Lessons in crisis management, from #prwcrisis 2015

#prwcrisis 2015

Last Thursday, Polpeo ran a crisis simulation at PR Week’s Crisis Communications conference. We were in good company. There were some very inspiring and thought-provoking speakers, talking candidly about their experience of crisis, including representatives from Network Rail, Serco, TSB, Oxfam, Sky News, The Co-Op Group, and General Motors, as well as some of the top thinkers in crisis communications from the agency world. Here are 10 lessons in crisis communications that I took away from the conference.

1. Don’t just look at the potential crisis. Look at the social agenda around the crisis, as Charles Carr, Divisional Communications Director of Serco, said. Serco learned this the hard way when it announced 36 (a relatively small number) of job losses in Scotland. In the south-east of England, that might not have made a big impact on the news. But in Scotland – and particularly the islands – it was huge.

2. The most damaging crises are those that are people-based. (This is certainly what our crisis simulation focused on – how to deal with a rogue employee.)  Jonathan Hemus, Managing Director of crisis specialist consultancy, Insignia (a firm that Polpeo has worked with many times), looked at the case of GSK, found guilty of bribery in China and fined around $490 million. As Hemus said: “No-one wants to believe that their CEO is corrupt, but that is the situation that could do the most harm to your business.”

3. Get strong, independent legal support. There was much discussion through the day of the role of legal advice in a crisis, both positive and negative. Andrew Griffin, Chief Executive of Regester Larkin made the point that just because something is legal, it doesn’t protect you from a crisis, citing the various tax avoidance scandals and quoting Margaret Hodge: “We’re not accusing you of being illegal, we’re accusing you of being immoral.”

4. Reconsider the ‘S’ word. More than one company talked about overruling in-house legal advice against saying sorry in the wake of a crisis, believing that the reputational damage caused by not saying sorry far outweighed the legal risk of doing so. It’s an issue that comes up in almost every simulation we run, and we’ll be looking into it in more depth in a future post.

5. If your crisis has set you against your company values, you’ll take even more of a hammering. Russell Brady, Head of Group Public Relations, The Co-operative Group, told the conference: “If you set yourself up as the trusted ethical company, and you don’t live up to that, you have to expect the punishment you get back.”

6. Remember that your company spokesperson, media trained as they are, may not be the official voice in your crisis. We heard from Tomas Matesanz, Head of Communications and Public Affairs for Cruise Lines International Association Europe, who spoke of the legacy of the Costa Concordia disaster; and Jonathan Levy, Global Business and Communications Director for Clipper Ventures, who experienced the near tragedy of a man overboard on the Clipper round the world yacht race.

In both cases, the dominant voice of the crisis was not a company spokesperson, but the survivors, passengers and families. Matesanz told me that since Costa Concordia, the company has put programmes in place to build relationships with all sorts of organisations who might speak on the industry’s behalf – the coastguard, Navy, specialist groups on diseases such as Norovirus – so they will be better prepared in the future.

7. Think the unthinkable. Jonathan Hemus praised the textbook response of Alton Towers and its owner Merlin Entertainment to the recent Smiler accident (if you haven’t seen Kay Burley’s interview with Nick Varney, Merlin’s CEO, it is well worth watching). Despite there being a 1:24bn chance of death on a roller coaster, Alton Towers had thought the unthinkable, and were prepared. As ever, Hemus said, the CEO set the tone for the company’s response.

8. Social media has completely changed how a crisis unfolds. Several speakers said that their crisis wouldn’t have been as severe, or spread as far, if it wasn’t for the torrent of social media attention that fuelled the crisis. Some of the issues that were discussed during our simulations included: be honest (never, ever lie in a crisis. You’ll get found out); use social media to disseminate information regularly and quickly; and avoid ‘information asymmetry (where the public appears to know more than you do during your crisis). Make sure you are the voice of authority, not someone else.

9. Remember your people. Hari Miller, Head of Internal Communications at TSB, talked about the importance of ensuring you know who the leaders are in a crisis, and their roles. (I loved her line: “Sometimes your role as a leader is to keep your mouth shut.”) Make you’re your employees understand their own roles in not inflaming the situation on social media (regular social media policy reminders are a good thing in crisis avoidance); and – importantly – remember what it is you’re protecting, and why.

10. Prepare and rehearse. It’s not enough to have a dusty crisis manual on a shelf somewhere. If you are to deal with a crisis effectively, you must run regular drills, scenario planning exercises, and simulations that specifically include strategies to cope with social media. That way, when the crisis hits, you know exactly what to do, fast.

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