Communication in a crisis is, of course, vital. After the very public corporate crises of the past year or so, you would now be hard pushed to find many business people who would dispute that. But what the interview with BAA's Malcolm Robertson clearly shows is that communication is only one part of an integrated crisis management response.
Crisis management is about actions as well as words. If the actions are not perceived to be resolving the crisis, words alone will not solve the problem. What BAA's comms function came up against during the 'snow crisis' was the same problem as that faced by BP's communicators after the Gulf of Mexico crisis: an operational response to an unprecedented and challenging scenario that, despite all best efforts, was unable to meet stakeholder expectations.
If the expectation is that you should be able to clear snow and get people flying again, or that you should be able to stop an oil leak at the bottom of the deep ocean, then anything short of this will be seen by some as failure. However well you communicate with stakeholders and try to manage expectations, any sense of perspective and sympathy they might have at the beginning of the crisis soon dissipates if resolution does not come.
In such difficult circumstances, the comms function can help the company set the right tone and express the right emotions. But 'we are deeply sorry' only gets you so far when passengers are stranded at Christmas or oil is washing up on beaches. This does not mean there is no point in communicating, but it does mean that comms goals need to be aligned with the realities of the operational challenge. Robertson is therefore right to be critical of PR people and their simplistic post-event solutions: unless you understand the full nature and unique circumstances of a crisis, you should not criticise one aspect of the complex and interconnected crisis response.
Crisis management is about making, enacting and communicating tough decisions under exceptional circumstances of intense scrutiny and acute pressure. This involves many functions coming together to achieve a common objective. It will certainly involve input from legal, financial and other functional specialists, as well as comms. Understanding the dynamics of a cross-functional team and managing a response that may involve teams at various levels is one of the major challenges of crisis leadership.
Because crises are almost always emotional, illogical and unpredictable, the response requires creativity rather than pre-determined solutions. While many organisations have crisis processes in place, these should be seen as the starting point. They need to prepare people to manage the unpredictable and cope with the pressures and emotions a crisis brings. People and process are vital in a crisis. Both must be well prepared and regularly practised.
Crisis management can seem all about communication - internally, externally, within teams and between teams, with the media, stakeholders and the public. People remember the public side of the crisis (Tony Hayward will be remembered for his 'gaffes' rather than his strategic decision-making). It would, however, be a mistake to think that better crisis management is the same as better crisis communication.
Crisis management is deconstructed so that different functions can ensure they are prepared to make their contribution to the crisis response. But to see the comms response in a vacuum would be to misunderstand the nature of a crisis. You simply cannot spin your way out of a crisis.
VIEWS IN BRIEF
What were the most important lessons from crises you have worked on?
Recent projects have reinforced our understanding of the behavioural aspects of crisis management, which vary greatly, often reflecting corporate culture and values. We are therefore focusing even more now on helping companies prepare their people as well as their processes.
What is the best example of crisis management work that you have observed in the past 12 months? Why?
The way TUI handled the ash cloud crisis was impressive. The operational response was efficient and the comms response ensured customers felt valued.