Episode 15:

Brett Bruen of Global Situation Room on Crisis Communications – Part 1

How can crisis actually help your brand? President of the Global Situation Room, former Obama Director talks about crisis in a world where “Risk has gone regular.”


Hey everyone, this is Rudy Fernandez from Creative Outhouse. Thanks for listening. I got a lot out of my conversation with Brett Bruen, President of the Global Situation Room. In fact, we had so much great stuff, we made this two episodes. Brett was the Director of Global Engagement under President Barack Obama. And he’s worked as a diplomat in Africa, the Middle East. And he’s advised on various topics, including national security. So he knows about crises and had some really brilliant ideas to share.

In this first part, we talked about the ever changing world of crisis, or as Brett said, “risk has gone regular”. His ideas about how companies can build up a “reservoir of goodwill” and forgiveability are for me, a whole new angle on crisis and risk management. And his idea that you can actually use a crisis as a chance to communicate or even strengthen your brand, man that’s just great stuff. Anyway, check it out. Welcome to Marketing Upheaval.


Part 1 Transcript 

Rudy Fernandez  1:04 

Welcome to Marketing Upheaval. My guest is Brett Bruen, President of the Global Situation Room. An international consulting firm in Washington DC and Los Angeles. Brett served as the Director of Global Engagement under President Barack Obama, and also spent 12 years as an American diplomat in Africa, Latin America and the Middle East. He teaches at Georgetown and trains senior officials on crisis management. And that’s what we’re going to talk about today. Brad, I really appreciate your time. Thanks for joining me. So here’s the first thing I want to get your thoughts on. As a society, we seem to be in constant state of crisis these days. Obviously, we have access to more information than ever before. But how do you think that affects people in their day to day?

Risk Gone Regular

Brett Bruen  1:47 

Well, I like to say risk has gone regular for private citizens, for organizations and for companies. I think we’ve seen numerous examples in the last few years of how brands have been challenged by upheaval and uncertainty, have been dragged into political, social, economic debates. And you know, my message to those who manage these brands is you know, the reactive days are over you have to prepare more proactively, you have to identify your vulnerabilities, track them, understand that when those indicators start to take up the appropriate responses not wait and see. Because wait and you will see. Instead it is about focusing on putting in place the kind of infrastructure that your company needs around those vulnerabilities.


Reservoirs of Goodwill


We call it “reservoirs of goodwill”. What are those reservoirs you need to fill in order to have the right relationships, the right partnerships, the right tools, so that when that vulnerability is exploited…And let me just give you an example, if I’m Chipotle it shouldn’t be a surprised that this is an area that I have to be ready to respond to. And what was interesting I found was that it took Chipotle months to get to a point where as a consumer, I finally got in the mail certificate for a free burrito. Well, that’s something we call a countermeasure. And you could have prepared that campaign ahead of time, you could have put in place all of the pieces, all of the research, the fact sheets, the elements that were required to roll something like that out, even if you don’t know where, when or how that vulnerability would be exploited.


Rudy Fernandez  3:53 

I love the term reservoirs of goodwill. I mean, that’s fantastic. I think it lets leaders know that you have to constantly work to build your reputation. I love that term.


Brett Bruen  4:04 

I think that’s that’s our term. And we work with one of our advisors who was chief of staff to Princess Diana. He calls it forgiveability and points out that Princess Di was far from a perfect person. But strategically he and others on her team worked to create that appearance of authenticity. And I think, you know, pretty effectively, So, interestingly, brands are also forgivable or not. Apple was able to tell the FBI in the midst of a terrorism investigation in San Bernardino to essentially go take a hike. Whereas Microsoft, a company that goes to great lengths to work against hackers and cyber vulnerabilities was really taken to task in the Wannacry, global hacking and didn’t enjoy that same level of forgiveability.


Rudy Fernandez  5:00 

Okay, so then how does a company or really any brand, create that forgive ability?


Brett Bruen  5:05 

One of the points that we make to companies is your forgiveability, your authenticity is something that has to be built up over time. It comes from identifying and having an honest reflection of what are your weaker points? How can you ensure that your engagements whether it’s your corporate social responsibility, work your messaging on a day to day basis, both, you know, marketing, from your executives, from public relations all helps to reinforce those reservoirs of goodwill, and you can lean on them when those vulnerabilities are exploited.


