Breakfast Briefing: A masterclass in crisis communications

Last week, I attended the CIPR breakfast briefing: A Masterclass In…Managing Crisis Communications.  The event was held at Finn, with Alison Puente, Head of Corporate Communications at the agency, Karl Milner, Director at Project Rome, and Jonathan Boddy, Director of Positive Impact, making up the briefing panel. The event covered everything from how to plan for a crisis, to what the ideal outcome of crisis communications is – put into context with the panellists’ real-life examples.

With David Cameron’s disturbing #Piggate revelations and news regarding Volkswagen’s dodgy exhausts, causing a third (approximately 25 billion euros) of the company’s overall value to be wiped out, hitting the news this week –  this briefing couldn’t have come at a better time.


What is a crisis?


‘News hits you on the head, hits you in the heart, and hits you in the pocket. A crisis has elements of all three of these running at the same time, creating an emotional reaction.’ – Jonathan Boddy


This explains the impact of breaking news stories, and how a crisis affects each emotional touchpoint to create an instant reaction. A crisis situation is one that ‘threatens the integrity of your mission’, something that disrupts the identity of a brand in a negative way.


Planning for a crisis


No Chief Executive wants their company’s reputation to come under threat. However, if you work in an industry where risks are high – for example food or healthcare – it’s important that potential crisis scenarios are planned for effectively.

Many clients plan for a crisis, but only in a manufacturing context, not considering the impact that a crisis can have on reputation and comms. External communication risks damage reputation, resulting in a negative media profile and loss of trust, which is detrimental to the running of a business.  It takes decades to create a strong brand reputation,  and this reputation can take years to rebuild if damaged.

In a crisis, risks should be looked at holistically, all internal and external factors need to work together to ensure effective management. One method for planning for crisis communications is to work with the client on producing a comprehensive ‘Risk Matrix’ that lists all possible crises in order of likelihood and severity.


‘Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I’ll spend the first four sharpening the axe’ – Abraham Lincoln


This quote was used to exemplify the importance of effective planning. It’s important to play the game of ‘what if’ with clients, to sit down and thoroughly examine a number of possible scenarios that could threaten the reputation of their business.

A vital element of effective planning is ensuring that all elements of the business are aligned during a crisis, to avoid interdepartmental confusion and mixed messages. In any crisis situation, all employee teams must have closely aligned strategies and content.

Another practical asset to have in place is a manual that details all possible crises with the plan and messaging to be issued in each situation. But each situation will be uniquely different. Flexibility is at the core.


What happens in the event of a crisis?


In a crisis, everything is a judgement call. Even when it feels like everything and everyone is against you, you must be confident and stick to your guns. A line that was repeated numerous times in the briefing was that crisis PR is difficult. Strategies need to be maintained and clear messages communicated both internally and externally.

Crises can either be responded to in advance of any breaking media coverage, or observing the media landscape after the crisis breaks, and responding to this. The brand’s or company’s reaction will depend on the context and severity of the crisis.

Also, don’t lie. When corporates mislead the public, media find out – and the crisis can quickly deepen. Companies must tell the truth, and chose the right media representative to do so.


Choosing the right spokesperson


As with writing a press release, the comment will come from the most senior person in relation to the topic of the release. In the case of a crisis, the Chief Exec or CEO – although the most obvious – may not be the most suitable. This person may not be comfortable speaking under pressure; it could be detrimental to a crisis situation for a spokesperson to appear nervous or unprepared on camera.

Also, if a crisis runs for six months, there will be a need for a number of different spokespeople, the public won’t be happy with just one spokesperson for this amount of time. A high risk company needs stakeholders and investors to have numerous different people in place if the worst happens.


How has social media affected crisis management?


In traditional comms, there was a period of time called the ‘Golden Hour’, where all parties involved in the crisis had 60 minutes where an agreed plan of response could be prepared and executed. Nowadays, social media has eradicated this, as news is now shared instantly. There is no longer any time for preparation.

However, it’s important to track and analyse the severity of these social conversations. For example, if somebody tweets about a crisis, but they have four followers and no engagement on their profile, it’s probably not time to act quite yet. This can make a client panic – but responding to one piece of interaction like this can cause more damage than good, as it could fuel a social media fire that wasn’t yet burning.  The important aspect here is effective monitoring and response.

It’s commonplace for numerous different agencies and individuals to be responsible for a brands’ marketing and comms work. In a crisis, this all needs to be meticulously aligned. If a brand’s social media is scheduled by an agency other than the one handling the crisis, any scheduled messaging needs to be removed or altered to support the crisis communications. For example, a scheduled tweet about being in the pub for after work drinks isn’t quite appropriate at a time of crisis. Systems need to be in place to create a holistic communications strategy to offset the current crisis in the most effective way possible.

Alternatively, the crisis can’t be ignored on social either. The social media management agency needs to be prepared with crisis messaging, or hand it over to the agency managing crisis PR to avoid mixed messages.

Ideally, a brand’s social media channels should be harnessed positively – pointing people to an official statement on the company website.


So, what constitutes as effective crisis management?


Being able to contain the crisis as one individual issue, containing the story to avoid further expansion, was one answer.  The ability for an organisation to learn lessons from the situation, and put this into future practise was another. A crisis has been successfully managed if the integrity of the organisation hasn’t been damaged; the media profile unaffected.

After the crisis, a line must be drawn. Learnings must be taken from the situation; however the crisis shouldn’t be dwelled upon. Effective crisis communication ensures that challenging situations are dealt with and diffused as quickly and efficiently as possible, with as little damage caused to brand reputation as possible.


Follow Eve on Twitter @EveEastwood


Image courtesy of @CIPRYorksLincs

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Eve Eastwood

PR and Social Account Manager

Eve’s background encompasses both traditional and digital PR. Using her experience gained in a specialist digital and search agency, she has unique insights into the evolving relationship between online and offline activities, and the ever-greater importance of SEO. As well as gaining a first-class Honours degree in English Language & Linguistics, she’s secured coverage in the Wall Street Journal, and interviewed former England goalkeeper David Seaman whilst working with a leading international brand.

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