Mission Drives Action in Any Crisis

Some Thursday morning thoughts on crisis and issues management.

It’s right there in the first line of Penn State University’s history: “From agricultural college to world-class learning community – the story of The Pennsylvania State University is one of an expanding mission of teaching, research, and public service.”

Nowhere in the description of its mission does Penn State mention football, though some reports have noted that the university’s athletics program’s motto is “Success with Honor.”

This week, even the student protesters on the Penn State campus would be hard pressed to suggest that the university had lived up to its mission of education and public service or that the leaders of its football program understood the role of honor.

Colleges and universities have a special place in society, different from those of most other institutions and organizations. They are communities held together by common purpose and values, and they are meant to be sanctuaries where ideas are tested, thought is emboldened, and moral courage is strengthened. While the demographics of higher education in the United States have changed significantly in the past 65 years or so – from upper class to all classes, from mainly white to a broad spectrum of both Americans and people new to this country, from young to older – there is still a sense of purpose around providing a safe and protected setting where youth can find their path in life.

I think this ultimately is what guided trustees in their decision-making when they fired PSU’s President Graham Spanier and football coach Joe Paterno after learning that a number of athletic program and university officials had, according to reports, failed to act decisively on information that an adjunct member of the football program had allegedly abused young boys.

Many news reports have noted that university officials observed “the letter of the law,” following guidelines for reporting such incidents. But, their failure to understand the higher purpose of their community – to uphold the mission of the school and its athletic program – triggered the crisis and the trustees’ actions.

Whether you work for an institution, a brand or a corporation, your greatest vulnerability in any crisis is what people perceive as your core strength. Failure at the core will always cause more outcry among your public than an issue generated by an outside agent.

The lessons of this week for communicators are to be prepared (the old Scouts’ motto) for crises of mission or core capability and support efforts (perhaps by Human Resources, training, or as a topic for all-employee meetings) to reinforce organizational values, so that everyone understands how to make mission the driver in their day-to-day work.

Is Your Call Center Prepared?

Another issue that made the news this week was the seemingly minor matter of upgrading the Virgin America website, where many customers make, change and check on reservations. The resulting computer issues led to calls to Virgin’s 800-number to resolve reservation problems which resulted in some angry social media accounts of long hold times and hang-ups.

Since the topic for today is being prepared: If your call center was experiencing similar issues, do you know how to record updates on your phone system?

As communicators, we look for every avenue to message to our audiences during crises. We prepare talking points and FAQs and place them online and on Facebook and even YouTube. We update the message on our personal voicemails and the company’s news media line. We make sure every customer-facing employee has a copy and understands how to use them.

But, what if your audience is on hold?

Would your call center managers know how to access the system, remove Muzak or that awful recording of “Your call is important to us. Please hold for the next available operator”?

And what would they say if they could get into the system to record something for all those folks stranded on hold? A prepared statement may sound too canned to someone whose blood pressure is rising after 53 minutes on hold. A well-crafted, conversational message that acknowledges responsibility for the issue and what your company is doing to resolve it – and the long telephone wait times – may, in some cases, be all your audience needs. Even if it doesn’t completely resolve the customer’s issue, getting an update while on hold may put them in a better frame of mind when they do reach a live operator, so that the conversation isn’t full of invective.

Your call centers are important message points for your audience when issues arise. Messaging while on hold is another avenue for communicating issues and alleviating problems.