Rob Shimmin, Shimmin Brand Protection: Prepare well to avoid disaster

Concentrate on what can be done before a crisis in order to stack the odds in your favour.

Resilience is defined as the ability to recover quickly from setbacks. BAA's Malcolm Robertson cited it as 'the key attribute his job demands' when profiled in PRWeek in November. BAA's longer-term brand resilience owes a lot to Robertson's short-term personal resilience. He has rightly earned considerable respect for his ability to shrug off immediate distractions and focus on communication that protects the long-term attributes of the BAA brand.

I'm going to focus on what can be done before a crisis to stack the odds in your favour. Robertson's right; every crisis is different, but let's compare BAA's December snow with Eyjafjallajokull's April ash.

A few months before the ash cloud, I worked with NATS' (the UK's air traffic controllers) media manager Jill Pearcy in updating crisis plans before taking the comms team through a desk-based crisis simulation, an exercise we repeated last October. Teams that have gone through a lot of real crises together know their roles well and so learning centres on gaps in the plan exposed by the exercise.

Being similarly experienced, BAA's comms team did a huge amount right.

Accepting blame early made perfect sense, as did the decision of Colin Matthews not to accept his £1m bonus.

Another client, Jose Juves (now at Biogen Idec), was once head of comms for the Massachusetts Port Authority.

He describes 40 news trucks lining up outside Logan International Airport in September 2001 because it was the first airport to talk about 9/11. It drew a lot of flack as the origin of two of the hijacked aircraft when it could have stayed silent like other airports. But BAA had no choice but to speak up when the snow fell.

If you make a promise and keep it, the brand gets protected.

Break it and the brand gets damaged. So when BAA made a promise to open the runways by 4pm, then pushed this back to 5.30pm, the impact of deplaning a spitting-mad Tweeting public was huge. It's not surprising the airlines pointed the finger at BAA. I wonder if the operations people responsible for estimating runway opening times had been part of the comms exercise. Inaccurate operational information is a setback. Resilience requires quality information, so pulling an all-nighter to deliver a reduced capacity schedule is to be applauded.

Quality information is hard to come by and, in the ash crisis, NATS spokesmen did a great job on tone, information and accessibility, giving 150 interviews in a week and making NATS a great early source of information. It got the safety message in 45 per cent of coverage and overall favourability was 13 per cent - pretty good considering nobody likes the bearer of bad news.

A big advantage for NATS was the need for experts to explain why ash and jet engines do not mix, making the safety message easier to attach to this information. With snow, everyone's an expert and BAA had a tougher time making the safety message stick as the focus was on why it cannot be shifted. Most New York mayors probably pay too much for their snow-clearing operation, but they know failure will see them out of office.

During the December snowfall BAA had a good crisis plan, had run comms simulations and had a dialogue with partners. But the recently announced £10m spend and boosting snow-clearing staff from 60 to 200 shows Heathrow lacked the muscle to get the job done. Comms can only do so much.

Recently divested Gatwick boasted of foresight in buying six runway-clearing vehicles from Zurich airport. They arrived literally hours before that snow fell. You make your own luck.

VIEWS IN BRIEF

Which crisis did you learn the most from working on?

Italian dairy Parmalat's 2003 collapse was dubbed 'Europe's Enron'. Global media scrutiny on banks, auditors, lawyers and rating agencies was intense.

I learned a lot in Milan helping to defend one such global brand.

What were the most important lessons?

Visualise success - in this case, losing no business over unfair criticism. Use internal comms; partners were well briefed to answer customer questions. Brief journalists with appropriate background to ensure accurate reporting. Recognise that you're never on top of new information, and react only to what you know is true. Finally, work with the lawyers early and listen to feedback.

Rob Shimmin is managing director at Shimmin Brand Protection

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