CR Leaders Corner: Doug Hawkins

Using Strategic Engagement to Defuse Crises – An Interview with Doug Hawkins, Vice President, Public Affairs & Policy,  Pfizer Nutrition

Managing external issues in complex, global companies can be like a crash course in diplomatic relations.  When these issues come up unexpectedly and worse, when several occur simultaneously, they present challenges that can rattle even the most experienced managers.

Working on the firing line of multinational companies, startups, and at the United Nations for more than 20 years has taught me more about crisis management than perhaps I’d like to know. I’ve learned that leading in public affairs requires substantial self awareness,  discernment and diplomatic finesse.  Navigating diplomatic snafus and wending one’s way through a public affairs crisis require some of the same approaches.  Here are the top five strategies that have worked for me.

1) Distinguish a crisis from a routine complaint: Being able to identify what is really a crisis amid a flood of day-to-day complaints makes all the difference.  When I first transitioned from pharmaceutical public affairs to managing a consumer products portfolio,  it was jarring  to experience the much faster cadence at which issues were occurring.   At first, we had no way to effectively triage crises, so daily product inquiries were addressed the same way as major issues. We also lacked a deep understanding of how the political climate and cultural mores in each market were affecting whether and how quickly an issue might escalate. This created a huge distraction to the business, slowed down our response time, consumed valuable resources, and allowed sometimes important issues to escalate.  To focus our attention on the most pressing issues quickly, we created a process through which we had our communications team manage the day-to-day inquiries and our public affairs group manage the crises.

2) Get to the bottom of a problem before you act: Early in my career, I tried to enlist dozens of national governments to start using a new electronic system for international patent applications.  One stakeholder resisted implementation at every turn, and caused a lot of disruption to the project.  Only when I visited the office and probed the concerns over several days did I discover that the real underlying challenge was not fear of technology or change in rules, but that the project would make the stakeholder’s job obsolete.  Once I knew that, I was able to develop a strategy to tackle the concerns effectively.  I spelled out their office’s role administering the new system, and how increased efficiency would allow them to focus on improving the quality of the patent applications. While it’s not always possible to gain this amount of in-depth insight in every situation, if you can figure out what the motivations are (they can be surprising) you are well on the way to finding a solution that will keep you out of harm’s way.

3) Crowdsource within your company:  Make sure you regularly connect with your people, especially regional leads who can act as a gateway and filter for threats in local markets.   Crowdsource the issue by setting up communication platforms, like secure wikis, that flatten the organization across regions and markets. I’ve learned that the wisdom of the crowd is something that shouldn’t be ignored, especially when managing unfamiliar or complex issues in far-flung markets. In several potentially disastrous situations, I’ve achieved positive outcomes by seeking the expertise of our employees, having instant access to fresh ideas, and quickly educating myself on the local context.

4) Rely on those closest to the fire: It still amazes me how management from headquarters insists on being the face of a crisis in some remote market.  Avoid the temptation to be a superhero, and enlist the help and expertise of competent local staff.  Working at the UN taught me the complexities of culture and the inherent advantage of identifying and sending well-prepped local staff to meet with government officials and stakeholder groups.  You are only as good as the team you have assembled. Even if you have to give your people on the ground a crash course in crisis management, experience shows they will almost always obtain a better result than if you go in yourself.  Always take a step back and ask, “Who will likely be able to deliver the best outcome?”

5) Form alliances before the crisis hits:  Continuously develop and maintain your relationships with governments, associations and key stakeholders so that you’re not scrambling to establish credibility at the outbreak of a crisis.  Make sure your corporate responsibility strategies and initiatives demonstrate that you have been listening to the issues that are important to your key stakeholders – and that you have been successful in engaging with them to solve critical problems.   Since emerging markets are quite important to our portfolio at Pfizer, we organized a company-wide initiative to align our corporate responsibility efforts around achieving the UN Millennium Development Goals.  Ask yourself, “Have we articulated the value our organization provides to all stakeholders?”   Having engaged with stakeholders and established strong relationships prior to a crisis situation is always extremely beneficial. It gives you an opportunity to build on a foundation of mutual respect and support.

In sum, success in crisis management depends on clear strategies that help you identify the most immediate threats, understand what drives the issue, harness the capabilities of your team, and engage with allies so you’re never fighting a battle alone.  Fairly basic principles that nevertheless require advance preparation and end up being worth their weight in gold during a crisis.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Pfizer, Inc.

Read more CR Leader interviews here.