The Value of Fear

One of the biggest challenges communications professionals face is gaining the attention of senior executives, who face huge pressures every day, from shareholders, boards of directors, government, employees and many others. This means that communication issues can drift down the to-do list.

Individuals who can work autonomously to get things done that help protect, grow and improve their business, without the need for input from senior managers, are rare and extremely fortunate. For nearly everyone else, senior teams need to buy into the work being done by the communications team, and these teams need executive input to ensure that the work being done aligns with the overall priorities of the business. This is especially true in the case of issues or crisis management.

So, how do you get the attention to communications that you need and deserve? One of the best ways is to tap into the highly logical worries and concerns that drive executives. Fear can take many forms, but the most powerful is true adrenaline-fueled, heart-racing fear, driven by concerns about communication missteps around crises.

It has been so for some time, and the trend seems to be accelerating, that Compliance plays a critical role in running business today. This is why it is critical to be able to speak the language of this discipline. Here are a few ideas for how to ‘talk the talk’ of Compliance with people in the executive suite:

  • Provide context – Describe the nature of the risk, the likelihood that it will occur, the potential impact on the company and the length of time that it may affect the business.
    • Be specific, especially as it relates to pounds and pence. For example, ‘risk X could hurt our reputation’ is not good enough. Rather, state that ‘risk X could knock two percentage points of goodwill off our company, resulting in a paper loss of £20 million.’
    •  Offer your assessment – One useful formula is Risk = Threat x Probability.
      • Develop a points-based scale that’s appropriate for your situation. If you establish a 100-point risk scale, for example, you would act on any risk with a score above 90.
        • Illustration: A real, imminent and potentially serious threat would be assigned a Threat Score of 9.5. If the threat is highly likely to occur, it would receive a Probability Score of 10. Threat (9.5) x Probability (10) = 95. With such a high Risk Score, the issue at hand should receive immediate attention.
        • Present your solution – A second helpful formula is Priority = Risk x Control Ability.
          • Building on the illustration, Risk = 9.5 (moving the decimal point simplifies the example).
            • If, by taking action, there is an excellent chance of controlling the Risk, then that score would be 10. Risk (9.5) x Control Ability (10) = 95. With such a high Priority Score, this issue would jump to the head of the queue.

By putting communication plans in the context of a measurable amount of risk and a measurable prioritisation, the odds of getting the focused attention of senior management increases exponentially vs. a general discussion of what might happen and what might be done.

Most people in communications – digital or traditional – did not get into the business because they love numbers. But a little bit of maths, spiced with a modest amount of fear, goes a long way in Compliance and Risk Management, and ultimately, with senior executives.


Robert Hanvik

Approximately half of Robert’s career has been spent at agencies / consultancies, while the remainder has been spent on the client side. He has deep experience in nearly every communications-related discipline, including market development, integrated marketing communications, corporate/mergers & acquisitions, public and media relations, writing/editing, internal communications, government affairs, corporate social responsibility, and digital business. Until December 2010, Robert headed global communications for Smiths Medical, where he was responsible for all internal and external communications, Digital Business, government affairs, and corporate social responsibility (CSR). He led the establishment of government affairs; industry and patient relations activities; and CSR programmes for the business. He also reorganised Digital Business and led the team that automated more than half of the business’ sales (£450 million) via digital means. The team also added more than £9 million in incremental value and reduced budgets by £2.5 million. Previously, he was Managing Director for the fastest-growing office of global communications firm Fleishman-Hillard International, where he also led the creation of a healthcare practice, opening centres of excellence in London, Dublin, Berlin, Tokyo, Shanghai, and six US cities. Robert also held leadership roles at consultancies SGH Communications, Tunheim Group, Colle + McVoy, and Weber Shandwick Worldwide, and served as Head of Global Public Relations for Medtronic, Inc. Robert holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Journalism from the University of St. Thomas (St. Paul, Minnesota), with minors in Business Administration and International Economics. He studied Journalism and Political Science at the London School of Economics, and read Law at William Mitchell College of Law. Robert has travelled extensively; and speaks French, and reads Spanish and Italian. In addition to his role at Creation Healthcare, he also serves as a member of faculty for the World Medical Device Organization (WMDO).