One of the most crucial – yet most neglected – areas of business planning is to know how you’re going to protect your reputation if an emergency or crisis unfolds.
We often find that crisis management is low down on the list of priorities for a PR department – until the worst happens and they realise they are woefully unprepared.
As experts in crisis communications, we provide a range of services, including designing and delivering training courses, providing strategic advice and offering emergency support for clients.
In this post, we will take an in-depth look into the best way to prepare for a crisis, from the reasons why you need a crisis management strategy to providing a series of sample holding statements.
- Five compelling reasons to have a crisis management strategy
- Four lessons in how to handle an emergency from the London Zoo gorilla escape
- What not to do in a crisis
- A crisis communications strategy – essential insurance
- 11 areas to consider in your crisis communications strategy
- What to put in a crisis manual
- Why no comment is no option
- Crisis communications sample holding statements
You run a nursery and a member of staff is found to have been abusing the children
Hundreds of diners at your restaurant go down with food poisoning
Eggs you’ve imported from Germany are contaminated with dioxins
You manufacture one of the most popular brands of pushchairs, and it’s emerged that some children’s fingers have been severed after becoming caught in the mechanism
All these are real crises which have threatened the survival of businesses that faced them.
** The nursery worker Vanessa George, who worked at Little Ted’s nursery in Plymouth, was convicted after she admitted sexual assaults on children and distributing and making indecent pictures of children at the nursery.
The nursery has since closed down.
** At Heston Blumenthal’s Michelin starred restaurant the Fat Duck in Bray, over 500 diners went down with food poisoning, when the restaurant had a six week outbreak of the norovirus.
The restaurant had to close for two weeks, the Health Protection Agency produced a critical report, and the chef offered each of those affected a free meal.
** Liquid egg imported from Germany found to be contaminated with dioxins was used by two UK manufacturers of cakes and quiches, sold in Tesco’s and Morrisons. Most of the products had already been brought by the time it was discovered, but rest had to be taken off the shelves.
** Maclaren pushchairs recalled a million pushchairs in the US, and was sued by dozens of parents both in the US and the UK after their children’s fingers were injured by a fault in the mechanism in one of its most popular pushchairs
All of these crises – or variations of them – could happen to you.
And if you haven’t anticipated them, if you haven’t planned for them, if you haven’t put procedures in place to ensure your organisation can continue to function, if you haven’t worked out how you might handle the crisis, and if you haven’t briefed every member of staff how to cope with the media fall out …
… your reputation could be in tatters and your business could fold.
If hope this prospect scares you, because that fear is the first step to developing a crisis management plan that will help you manage potential crises.
Crisis management isn’t just for the BPs, BAs and Toyotas of this world, it’s for you too.
Do you remember when Kumbuka, a 29 stone silverback gorilla, escaped from London Zoo?
At the time, the escape caused a media frenzy.
My favourite fact to emerge was that Kumbuka drank five litres of neat blackcurrant squash – and this was made worse for London Zoo because of how it managed this crisis.
Here are four quick lessons to take from this situation on how to handle an emergency:
- You can’t control what members of the public are posting on social media in the midst of your crisis – so don’t try to play it down in the face of the evidence. While the zoo was describing the situation as a minor incident, people were tweeting about there being scenes like Jurassic Park, the zoo being in lockdown, armed police, reports of a gorilla on the loose and helicopters overhead.
- Your explanation of a situation or incident has to make sense. If people know, for example, that it took 90 minutes to track down a lost gorilla and heat-seeking helicopters were flying overhead, it will seem strange if you then say that the gorilla was simply in a keeper-only area adjacent to its enclosure.
- If outside authorities are involved, such as the police, they will be issuing statements as well as you. The facts you broadcast need to align with what they say.
- If you put spokespeople up for interview they need to be thoroughly briefed and prepared, with plausible answers to every anticipated question. An interview given by the keeper to John Humphries on the Today programme reinforced the perception that London Zoo was not handling the emergency very well.
The overall impression was that London Zoo wasn’t in control of the situation.
Thankfully, nobody was hurt. However, people may question the zoo’s ability to contain a potentially life-threatening situation in the future, which can only have harmed its reputation.
