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A Crash Course in Crisis Comms

— Robyn Bemment 

I thought I was a dab hand at managing crises for my clients: outages one week, hacking the next.  But I was proven quite wrong at PRWeek’s 10th annual Crisis Communications Conference.  ‘A crisis takes place once in a career or generation’, said Serco’s Director of Comms, Charles Carr.

Carr’s right – what I’m dealing with day-to-day are minor blips, at most.  That becomes strikingly evident when you’re in a room with the likes of TSB, Save the Children, The Co-operative Group and Network Rail, who were responsible for resolving some of the biggest crises in recent years.  But because the average comms professional is sheltered from the world of oil spills, disease outbreaks and horsemeat… oftentimes we’re not prepared to deal with a crisis of that scale when it does take place.

Over the past decade, the news has been rife with crisis-led stories.  We’ve seen organisations like Germanwings emerge, whose speedy, empathetic response to the crash of its A320 plane into the French Alps earlier this year garnered respect from media and customers alike.  And topping the list of ‘what not to do’ is Thomas Cook, whose insensitive response to the death of two children on a vacation in Corfu left most outraged.

So how can organisations get crisis comms right – or so very, very wrong?  On review of the case studies, a few patterns emerge.  Companies that focus on protecting their reputations, as well as growing their business, are best poised to deal with a crisis – such as Apple and it’s bendy iPhone 6 Plus.  Using a spokesperson who shows empathy and gives the organisation a human tone is essential – Nick Varney’s response to the recent accident at Alton Towers is a masterclass in this.  For those that got it wrong (and the list is alarmingly long – Fifa, Tesco, Uber, Sony to name a few), there was a key recurring theme: ethics.  All of these crises brought into question the company’s trust and integrity, and showed it’s not always the operational crisis that causes damage; it’s the response that’s being judged.  I don’t think we’ll forget Tony Hayward’s ‘I’d like my life back’ response to the BP oil spill in a hurry.

During the Crisis Communications Conference, we also got to hear from the media about their experiences working with comms professionals on crisis coverage.  Sky News’ Simon Bucks shared his ‘5 Ps’ of reporting a crisis to help us better understand what finds its way onto the front page:

  1. Psychology of news rooms: Journalistic thinking is often dictated by moral instincts.  If you’re trying to extinguish a potential news cycle, presenting the facts and a good case in a transparent way will serve you well.  For all the stories that do take off, there are thousands that don’t – you can put a journalist off a story by showing its not interesting.
  2. People: News is about heroes and villains – heroes often emerge because they’re open, honest and inherently good people.  Richard Branson is a good case study of this, following the Virgin Galactic crash in 2014.
  3. Practicalities: Today, news is a living, breathing entity.  The concept of deadlines is gone, especially when journalists are competing with social media.  The longer you leave it to comment on a crisis, the more that vacuum will fill up with other people’s content.
  4. Pictures: Needless to say, photos drive stories.  Both negatively, and positively.
  5. Past history: If your organisation went through a crisis a few years back which you thought had been resolved, you can bet those skeletons will get dragged out of the closet when your latest crisis occurs.  There are very few completely original stories.

The bottom line when it comes to working with the media during a crisis is: a good comms professional recognises the needs of a newsroom.  Sometimes a comms person lacks that perspective, which means an apparent non-issue can land at the top of the BBC News homepage.

At the Crisis Communications Conference we heard from a range of comms professionals about their career-defining experiences managing crises for some of the world’s biggest organisations.  I’ve boiled down their lessons learnt to a PR-friendly list of 10.

  1. Choose your battles.  In some instances it will be appropriate to defend your organisation; in others, blame will need to be taken.
  2. An operational crisis may end, but a reputation crisis may continue.  That means your outage may be fixed, or hack may be shut down, but your users will still be angry.
  3. Be prepared – make sure any potential spokespeople have been media trained.  Media training should be used to bring out your spokesperson’s personality; not turn them into a robot.
  4. The impact of social media is even bigger than you think.  The likes of Twitter mean you can’t separate media and customer audiences, and they may end up fuelling each other’s unhappiness.
  5. Attribute written statements!  If your company is going through a crisis, it needs a human face to help win the masses back over.
  6. Table top exercises don’t always reveal your weakest link.  You might think you’ve planned for the apocalypse, but in reality something far, far worse may happen.
  7. Bespoke messaging is key.  The information you’re taking to your customers, partners, stakeholders and media should be tailored to the appropriate audience.
  8. Legacy reputation of an organisation impacts sentiment during a crisis.  Regularly reviewing the business from an external standpoint to assess ethics and business practices will enable an organisation to ensure these are addressed before a crisis hits.
  9. Demonstrate that the comms team is the expert.  By creating good rapport with the media and establishing trust and transparency, they will be more inclined to listen to your counsel on whether a crisis story is worth pursuing.
  10. It’s not all bad news!  Opportunities can be created… if you’re smart about it.  Effective use of a spokesperson can help give the company a human face now, and in the future.