Rudy Fernandez  5:47 

So then what’s a good example you think,

Amplifiers, Ambassadors and Validators

Brett Bruen  5:49 

You know, for instance, if I’m a company and I know ahead of time, let’s just take the airlines for example, that there have been a number of problems with over-booking. With pulling passengers of certain religions or certain physical descriptions off planes, I ought to make sure that I have the right relationships in place ahead of time that I get home. My fact sheets that I have, my amplifiers and my ambassadors and validators, who can speak on behalf of, for instance, Adam Saleh was a passenger on a Delta plane in London who was pulled off from a plane for allegedly speaking Arabic and he had a rather large YouTube following, and he videotaped this whole incident. And meanwhile, delta is struggling to respond, puts out a very short statement saying we’re essentially looking into the matter. But meanwhile, his video is playing again and again going viral on social media. So no matter how much Delta may have the facts on their side, he’s got that video. So why is it company are you not looking ahead of time about how to tell your story story in an emotional way that will resonate, “we’re looking into this matter”. But here’s what we can tell you about what we do with Muslim communities. with Muslim passengers, employees organizations around the world. Delta just wasn’t ready to have that conversation.


Crisis Communications Infrastructure

Rudy Fernandez  7:15 

Okay, then then let me ask you this, because these sorts of things hit really quickly. And in that moment, there’s a lot of ambiguity in the information that a company or a politician or even the general public receive. So then how do you balance getting a statement out immediately, with the chance that your spokesperson may have to backtrack later because some of the information is thought?


Brett Bruen  7:38 

Well, I think this is where putting in place this concept of infrastructure, I may not have all of the facts. But if I have the right infrastructure in place, I don’t have to come to the table necessarily with a full description of the events that have just transpired. Instead, I can say we are looking into the incident however, and this is where we use, you know, my preferred practice in these kinds of situations. Let’s zoom this out. Let’s talk about what are the standard practices for our company for our employees in these situations? What kind of training? What kind of preparation do we do? What are some of the other examples of where we have on a daily basis, engaged appropriately, effectively, compassionately in these circumstances.

So use this incident, as an opportunity to educate. Use it as an opportunity to, as I thought Airbnb did effectively, around the concerns that were raised when certain members of their community were not accepting certain guests of because allegedly for racial discrimination. Well, Airbnb, actually seized that moment and said, these are the values for which we stand as an organization. If you don’t share them, you’re not part of our organization. That – again, they’re looking into the matter. They will certainly bring to light any of those findings.


Purpose and Authentic Communications

But what’s more important is to reinforce from that very first moment, who are you what do you stand for? I think a lot of organizations a lot of companies tend to batten down the hatches, say as little as possible and often let that statement or just a B-roll of the exterior of their headquarters speak for the company. But as I was saying earlier, crises are experienced emotionally and if you are not delivering in a message that has some emotional resonance to it, that is not that kind of direct, authentic communications. You will find even if you ultimately are proven correct or you’re exonerated, you will suffer the branding costs of it. Your executives being able to go out and to fully engage? You know, I often say if you’re not telling your story in a crisis, someone else is. So how do you ensure that your CEO, that your other team members are able to get out there in the midst of adversity and have an authentic, effective conversation?


Rudy Fernandez  10:21 

Yeah, I’ve heard you say that before in a talk. And I love that the fact that clients like to show a building in a crisis. It’s hilarious. Unfortunately, it’s also true.

Making an Emotional Connection

Brett Bruen  10:30 

It’s true, because what do we see amidst crises most often, whether it’s on the TV or even, you know, in print and online, it’s this photo, the video of a building of maybe a product of some graphic, that it’s not going to have an emotional connection and why are you as a communications expert, not helping to put in place ahead of time that kind of interests structure that the video that takes people in and shows them your process. I mean, that’s the kind of B-roll if I’m sitting at a TV network, I’d love to have that would help to tell the story of what’s happening rather than just the exterior of your building or a photo of your product. So let’s prepare those things ahead of time. Let’s talk about how do we tell a visual story of our company in crisis.


Rudy Fernandez  11:29 

Thanks for saying that. And all apologies to clients past and present who – there have been times when we’ve had to put a photo or a video of a building and a piece of communication to human beings.