If I asked you to name five other businesses which had suffered PR hell over the years, United Airlines, BP, the BBC and even Hamleys might spring to mind (do you remember when their window display included the live reindeer and penguins?)
Of course no business can totally prevent disaster striking – after all we’re all at the mercy of acts of god, and we all make mistakes. But every business can prepare how they’ll react when the worst happens.
Effective crisis management will anticipate potential problems, identify vulnerabilities in the business response and put systems in place to deal with them.
A vital part of this is handling the media fall-out.
A rat runs across the steps of 10 Downing Street on live TV and you know the media will have a field day. Make sure the ‘humane rat catcher’ is also spotted by the cameras and it’s crisis-averted.
A doctor is physically dragged off your plane to make way for staff who you need to transport from one airport to another – and the footage goes viral within minutes. Issue a completely inadequate statement which fails to take any responsibility and shows no contrition for what went on, as United did, and millions could be wiped off your share price.
So what are the big no-nos in managing the media if your business is in crisis?
- Don’t hide your head in the sand and hope the media will go away. It won’t. Silence will just egg the journalists on.
- Don’t refuse to comment. Immediately this makes you seem as if you have something to hide.
- Don’t allow anyone to do interviews with journalists who you don’t trust to stay on message in the face of difficult questions, and who hasn’t been carefully briefed and media trained. Tony Hayward is the most prominent example of this going wrong
- Don’t lie and dissemble if you’re in the wrong. You will be found out. And don’t blame anyone else.
- Don’t refuse to apologise for wrong-doing – an apology and a promise to investigate and take action is very effective.
- Don’t only engage with the media at the time it’s all falling apart – good relationships and a good reputation will help ensure you have a gentler ride in times of trouble.
- And lastly – don’t hope you can just wing it. You must have an effective crisis management plan which can swing into action, in which everyone knows what to do, how to do it and when.
Of course, none of this can prevent problems in the first place, but avoiding these seven mistakes it will help mitigate the fall-out.
Every company has to have public liability insurance, employee liability insurance … a whole raft of other insurances to protect them against anything that might go wrong.
But companies don’t have to have crisis communications insurance. And many companies and organisations don’t have any kind of crisis communications strategy that might insure them should the worst should happen and a disaster strike their company.
The impact of that can be the kind of reputational damage that could sink even the most successful of businesses – as BP found at the cost of millions off their share price.
As you’ve seen from some of the examples above, the problems could be caused by:
- a chief executive who doesn’t know how to speak to the press without putting their foot in their mouth
- social media accounts that update automatically with totally inappropriate posts employees who say the wrong thing to the wrong person
- a total disconnect between the PR department and the rest of the business leading to breakdowns in communications
The way to ensure this doesn’t happen is to have a robust crisis management strategy in place. Hope to goodness you’ll never need it but if your company is facing a problem that is threatening to spiral out of control, you’ll be extremely glad you’ve invested in one.
One client whose crisis strategy we helped to develop was a national retailer. They already had comprehensive emergency plans in place that would restore operations should anything have gone wrong and ensure business continuity.
However those plans had nothing at all related to communications.
No plans that would ensure that the right messages were delivered to the right audiences by the right people at the right time.
No plans which would protect them from too inquisitive reporters, or angry customers who posted complaints on social media.
No plans to make sure that if they had to do potentially hostile interviews, their spokespeople would be confident that they could cope with the questioning, no matter how difficult.
So we went through all their emergency procedures, crisis management plans and IT/social media policies (and there were rather a lot of them!), and developed an integrated crisis communications strategy that works with them all.
In certain situations, the strategy is automatically triggered. That means the marketing and communications manager (he was the marketing manager until we recommended a change of title) is informed of what is going on and instigates a range of crisis communications procedures.
These are everything from informing switchboard so they are on guard for journalists’ calls, to drafting holding statements, key messages and press releases, from updating their website and social media to briefing press spokespeople, from putting additional press office staff in place to planning a press conference.
As part of the strategy, we delivered a workshop for switchboard staff on how to answer the phones to journalists without either antagonising them or giving away too much, and we did media and crisis communications training for a group of senior managers.
