to say the media was reporting that one of their buildings was about to explode. Apparently, the rumor started on Twitter and they had no idea what Twitter was, but they heard it was a digital thing. Since we just launched their website and that's digital, they wanted us to help them.
Long story short, within half an hour we had the whole thing corrected. The next day the President of the company called to say, not only had their stock price not gone down since the day before, but it had actually gone up as a direct result of the way we had handled the situation. That was when I realized this was how I could be of value to the world.
I was young and had little experience, but I had a ton of thoughts and a ton of ideas. I decided to have a voice and I started a blog. I dedicated myself to blogging five days a week. I raised some really important questions and created a dialogue around those questions. That led me to some outstanding crisis management professionals who asked me to teach them about the digital world.
Elizabeth Venafro: How does having a solid crisis management plan in place strengthen the value and productivity of an organization?
Melissa Agnes: It's not the crisis management plan that strengthens anything in an organization. My approach has always been different. A crisis management plan, traditionally speaking, is a generic book that checks off some boxes for the leadership team at a very high level. The plan gives them false reassurance that it will have all the solutions to guide them through a crisis.
When COVID-19 hit, anybody who only had that stagnant crisis management plan realized very quickly how little it did to help the organization. It is typically created in a siloed environment and the majority of the organization doesn't even know of its existence, much less what to do when it is time to activate it.
My approach has always been cultural. We talk about crisis ready programs that are integrated into the culture of the organization -- that encompasses mindset, skill set, and capability. The entire organization, regardless of department, needs to understand the key elements and be trained to manage real-time challenges.
The value it provides the organization expands far outside crisis management. It increases efficiency in productivity, improves morale, creates a sense of unity, breaks down cross-departmental silos, creates a culture of communication, creates resiliency within operations, strengthens internal and external relationships, creates a brand that is very connected emotionally to all of its stakeholders, and increases brand equity.
Elizabeth Venafro: What role does the leadership team need to play in crisis readiness?
Melissa Agnes: Because crisis readiness is cultural, culture is led from the top. Leadership sets the tone for culture. Mindset is the lens through which you see any type of challenge. The way you see a challenge is the way your team will be empowered to see that challenge. The way that you invest in their skill set and your own skill set to rise to the occasion when presented with a challenge requires that buy-in and support continuously from leadership.
Elizabeth Venafro: How has COVID-19 impacted crisis readiness? Has remote work changed organizations' approach?
Melissa Agnes: COVID-19 has presented its own set of risks. In addition to impact on business and operations, it poses a higher cybersecurity threat due to more employees working from home. Employees are experiencing burnout and that is a crisis in it of itself. If you lose your ability to operate because you lose your people, that is a crisis.
It has created an opportunity unlike any I have ever seen in my career. For the first time, every single person on this planet understands what crisis is. We have all experienced it individually and collectively as a society. It creates a window of opportunity -- that will fast close. Human tendency is we want to revert to what is good and happy, which is one of the biggest challenges in getting organizations to become crisis ready.
COVID-19 has created an opportunity that makes crisis readiness relatable. For example, we can ask what the first four months of the pandemic were like for your team. What if they weren't like that and were instead like this? Where would you be today? How much stress could you have alleviated for yourself and for your team? It doesn't have to be that way. It takes work, but it is doable.
Elizabeth Venafro: What emerging technologies and trends are you seeing within the crisis readiness space?
Melissa Agnes: Technology is certainly an advantage to be leveraged, understanding both its risks and rewards. Omnilert is a great example of technology that is emerging and creating the ability to strengthen mindset and skill set. We are seeing more and more different types of technology, especially now that more people are understanding what crisis is because they can relate to it.
As far as trends, one of the things I don't like that and want people to be cautious about, is that during COVID-19 everyone sort of claimed to be crisis management experts. The onus that I want to put on that is the responsibility and accountability of the weight of the work we do. Be very careful and mindful of that.
One of the positive trends I am seeing is that communications professionals, especially over the past year, have seen firsthand the challenges and the value of effective communication. Now, I am finding more than ever that communications professionals are raising their hands to say they they want to do better, learn more, and master the skill.