Brett Bruen  11:40 

It’s probably one of their more significant expenses. But at the same time, and I come back to this point again and again, hopefully so it will sink in the emotional element of crisis. And it is easy to be angry at a building. It’s easy to be angry at a logo or at somebody’s title. It’s a lot harder to be angry at a person, especially a person who is making an effort to authentically communicate, not to deliver some prepared remarks from a podium, but to authentically communicate with the consumers, the public and the press. That’s the kind of executive that I want to see out in the moments of crisis, as we have witnessed so many times when done well.

I remember this example from Kellogg’s there was an employee on the Kellogg’s Rice Krispy line, who chose to urinate on the Rice Krispies. And, you know, obviously, a really critical moment for Kellogg’s and the company CEO came out and he didn’t just, you know, say I’m upset. He didn’t just say, you know, we’re going to resolve this. He used the kinds of adjectives you use the kind of emotion that really gets people fired up. And that’s what I want to see from executives. You know, we’re talking so much these days about how companies are being dragged into political debates, social debates, the business roundtables now put purpose on par with profits for the objectives of corporate management. Well, I would say we’re also seeing an agent, which, especially large corporations, but even down to medium and small corporations no longer have the luxury of standing behind their desk and trying to speak to the world. You have to get out there. You have to roll up your sleeves, you have to become an effective communicator, both on your company, especially in moments of crisis, and as well as some of these political and social hot button issues.

CEOs on Display

Rudy Fernandez  13:54 

Yeah, I love that idea of getting those CEOs and other leaders out into the world. So people get to know them. I think that’s especially important because it puts it in their mind that they’re under a microscope. They’re constantly being watched for their positions, their opinions, their behavior. And nowadays, I mean, CEOs, even their personal lives are on display all the time.


Brett Bruen  14:16 

Oh, absolutely. And we’re seeing countless examples of the former CEO now of Wework. They were heading towards an initial public offering, had some of those experiences. His flight carrying marijuana into Israel raised questions about his judgment. Obviously, in the case of Uber, Travis, the former CEO having the video of his confrontation in an Uber Black car on 24/7, anyone who has a cell phone with a camera can capture whether it’s an executive, any employee at that company, and how are we ready in those moments when somebody says something, does something they shouldn’t to again, reinforce: That doesn’t represent who we are as a company. And let’s take this moment to have that conversation about our values about who we are and what we do.


Crisis Management Plans

Rudy Fernandez  15:09 

So then how should leaders look differently on crisis management? Differently than they have in the past, let’s say?


Brett Bruen  15:15 

Well, I think first and foremost, crisis management is something that is no longer dependent on your plan, your process, even the practice that has become so popular, you must have both internal and as well as external capability that is constant. It is not enough any longer. And I’ve done hundreds of pages of crisis management preparations for large multinational companies, but it sits on the shelf in the moment of crisis. I’ve done the practices where in simulations where people gather around – half the time they’re checking their cell phone and checked out the exercise. We’ve got to get to the point where we are one preparing our staff, not just for that moment of crisis, but for the moment when we’re starting to see the problems percolate up. To track those risk indicators to modify as technology is trends of all these countermeasures, the infrastructure that we’re going to use to respond because if you built a great crises plan last year, it may not necessarily be relevant or ready for this year. So you want to ensure that your team, your outside consultants are able to provide you that updated support because we’re living unfortunately, in times where change is constant.

One of the points that I take from the ancient Chinese wisdom is if you look at Mandarin, there are two symbols for crisis im Mandarin. One is danger. And the other one is opportunity. And we really do need to change how we look at crises because well certainly, it is important to survive, it is important to try to minimize or mitigate damage. We also were witnessing so many times when the next evolution in your industry in your company comes amidst of that uncertainty and that upheaval, so how can you as a company, be ready to seize that next moment to use the crisis perhaps as as a growth strategy and in ways that if you are prepared to seize it, if you aren’t hiding under your table, you’re going to be able to get out there and move your company forward, move your industry forward. And I think at the end of the day, thrive in the wake of crisis.


