01 Aug Crisis Management: Working with Bees
I’m a beekeeper so I’m very comfortable around bees, and I’ve proudly managed to (mostly) avoid getting stung from the two hives in our yard. I attribute this to having a plan and a sense of steadiness around the bees that works the majority of the time. But every once in a while an unexpected miscue sends a bee chasing after me.
Yesterday I walked outside and a bee flew into my hair and tried to sting me. She got trapped in my ponytail — crisis averted. (Well, almost — she had already released her stinger, and so she died.) The first rule of beekeeping: You will get stung. Similarly, a key thing to remember with PR is that you will someday face a crisis or receive negative publicity.
Reverse perspective to take a “bee’s-eye view.” A bee opting to draw out her stinger, electing death over danger, alerts the rest of the hive that something is amiss. If we think of a colony as a community, working in many ways like a company, one bee’s sting works something like a fire alarm going off. The pheromone she releases sends a crisis signal back to the hive, relaying information quickly: Act!
Here are a few ways we can learn from the nature of bees working across a team to respond to a crisis with clear communication:
- Have a solid plan and defined roles. Inside the hive the colony works together to protect the queen, and honey. Outside the hive, a “guard bee” has the job of protecting the hive from intruders. When a crisis occurs, the bees respond appropriately. Similarly, having defined roles in your crisis communications plan is essential. It is also essential that the roles are interlinked and that each member of the team is aware of what the others are doing.
- Keep lines of communication open. She may be queen bee, but that doesn’t mean she has absolute authority. Without consistent signals to the rest of the hive, the queen is in danger of being replaced by the other bees. Clear, consistent communications from the top are essential in a crisis. Leadership must ensure that staff hear from them on a regular basis, or they risk inciting chaos.
- Seek a diversity of input, but reach a consensus quickly. In the spring a healthy colony will swarm and half the bees will leave the hive. As this cluster rests on a tree with the old queen, “scout bees” head out, then return with information about the best place to relocate. There can be differing opinions. One group of bees may want to go one way; one group of bees another. As decisions get worked out, the whole process stalls and the colony can die.
It is natural in a crisis to have differing opinions about the best course of action. Seek good input, but work diligently to continue moving forward. Additionally, build a timeline into your crisis communications plan, along with a decision-making process.
Managing a Crisis: Advice from a Beekeeper
Reflecting on bees draws some other parallels with crisis communications as well. For one, consider the crises bees are having right now. Pesticides, colony collapse disorder and the negative publicity of Africanized bees causing bee-phobia are just a few issues drawing media headlines.
With all that the bees are dealing with, they are surviving, but a beekeeper wants a colony to be thriving. I am not inside the hive; but being outside of it gives me a broader perspective on how to help. Similarly, as public relations professionals, when we work with our clients on crisis communications, we look deep inside an organization, and out, to help it return to a state of excellence. These tips can help regain the balance:
- Be aware of the landscape. As a responsible beekeeper it is important to know about the environmental factors that could harm your bees (i.e. pesticides, skunks). It’s the same with crisis communications; it is important to know where danger could come from, in expected and unexpected ways. While you can’t prepare for or control everything, you can mitigate the bigger risks.
- Monitor the buzz. In times of plenty in a relaxed environment without stress, life runs more smoothly. If the nectar is flowing, you can walk right out into a field of bees and not get stung. When the nectar starts to dry up, the bees can get feisty. I can listen to the “buzz” of my bees and know if something is wrong; you can listen to the buzz of social media. Stay close to the rhythms of your colony and regularly gauge the internal dialogue.
- Honor the honey. Many beekeepers want to get honey. But here’s the second rule of beekeeping: The honey is to feed the bees first. Without enough food, the bees will get agitated, or worse, starve. Similarly, when a crisis happens, feed information to your internal audience first — your employees — before you communicate to your external audiences.
Giving your employees the sustenance of authentic information keeps the stress buzz at bay and results in fewer stings. The sweeter the message, the better — a PR pro can help with the packaging.