On November 28 at The Red Lion, IABC Ottawa hosted the much-anticipated “Communicating Contentious Issues” Panel event. The event featured a discussion with Phil Taylor, Senior Director, Strategic Communications and Public Affairs at the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, Susan Barrett, Manager, Communications at Hydro Ottawa, and Jessica Smith, Policy Associate at Facebook, moderated by Kelly Rusk, Digital Director and Partner at Banfield. The group responded to many thoughtful audience questions and shared their tips and tricks for communicating tough issues under intense public scrutiny.

Much of the conversation centered on crisis communications.Staying nimble, focusing on the people who matter, and thinking about different ways to communicate were the most memorable themes of the night.

How to stay nimble
There’s no doubt that crisis plans often become burdensome. Forget the big binder, Phil advised. Focus instead on a framework of who needs to be at the table when things go south. Keep the group as small as possible – just the core decision makers: a senior executive, legal counsel, and subject matter expert. Susan echoed this advice, noting the most important thing is to have an established team with clear roles and responsibilities. Prepare high-level holding statements for probable scenarios. These will buy you time to figure out an appropriate response when a real crisis occurs.

Focus on the people who matter
Jessica emphasized the importance of ongoing engagement with stakeholders, so that when a crisis does hit, it won’t be the first time you’re reaching out. She acknowledged Facebook has gone through a year of contentious issues and said that the team only increased engagement. Crises are not the time to bury your head in the sand – they’re when you should double down onyour relationship efforts. Phil agreed that crises are a time to lean in and look for opportunity. He pointed out that challenging situations can allow you to separate the influencers from the crowd, or discover influencers who may not have been on your radar – which can pay dividends down the road. Prioritize engagement with the people who matter, and remember that influence isn’t always about social media followers – look at their job titles, connections, and public commentary as well.

Think about different ways to communicate
The panel discussed several communication methods they’ve found to be effective in crises. Susan talked about the power of images and video when her team dealt with the recent Ottawa-Gatineau tornadoes. These helped customers realize the extent of the damage and the work being done to restore power. While social media was an important channel, she added that you can’t overlook traditional channels like broadcast media when half your customers receive their hydro bills by mail. Jessica suggested Facebook Live as a great way to get your message out and deepen the conversation via partners’ networks. Sometimes, of course, the challenge is more internal. When time is of the essence, Phil recommended putting a short statement on your corporate Twitter channel where employees will see it and retweet. If your leadership is reluctant to break the silence (which says something, in itself), consider giving them a roadmap of the various possible outcomes and options to help them understand the communications process and the bigger picture.

Thanks to everyone who attended the event. Stay tuned for many more events of this calibre in 2019!