A conversation with Alan Hilburg
During his thirty year career, Alan Hilburg has pioneered branding, employee engagement organisational behaviour and organisation transitions specifically around crises and litigation. He has also created software to measure distrust, employee disengagement and decision cultures. Recently he worked with Hong Kong PR Network to discuss the elevation of strategic communications into business relevance. This event was sponsored by VMAGROUP and Alan spoke with Fiona Housiaux, VMAGROUP’s global head of marketing, to discuss his career, the communications industry and some hard earned wisdom.
FH: Alan, thanks for taking the time to talk with me, for those that are interested in entering into a career in crisis communications, can you tell me how your own career evolved?
AH: Crisis communications is never about the crisis, it's always about the opportunity the crisis presents. Secondly, crisis management is different from crisis communications. Crisis management is more of a business function and is rooted in the question, "In a crisis, what's at risk?" The three part answer is: business continuity, protecting brand trust and protecting leadership, particularly their decision culture. That decision culture is embedded in each company's values.
From the perspective of what professional qualities are necessary, I would suggest these four:
- quiet authority
- seeing beyond the obvious
- confidence and patience
- ability to think and move decisively
FH: Your career has spanned four decades, what do you think have been the biggest changes/challenges for the communications industry?
AH: Moving from being a cost centre to being a profit centre. That journey is rooted in migrating communications from being about communications to the role communications plays in business decisions. Communications is an integrated business function, contributing to the overall success of a business by helping various organizational assets be even more effective in connecting and influencing 'their' stakeholders. Communication officers and teams are the stewards of brand trust. Elevating integrated communications into a core business competency is a challenging journey, however it is an essential ingredient in companies that aspire to be most admired, respected and trusted.
FH: The home page of Hilburg Associates reads ‘S*&t Happens’, as a pioneer in crisis resolution what do think companies today underestimate when it comes to communicating to their audience/s? And why?
AH: There are three primary reasons. First, it is very hard for senior leadership to acknowledge to their board of directors that "S*&t happens." No CEO, when being interviewed by a Board of Directors is asked, "tell about the last crisis you handled?" However, at the same time, no one likes surprises.
While crisis management and mitigation accepts that, the world's smartest leadership teams are tirelessly striving to avoid the negative impact of that reality by investing expenditures in what every company does well...forecasting. Crisis forecasting tools allow companies and brands to identify the 'black swan' events that can erode marketplace trust. We use three crisis avoidance digital platforms (TrustMetrics, RIPAL and the VUCA Index) as 'crystal balls' of sorts to be able to project worst case and often unthinkable scenarios and prepare to mitigate them. Secondly, "underestimation" is a series risk within organizations and is a symptom of a corporate cultural deficiency that doesn't promote 'speaking truth to power." When boldness is rewarded, unthinkable becomes thinkable and then mitigatable. And lastly, there are ten fundamental flaws that CEOS and leadership teams repeatedly make in some combination that are all avoidable. One step to eliminate these leadership flaws in to ensure that the most senior comms executive are seen as an essential 'voice' on the ExCo.
FH: VMA Group has recently launched a survey on the CEO perception of the importance of the communications function, and on that thread what are the most common mistakes that CEOs make when it comes to strategic communications or lack thereof?
AH: Not sure what the results were. However, if they are similar to what we see in North and South America and EMEA, there are three key avoidable mistakes.
First, failure to recognize that communications is not about writing and speaking, it's about getting stakeholders to listen. Second, understanding the three key pathways for converting stakeholders from hearers to listeners because only those who are listening are predisposed to have their attitudes, preferences and choices changed. And last, always communicate through the ears and heart of the stakeholder.
FH: They say that ‘hindsight is a wonderful thing’, what are the most valuable lessons you’ve learnt over your career?
- I’m not that smart, but I have really good ears. What we are often a reflection of the best we’ve heard others say. I’m not that smart, but I have really good eyes. What we are often is a reflection of the best we’ve seen of how others act. I'm not smart, but I understand my stupidity
- It is your inside decisions more than outside conditions that determine your success
- No person was ever honoured for what he received. Honour has been the reward for what he gave
- Small random acts of kindness suggest that you have not lived today until you have done something for someone who can never repay you
- There's a world out there, and you've got to look at both sides of the mountain in your lifetime
- Failure is not falling down...it's staying down
- Look at life through the windshield, not the rear-view mirror
FH: Why do you feel that businesses view communications or the wider marketing function are seen as a necessary cost rather than a much needed resource?
AH: There are many reasons. One of the most glaring is that communication professionals don't understand the business of business. When they offer advice it is communication advice, not business advice. There are a number of steps one can take to remedy this.
FH: What has been your ultimate ‘light bulb’ moment?
AH: When I realized that when you are on the stage you are an actor, with a script and role. When you can be behind the scenes you are the director, influencing everything that is going on stage. Lesson: live an egoless life and let your conscience and values guide every decision you make every day. In end, it's more important to be valued for who you are than what you know or what you do.
FH: Thanks for your time Alan.
AH: You're welcome, it was my pleasure.