A couple of weeks ago, just about clocking off time on a Friday evening, I had an emergency call from a PR contact I know.
‘You do crisis communications, don’t you?’ she said.
The PR was on the tube at the time and had just had a panicky voicemail message and email from a client. She gave me very sketchy details and then called him to suggest he contacted me direct as she felt the matter required expert crisis PR advice.
It’s quite usual for a PR agency to call in support from a crisis communications specialist when their clients’ reputations are at risk. Managing this requires different expertise and knowledge.
Within minutes, the managing director of the company had called me.
Earlier that day he’d received an anonymous email which contained some extremely libellous allegations about him, his company and another company with which he had in the past had a business relationship.
The email had been copied into some of his major clients, plus a whole load of journalists, including the Observer, the Sunday Mirror and his local newspaper.
He wanted to know what they should do about it.
This is the kind of crisis that can hit any business at any time. All it takes is one disgruntled employee, and your reputation could potentially be fatally damaged.
As a former investigation journalist both on newspapers and with the BBCs consumer unit, I have a pretty good insight into how a reporters mind works and how stories are investigated.
This is extremely helpful when you’re in the midst of planning a crisis strategy.
In this case, there were some difficulties (quite apart from the timing) but also some cause to be optimistic that the company would come through the problems unscathed.
The first problem was that the managing director had waited several hours before informing his PR agency. This meant his clients and the journalists had had several hours headstart on the PR team.
In addition, we were starting the process of dealing with it on the Friday evening before a Bank Holiday, when all the key agencies whose advice we’d need to draw on would be more difficult to raise.
We would need legal advice both about what to do about the email, and what we could legally say to any journalists who got into contact.
And we’d need the services of IT experts to trace who might have sent the email.
And we’d need the support of external agencies to confirm to the outside world that the allegations were not true.
Even so, we were able to start the ball rolling on Friday night.
Our immediate steps:
1) Setting up Google alerts so that if anything cropped up online, the company would be aware of it
2) Contacting the police, in case there was anything criminal within the email and to see if they could help trace the person who had created the email account.
3) Agreeing a plan for when/if any journalists contacted the company:
The first thing to do was to inform all staff what to do if they received any calls from journalists. These should immediately be referred to the senior management or PR team. Staff members should not either get drawn into a conversation, or say ‘no comment’ which might imply some level of guilt.
The next step was draft a short factual statement to give to any journalists who got in touch. This didn’t go into detail about the allegations, but dismissed them as false and malicious. It gave basic information clarifying why the allegations had been made, and made it clear the company were considering legal action.
We decided not to send the statement out pro-actively but to have it ready if any journalists did contact the company.
Of course the statement had to be cleared by the lawyers, so I advised them that if any journalists called in the meantime, to be courteous and helpful, and to say something along the lines of:
“These allegations are anonymous and malicious. We are discussing the situation with our lawyers and preparing a statement, and will come back to you once that’s ready to be released.”
The next day
We held a conference call involving the PR agency and the company’s in-house marketing exec to discuss any developments and decide on the next strategy.
For several reasons, I felt that we had time on our side and there was no need to panic.
a) No journalist would run a story containing potentially libellous allegations without further investigation, without talking to the subject first and without clearing it with their legal teams. The latter would certainly insist any allegations be stood up before publication.
So the company was never going to see themselves splashed all over the newspapers without the opportunity to set the record straight – and with no right to respond.
b) The fact there were no contact details would make a journalist very suspicious. The sender had closed down the email address after sending it, so there was no way to trace him or her. If a journalist receives such an email, the first thing they do is talk to the source. Apart from anything else, they want to know if they have an axe to grind. With no contact details, that was not possible.
c) The email was three pages long, and contained a huge number of allegations. The tone was pretty hysterical and often muddled and the issues raised were extremely complex.
With so much content, and so many allegations, no journalist was going to be able to follow up the story and stand it up over the weekend. This gave the company time to work out a more detailed response, trace the source, take legal advice, contact their clients, and obtain the support of other stakeholders.
That said – the company needed to be on guard for the next couple of weeks. After all you never know what else a journalist is working on. They may bookmark a juicy-looking story for further investigation when they had more time.
In addition, it was important to be completely transparent if there was any truth in any of the allegations within the email. It would be extremely damaging if they were found to be lying or covering something up.
I produced a line by line list of the allegations and asked the company to provide the proof needed to refute each one – plus an explanation of where they may have originated.
This was as much an exercise to focus the mind and prepare responses as anything. It also helped to flag up any areas of concern where the allegations may actually be pointing towards a truth.
Next I produced a list of the questions that might be asked by a journalist investigating the story, and asked them to think of how they would respond to each one.
Whether or not they agreed to any interviews should be decided on a case by case basis because if someone was probing the statement and asking specific questions about the allegations, they may need to give further explanation.
Once all these elements were in place – the statement prepared, the point by point response to the allegations written, the staff briefed, the legal advice sought and the IT teams investigating the source, they were in a strong position to kill the story dead should any journalist get in contact.
Luckily, so far, no one has.