Addressing Mistakes

Rudy Fernandez  17:42 

Yeah, I was actually talking to a CEO a few weeks ago, and he was telling me that nothing makes your brand stronger than when you make mistake and then address it, correct it and apologize. But I love this idea that a crisis, just by putting your brand out into the news and social media suddenly gives you a platform to promote your values and your brand. And that, to me, that’s a whole new way of looking at crisis as an opportunity. And of course, it isn’t a revenue generator. But certainly you could make the argument that a crisis is something that can deplete your revenue pretty quickly if you’re not prepared.


Brett Bruen  18:18 

It is. And you know, there’s often this conversation internally at companies about how much should we spend on crisis communications. And I always point out that, you know, the price of crisis is so much more than the relatively small amount that you would spend, not just on, again, that one-off training or crisis playbook, but that constant vigilance and the ability to develop capabilities within your team. I’ve given talks at the International Contract Managers Association about how you could transform contracts in into a mechanism, because that contractor is often the weakest link in your organization. Well imagine if all of the sudden in that contract you had some of those risk indicators built in, you insisted that they develop countermeasures and infrastructure for potential vulnerabilities. And now all of a sudden, your weakest link has been turned into one of your strongest.

Crisis Response

How do you do that throughout your organization? How do you ensure that from the middle levels even down to the lowest levels where these problems are first identified, your building capability not just training them on crisis response. This is what I do not get about crisis management 101. It is predicated on the idea that the knowledge comes from the C-suite and then filters down and yet the problems often come from the factory floor and work their way up and people are reluctant to speak up about issues that they have it identified when they’re not empowered when they don’t feel like they understand that the tools are the response. And that’s why I really advocate this inclusive process of building with your team, the infrastructure and countermeasures for those crises because your team will understand better what they should look for, how that crisis response works, and then ultimately, I think be more likely to identify problems, more willing to identify those problems.


Rudy Fernandez  20:30 

I think that’s a great point that so often crisis is handled top down, but really, they almost always come from the bottom up. Let me ask you something going back to we’re talking about a crisis and how it gives you a chance to communicate your values. What do you think of companies who are taking a broader view on issues, so for example, Salesforce, they pulled out in North Carolina because of the state’s I guess they call it some religious freedom or really anti LGBTQ laws. Then they threatened to pull out of Georgia for the same reason. These days, you know, employees, customers, they’re demanding that corporations take the stance. So then how do you advise brands, who are taking a broader view on social issues, to prepare for what might come in terms of a crisis?

Public Affairs & Social Issues

Brett Bruen  21:18 

You know, as these political, social, even international issues have increasingly come to the fore, you don’t have a great deal of capability within most companies for engaging effectively in those conversations. Sure, you’ve got your Government Relations team, you have your Public Affairs team, but they don’t necessarily have the expertise on on some of the social, political, international issues. I’ve advocated before, especially when it comes to, you know, some of these more complex issues that companies need to create that capability within the company to think about not just, you know, “How do we have influence over Congress?” Or “How do we affect the public debate on this”, but “Where do we need to have, whether it is a diplomatic capability, whether it’s a social engagement capability” that goes beyond just the limits of our public affairs for government relations team?


Rudy Fernandez  22:22 

Yeah, it seems like a tough thing to have an ongoing crisis management team and a company engaged but that would be one way to do it to make sure they’re engaged in all the social issues as a company.


So that was Part 1 with Brett Bruen. Don’t miss Part 2, and thanks for listening to Marketing Upheaval from Creative Outhouse. If you want to learn more about the Global Situation Room, visit Globalsitroom.com or follow Brett on Twitter for his insights on the latest events. For show notes, previous episodes and previous to upcoming episodes, visit www.creativeouthouse.com/podcast. And if you liked this podcast, get on your favorite podcast app and give us five stars. Subscribe and share it with your friends. Our producer is Susan Cooper. Special thanks to Gopal Swami at Acoustech Music for creating our earcon and to Jason Shablik for his audio advice. And in this episode, thanks to Jack D’Amanto for helping us get Brett on the show. Thank you, Jack. Well, that’s it for this episode of Marketing Upheaval. And remember if the current state of marketing has got you confused, don’t worry. It’ll all change. See ya.


Transcribed by https://otter.ai

Podcast credits:

Host: Rudy Fernandez

Producer and Cover Art: Susan Cooper

Earcon sound design: Gopal Swamy

Audio Consultant: Jason Shablik

Post production provided by: Music Radio Creative

Hosting provided by: Buzzsprout

Transcripts by: https://otter.ai