Training: Crisis preparation

PRWeek sent reporter Ian Evans on a crisis training course to find out how far you can plan for disaster in advance

Can you ever really be prepared for a crisis? No matter how hard you plan for what the comms team would do in a worst case scenario for a company, the real crisis rarely pans out exactly the same way as envisaged.

But what is crucial is understanding and implementing the key elements of a crisis management plan - and this needs to be learnt.

The IPR is probably one of the first ports of call for most PR professionals looking to enhance their skills. It runs more than 100 training courses a year ranging from foundation level up to director. Subjects include planning and managing PR campaigns, press release writing, an introduction to PR, proofreading and dealing with hostile media interviews. Most are one-day events held in London, although the IPR is running an increasing amount in regional centres and developing further courses in Manchester, Birmingham, Cardiff and Edinburgh.

PRWeek went along to The IPR's crisis and issues management training course to find out what PROs could learn - and whether being trained for a crisis is what they expected. Perhaps ominously for trainer Michael Bland, his workshop fell on Friday the 13th.

The day was designed to deal with unexpected or unwanted challenges facing organisations and the best way to communicate with staff, other companies, agencies and the media. Bland, who has written 13 books on the subject, devised a mixture of theory and hands-on exercises. Around 20 people attended with a 50:50 split between consultancies and in-house/public sector staff.

So what were those on the 13 February course hoping to get from the day? Unilever European nutrition manager John Athanatos had already attended five IPR courses. He wanted a better understanding of crisis management and to learn the skills and tools to cope with problems, similar aspirations to Sea Fish Industry Authority consumer comms manager Mandy Queen.

While it was ITV Wales press and PR officer Sian-Elin Taylor's first IPR course, she too wanted to benefit from Bland's expertise and learn how to react confidently to a crisis, as did Chichester District Council PR assistant John Greenway. Financial Dynamics consultant Kristen Boyd already works in issues management for the agency and, as she is encouraged to go on courses, wanted to glean specialist knowledge and learn how to be able to react more quickly to problems.

9.30 The day didn't start particularly well for Bland when one course member walked out within minutes and didn't return. We were later told she had a migraine and her departure was nothing to do with his introduction.

With an information pack, agenda and obligatory feedback form in front of them, attendees were asked for a brief introduction about themselves and what they wanted to achieve from the course. Most echoed what the five aforementioned PROs wanted. Bland first spoke about crisis analysis, revealing why we react differently to problems, claiming senior management largely prefer to hide away from the media and not explain what is going on.

He encouraged audience participation, asking them for examples of corporate crises such as Lockerbie, Kegworth air crash and Perrier bottling. In truth, the participants were not as vocal as they could have been, relying on the same few to take part.

11.10With the aid of clear, uncluttered handouts, he then moved on to a crisis checklist detailing what areas PROs should consider ahead of a problem.

11.55 Following a ten-minute break, Bland then moved on to actually dealing with a crisis, again with the use of handouts, all of which were included in the delegates' folders.

Attendees were given a set of checklists on what to do, ranging from formulating a strategy, writing a holding statement, identifying who needed to be spoken to and appointing a spokesperson. There were also some cheekier bits of advice such as what 'allies' could be called upon to support your case, what instances you could use to try and deflect the blame, and how to 'contain' a crisis.

Bland, who is a fellow of the institute, spoke of personal experiences when dealing with reluctant management and pushy journalists that helped to put the theory into perspective.

13.00 After lunch the group was divided into four teams, each of which had to choose a crisis scenario exercise. Interestingly, the four all chose different scenarios.

As Bland kept repeating throughout the course, there were no right or wrong answers, just good methodology and teamwork in arriving with a good media strategy.

The scenarios included an outbreak of salmonella at a food factory, a blackmail demand over corruption and bullying in the workplace, a lone blackmailer threatening to inject a company's chocolate bars and a construction company dealing with environmental protests in an ancient woodland.

2.40 A volunteer from each group revealed their PR strategy to deal with the problem, all of which, incidentally, were based on real-life situations.

Each group was comprehensive and, given the timescale, impressive. Teams then voted on the winning crisis aversion strategy.

3.30 Bland gave tips on how to formulate and deliver key messages to the media.

4.25 After a tea break, a volunteer from each group had to undergo a testing radio interview on their crisis scenario by Bland, before the course came to a close at 5pm.

And the outcome? There was positive feedback from the delegates who took away with them many elements of what they hoped to achieve from the course.

There clearly remains scope for being prepared to some extent for a crisis. Even if you can't plan exactly the precise details of what a crisis will present, training can provide PROs with initial skills and tools to know how to react confidently. And, at the very least, crisis management training can go some way to ensuring that a clear head is attained.

DELEGATE FEEDBACK

John Athanatos

'I thought the course was really good. There were a lot of practical lessons, not too much theory. Sometimes when you go on courses, there's too much needless paperwork, but not this one. I've got a list of check points which will be useful. Maybe it wasn't long enough.'

9/10

Sian-Elin Taylor

'It's been worthwhile. The scenarios were particularly good because it was true to life and made you think that you had to have systems in place to deal with problems. We could maybe have done with more time but I'm not sure whether two days is too long.'

8.5/10

Kristen Boyd

'It's given me the confidence to deal with a potential crisis - I don't think I'd panic, which is what I may have done without coming today. However, we weren't advised on how to deal with the decision-making.

People can ignore you or want to take ownership in a crisis.'

9/10

Mandy Queen

'I really liked the checklists and putting together a crisis plan. Working in groups and learning off other PROs was very useful. I would have liked to have worked more in groups and maybe have a one-to-one with Bland about certain questions. Sometimes a day isn't enough.'

9/10

John Greenway

'The checklists were useful and it was good to learn from someone with so much experience. I've learned that you've got to stay calm and cool. The time disappeared so quickly. Maybe it could be a two-day course because I was just getting into it when it was over.'

8/10.

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