Throughout all, we have listened and collaborated and consulted with those working at the coal-face of the business about what they are most likely to encounter and where the weaknesses are in the current system.
While some of their team were unconvinced at the beginning of the process, they now acknowledge that the crisis strategy we have devised will give them the reassurance that if they are facing an emergency, they will have confidence to handle the media and that their reputation will be protected, if not enhanced.
And that is an insurance policy worth having.
No-one wants their organisation to face a crisis. Everyone hopes it may never happen.
However, just in case it does, it’s essential to have a robust plan in place which will protect your reputation.
Here are 11 points to factor into developing a crisis communications strategy
- If your incident involves the emergency services – say a chemical spill or a serious accident – the media are likely to be informed, whether or not you want them to be.
- Any incident which involves your customers may well appear on social media first – over which you’ll have little control.
- When journalists call your offices they will be persistent. They will want to find out what is going on and will not accept being fobbed off. Your switchboard operators and press team should be skilled at controlling journalists without antagonising them.
- You need a plan for communicating with your key stakeholders – whether that be customers, suppliers, “victims” and their relatives, employees, emergency services, regulatory authorities, and indeed the media.
- Your team will need to be assigned specific roles, including for logging media inquiries and for monitoring coverage.
- You’ll need to prepare holding statements ready to be released and a rapid but foolproof clearance procedure for statements and updates.
- You may need the capacity to expand your press office function with experienced press officers so you can cope with the additional volume of calls.
- You will need to align your main website and social media updates, and cancel any scheduled promotional posts.
- It may be useful to have contingency plans in place to call press conferences quickly, as this may be the easiest way to deliver updates.
- Make sure you have credible, authoritative spokespeople who will be able to handle hostile interviews, get your messages across effectively and protect your reputation.
- Depending on your industry, it may be worth having a dark website ready to go live which will help to position you as the main source of information and demonstrate that you are taking control of the situation.
Most well run companies have thought about the potential risks which could disrupt their operations – and even damage their reputation.
Anything from a fire shutting down manufacturing to financial irregularities to accidents and human error can all have serious consequences. And most of our clients have emergency procedures in place.
But when we talk to them about what plans they have in place to manage communications during a crisis, it is extraordinary how many haven’t done any forward planning to work out how they would respond.
Our recommendation is that to avoid being caught on the back foot, it is vital to have assessed your risks from a communications and PR perspective, and have a strategy in place for how you will deal with them.
Once you have your crisis communications strategy in place, this should be documented in a crisis communications manual which all your team have access to, setting out the key information they will need if something goes wrong.
While this needs to be packed full of useful information, it should be concise and presented in a user-friendly, easy to absorb format. A weighty tome will just get left at the bottom of the drawer.
Crisis communications manual contents:
1. Potential risks
Divide these into categories (human error, act of God, accident, supply chain, financial malpractice and so on), whether they will have a global, national or regional impact and what the effect might be on your business. Leave nothing out.
For each of these, record:
- which member of staff would take responsibility for that area
- the communications contact (if appropriate)
- how likely it is to occur
- what action you have taken (eg, writing holding statements)
- the stakeholders who would need to be informed (eg staff, suppliers, relatives, shareholders, external bodies such as the HSE)
- the next time this information should be reviewed.
2. Key messages & holding statements
Your key messages and holding statements for each situation can be written in advance, although they will need to be adjusted to suit the particular situation.
Each member of your team should be assigned roles in advance. These will include:
- manning the phones (you may require 24 hour cover, so will need to draft in external help)
- logging calls from journalists (it is worth creating a template in advance for this)
- writing & distributing holding statements
- liaising with the emergency team to stay updated about the situation
- updating your website (you may need an external company to amend your website or create special landing pages)
- monitoring & updating social media
- briefing spokespeople
- giving interviews
4. Key media
Attach your list of key media contacts and keep this up to date
5. Internal communications
How you will communicate with your front-line staff, plus draft responses for them to give to journalists.
The spokespeople from each business area you will field in the event of a crisis, including their areas of expertise, when they were last media trained, their strengths (and weaknesses), their contact details and availability.
