Hyderus and Baird’s CMC specialise in managing risk perception and crises for governments, for companies and for international organisations
Our proprietary methodology has been the subject of press coverage and the focus of international meetings. We have developed it in collaboration with academic partners such as the University of Pretoria and Georgetown University and with commercial partners such as Deloitte
- We use desk research and, if needed, primary research to establish the levels of interest, concern and understanding around the focus areas. Our skills in market research mean that we can do this work discreetly and quickly
- Using this data and a series of internal workshops, we produce a grid that defines each issue and ranks its interest to target audiences, its seriousness for them and its likelihood
- Our clients decide which events are worth preparing for and which are not (we recommend that the events with the most serious consequences and those with the most interest and any serious consequences always be on the list)
- Systems are the most important component of an full set of response tools that should include materials, training in stakeholder relations, development of media skills, specialised skills in working with officials and politicians and an internal mechanism for deciding what to escalate and how
- Very few organisations can accurately and consistently predict the response of key audiences to crises so it is important to use reliable qualitative market research on messaging and planned responses — we have not often found a useful role for quantitative or semi-quantitative responses. Simulations and practice sessions are invaluable but are rarely a substitute for external evaluation of what the client is planning to say and how
- There is sometimes a case for a system of stakeholder advisory boards to advise on issues of concern and on policy options for responding to each. These boards may also offer one of the most valuable resources: independent, expert spokespeople who will communicate the organisation’s messages with an effectiveness that no employee could have
- We establish an internal system of training and knowledge transfer that is designed to be sustainable: we do not believe that any organisation should have a permanent dependence on consultants or external expert resources
- We set up a system of internal and external mentoring and coaching so that those employees who find themselves in a crisis can always have access to both bursts of support and to long-term development partners
- We recommend establishing a system of monitoring, early alerts and continuing assessment. We will help to set up where needed
We do not subscribe to the theories of organisations such as Burson Marsteller that the appropriate response to every situation is to “tell it all and tell it early”. If the public has a low level of understanding and a relatively low-level of underlying concern about a subject, over-communication can be more dangerous than under-communication: “if they are this worried, maybe I should be more worried” may be the natural reaction. A much more sophisticated approach is needed based on testing of scenarios and response options.
There is a vast literature, much of it very recent, on managing risk perception and communications. In 1987, Plough and Krimsky wrote in Science, Technology and Human Values (a publication of Harvard and MIT) that risk communication was, “an organizing theme for a set of diverse but conceptually related problems concerning the political management of public risk perceptions.” Their framework is still valid but much of the theory used by consultants today dates from that era and many of the social psychology experiments used in those theories date back further to the 60s and 70s. The world has, though, changed and is changing faster than academia can keep up.
Mark Chataway, one of our founders, led the group at GMHC in 1983 which produced the first broadly-available messaging on safer sex as a way of preventing the spread of AIDS (GMHC was the largest AIDS-service organisation in the USA at the time and the work was produced by an odd collaboration of Playboy and the state government, amongst others) . Since then there have been hundreds, maybe thousands, of attempts to measure the impact of risk communications on transmission of HIV . The findings are contradictory and some studies have shown little discernible impact on behaviour — for example a very thorough evaluation of a large South African programme by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that awareness was high but, in the words of the Mail & Guardian, there were “few signs …. that this new knowledge [was] prompting the youth to delay sex or reduce the number of sexual partners.”
Our takeaway is that theory is an unreliable guide. Messages need to be tested, crises simulated and responses measured. As social media spreads to a majority of the world’s population, people discuss risks differently and respond to them differently so this practical research needs to be repeated frequently.