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  • Writer's pictureTom Butler

2020: A Year in Crisis That Could Fool Nostradamus

Wed., Jan. 20, 2021

A few weeks back, I got curious: What were the French mystic Michel de Nostradamus’ predictions for 2020? Each year, there’s generally a new documentary presenting his vague predictions 500 years ago of cataclysmic events that would unfold in our present day.

Given the sheer number and magnitude of 2020’s global emergency events, pinpointing at least some of what the globe is presently dealing with should’ve been a no-brainer for someone with his visions. While interesting, the articles and videos I found were nothing more than so-called “news items” from unrecognized sources, mostly seeking to bend 500-year-old predictions to support an agenda or conspiracy theory they’re peddling.

As the year concludes, it’s human nature to wonder if he—or anyone else—did and could foresee what’s going on. It’s abundantly clear that America’s people, government, businesses and non-profit organizations feel claustrophobic, trapped and victimized by the COVID-19 crisis and all it has wrought. It’s a crisis bubble under which much of our society is trapped and against which many feel powerless, with many organizations and their leaders being pushed to the limit.

For my industry colleagues, specializing in crisis communications, we’re all quite used to—and adept at—managing corporate reputations and the playbook of public actions to take, when serious trouble strikes.

For leaders of business or even government, periods of stress and trouble can be an opportune time to demonstrate true leadership qualities that will matter most and stand out when we eventually emerge from the health and economic crisis.

This article is featured in O'Dwyer's Jan. '21 Crisis Communications & PR Buyer's Guide Magazine

Steering through a crisis or two

Long ago, I believed I knew a fair amount about this. In the first dozen years of my PR career, I’d worked on crisis control and messaging matters pertaining to countless high-profile litigations, federal investigations, prosecutions, RICO cases, mergers and acquisitions, new product rollouts and even the painful events of the World Trade Center terrorist attack, as spokesperson for New York City’s Firefighters union, as that department lost 343 brave souls on 9/11, while effectuating the largest civilian evacuation on U.S. soil.

While generally considered one event, the New York terror attacks were, in fact, two coordinated strikes, albeit at sites adjacent to each other. As an organizational leader preparing your team to be game-ready, consider what that city’s first responder manpower and preparedness capability might’ve been if two simultaneous terror attacks were not located together. Like a tsunami, it would’ve likely overwhelmed the resources at hand.

A long-time client, who led a $13 billion pension fund but also had a para-military background, would always preach—to his team and in the bylined articles on which would collaborate—the need for organizations and their leaders to always be ready, prepared and capable to effectively manage the potential for two simultaneous crises. To him, this was a real scenario. 2020 is the proving ground.

The 16 years working regularly with this client, a highly adept field general, was perhaps much better guidance and game day preparedness for managing a 2020-styled crisis or even the most telling of Nostradamus’ poetic quatrain predictions.

For our agency, which is used to guiding clients through major crisis situations and pivoting to a positive reemergence, I’d estimate we were tasked with no less than 15 dire business and reputational crisis situations over the pandemic period. We likely offered counsel to a dozen more.

Such a rising tide for emergency reputational and communications guidance illustrates the pressure cooker that business and organizational leaders were forced into this past year.

Last January, when life was simpler, a noted clinician came to us to address an attack by a newbie freelance journalist with an agenda. Our client, advised by prior counsel that he had nothing to lose by taking the interview, had by then recognized his reputation and business were at stake.

With our guidance, the half-baked story withered on the vine, allowing for a rapid pivot to proactively build the client’s brand instead. Those were simpler times.

Before the ides of March

Right before Fauci became a single-name phenom, like Cher, Sting or Bono, the Butler team was immediately activated on the communication front lines, with two prominent medical first responder groups.

In early March, the FDNY Emergency Medical Service union, with the New York State Nurses Association, organized a major media briefing for the New York and national press corps, to present concerns of insufficient staffing, preparation, safety precautions and personal protective equipment should the virus medical crisis truly take root. Their prophecies all came to pass.

Only days earlier, our firm had also been activated by a regional micro-brewery whose staff member was among the region’s first positive cases, with their county health department’s public disclosure only hours away and media conjecture at a frenzy.

As we researched, trained and prepared that client’s public remarks, our agency was simultaneously tasked with announcing New York City’s first medical first responder to become infected with the insidious virus. That client, the EMS, wanted to get the news out to communicate the dangerous nature of being front line workers, in a push for better resources to protect lives.

As news cycles boom and bust, the EMS announcement thankfully quenched much of media’s appetite for the brewery virus story. That consumer brand’s crisis, while still needing to be addressed, was relegated to second-tier news in a media market of over 15 million consumers. For competitive PR folks, and for both clients, this was the best positive outcome.

As the crisis field generals managing the message of two important news events, we passed the test, successfully effectuating simultaneous crisis situations, in one case elevating the news and the other deflating it, as the media’s hunt for news of the growing contagion was taking over news cycles.

Who could have expected that we would now be in 2021 looking back in this manner?

In a major crisis, organizational leaders can certainly crack under intense stress and pressure, and yes, lose their capacity to effectively function and provide the vision expected of them under normal circumstances.

That is why the skill and capacity of the leaders of our industry, adept and trusted in crisis communications, will continue to be in demand. This industry’s capability to demonstrate talent and courage under fire, in these uncertain times, will help write the history for how the story of 2020 will be recorded and recollected for centuries to come. Let’s look ahead and look forward to a dynamic 2021.


Thomas P. Butler is President of Butler Associates Strategic Communications.

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