7. Social media
Depending on how widely you are planning to distribute your crisis communications manual, consider including login details giving access to social media, in case your social media manager is unavailable at short notice.
Establish hashtags that you could create for particular crises so that your accounts become the source of updates and accurate information.
8. Press conferences
In case you have to hold an emergency press conference, it is worth including potential locations, and the logistics of how you will plan it.
9. Contact details
Out of hours (and in hours) contact details for each member of the emergency team and the communications team. Also include anyone else, such as the web designers, external PR companies or additional press office support, who you may need to draft in.
Having all these details readily accessible in one crisis communications manual will ensure that if – or when – you face a crisis, you are able to act quickly and efficiently to limit the damage to your reputation.
If your organisation is being accused or criticised, your first instinct may be to offer no response, in the hope that the problem may go away if you don’t fan the flames.
In this 24-hour digital world, that is simply not an option. There are two key reasons why no comment is damaging in crisis situations.
Firstly 24-hour news means that journalists are hungry beasts with a lot of air-time to fill, so they need a constant diet of updates and comment, especially when a crisis is unfolding.
And secondly, news spreads like wildfire on social media and if you have done something wrong – or even if you haven’t – your reputation can be destroyed in moments by the social media frenzy.
Essentially, crises don’t go away if you ignore them. Instead, they are far more likely to escalate and spiral out of control.
Just look at Thomas Cook’s response to the inquest into the deaths of two children through a gas leak, where they failed to apologise to the parents until forced to by public outrage. They faced comments such as:
“The fact it has taken them FIVE YEARS to donate to charity half of the compensation they were awarded says all you need to know
#Thomas Cook have acted following the deaths of those two beautiful children and subsequent court case is utterly appalling.”
Their experience shows that nowadays a problem cannot be ignored. To protect your reputation, you have to give a reasoned response, and you need to do it quickly.
Responding to a journalist’s inquiries with “no comment” has three effects:
- It implies you have something to hide
- It can be seen as an admission of guilt
- It makes you appear defensive
It also means that the media will go elsewhere for comment. And that comment will not be fully informed about your particular situation, because you’re not telling anyone what it is. So the person commenting, the “expert”, will speculate about what has happened, and what you should do about it.
And whether or not that speculation is correct, given how journalists work nowadays (researching via the internet for relevant experts and background information, trawling Twitter for comment), that will become the received wisdom, rather than the true state of affairs, which you have chosen not to share.
Far better to set the record straight, to give your side of the story and to be seen to be pro-active in dealing with the problem.
Even if there is little that you actually can say, you must demonstrate you are concerned about whatever the issue is and that you are taking action to alleviate the problems. So for example you might just say:
“We are investigating what has happened and will give further updates when we have more information.”
And this is far easier to do if you have prepared for a range of crisis situations and know exactly how you are going to respond in advance, so all you need to do is put your crisis strategy into action, with specific communication plans for the most likely situations and holding statements ready to go.
At a recent meeting with a media training client we discussed planning for crises, and particularly the benefits of having a robust crisis communications strategy with agreed emergency procedures in place.
This client had recently experienced a crisis. One of the key lessons she learned was the importance of establishing in advance a crisis committee to take responsibility for managing the crisis, so the chain of command is simple and decisions can be taken swiftly – rather than expecting a wider, unwieldly, board to take all the decisions.
The second was to agree in principal basic holding statements in advance which could then be deployed very quickly to help contain an evolving situation on social media.
Of course you would need to adjust these to the particular circumstances of the incident and anticipate the implications of each one before you finalise it.
Six examples of holding statements include
- we are in contact with the victim’s family and are doing everything we can to support them
- we are investigating the incident
- we are co-operating with the authorities
- we will be reviewing our procedures and making an improvements necessary to help prevent a repetition of this incident
- we will immediately put in place any recommendations
- we are devastated, we pride ourselves on our excellent safety record and this is the first time anything like this has happened in our 200 year history
The team at Rough House Media provides a range of services and training to help you handle your crisis management. These include creating your crisis communications strategy, facilitating a crisis communications workshop to help you plan your response, training courses in crisis communications and taking your team through a crisis simulation. Contact us for more details.