Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The Communications Bull Pen: Crisis Communicators

Every industry and every sector of society seems to have a language all its own.  As I watch the Pittsburgh Pirates compete for a playoff spot for the first time in 20 years, not only have I thought recently about the language of baseball, but more to the point, the language surrounding its crisis managers.

No, I’m not talking about Alex Rodriguez.  I’m talking about the bull pen.

Every team has a group of pitchers who start the game (the “starters”) and usually try to complete the first six or seven innings.  At that point, their arms get tired enough that it’s time to bring in someone with a fresh arm who is only supposed to pitch for a brief time to turn the game around or “save” it for the starter and put another win in the column.  Those pitchers are the “bull pen.”

The Pirates have an exceptional bull pen this year.  They’ve been able to come into some tense situations and diffuse them with precisely placed fast balls, cutters and breaking balls.  Bases loaded and no outs with the Pirates up by just one run?  No problem.  Just put Jason Grilli or Mark Melancon on the mound to work their magic, which usually is quick outs, preferably strikeouts.

In a baseball game, a crisis is when the other team scores, when it puts a lot of players on base, and your team is having trouble getting them out.  That’s the defensive kind.

The offensive kind (in more ways than one) is when the other team is effectively preventing yours from scoring.

To diffuse a crisis of a defensive nature, you need a good pitcher.  Sometimes it helps if the pitcher is left-handed or right-handed, depending on how difficult that can make it for batters to hit pitches.

You need a pitcher who can quickly assess the situation and knows what can happen if he loses control.  He has to know in advance what he will do once events start to quickly unfold.  And he has to have a back-up plan in mind.  All of this must go through the minds of bull pen pitchers, otherwise known as “relievers,” before every pitch. 

But once he’s considered all of the possibilities, he has to act quickly and act decisively.  Know the pitch and deliver it. Strike one!   And then repeat the entire mental gymnastics process once again before sending the next pitch towards home plate.

Baseball relievers are a lot like crisis communicators.  We have to consider the possibilities, know what can happen and we must anticipate. We must know what messages we must send, how to deliver them and we need to do it quickly and decisively.  Just as a pitcher needs to know which pitch will work best against each batter, we must know what communications strategies, tactics and media will help us best connect with each audience.

At the end of the day, it’s not a far off metaphor – crisis communicators as the public relations bull pen.  The good thing, though about PR, is it doesn’t matter if you’re left-handed or right-handed.

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