Crisis Communications: Five steps to better crisis management

Recent crises involving Eurostar, Toyota and Maclaren have underscored the need for crisis management skills, finds Kate Magee.

Where is your organisation's crisis comms manual? Is a hard copy sitting prominently on the desks of every member of the crisis management team? Or is it languishing in a dusty drawer?

Organisations should be updating their crisis manuals constantly and rehearsing their processes regularly because when a crisis hits, the response needs to be instinctive.

The public has become increasingly sceptical of company spokespeople and there is now greater scrutiny of those at the top. Many celebrities, including recently dropped England football captain John Terry, have found themselves punished for trying to silence the media through legal routes. The internet has allowed everyone to speak out about a story, and can make an issue globally accessible in an instant.

Making sure your crisis plans will work in today's society is crucial to dealing with a crisis successfully. Here are five ways to ensure your crisis plan is still relevant.

1. IGNORE THE INTERNET AT YOUR PERIL

The biggest change for crisis management is the revolution of social media. 'The internet is the new comms threat for all organisations and it's something that, even today, big organisations are not taking seriously enough,' says Hill & Knowlton's MD of crisis and issues Tim Luckett.

Social media make crises spread faster and allow the public to voice their opinions and experiences or propagate rumours in a highly visible manner. And crises are increasingly breaking online, without the knowledge of management.

Eurostar's recent crisis, when snow-disrupted trains left passengers stranded during the week before Christmas, was a classic example of why having a grip on social media is crucial. Passengers were tweeting complaints and updates about the situation online. But Eurostar was hindered from the outset - it did not own its 'eurostar' or 'eurostar uk' name on Twitter.

'Digital has changed everything,' says Alex Woolfall, head of issues and crisis management, Bell Pottinger. 'Our starting point for clients is now finding out where an issue is going to break online.'

TOP TIPS

- Make sure you set up early warning systems. 'PROs should see this as an opportunity to tap in quickly to situations that might cause them a problem,' says Regester Larkin director Eddie Bensilum. College Hill managing partner Chris Woodcock says that PROs should be 'closely monitoring the digital space', using tools such as BlogPulse, BoardReader, IceRocket, RSS feeds and Google Alerts.

- Identify your key online influencers in advance. Woolfall says companies should know in advance of a crisis: 'What's your wiki entry? Who is the most influential blogger in your sector? Who will attack you?'

- Respond online first, then follow up with a traditional approach. 'The media are online,' says Woolfall. 'Put a statement up within the first 10-30 minutes. Then brief the media the traditional way with a press conference.'

- But do not get too carried away. Remember to still be selective about who you respond to, and where. Luckett says: 'Be careful. It may not be appropriate to respond further than saying: "Thanks for your comment, please contact me at X".'

2. ALL STORIES ARE NOW GLOBAL

'There's no such thing as a little local difficulty if you're an internationally known brand,' says Regester Larkin director Eddie Bensilum.

Thanks to the internet, a crisis in one market will become news at some point in others.

Woolfall agrees: 'As soon as a brand has an issue, it bounces around the world. You need to abandon the idea there are boundaries.'

Forget that advice at your peril.

Toyota, which has been hitting headlines with its car recalls for the past few weeks, has been criticised for creating confusion over which countries were affected.

It first asked for cars in the US to be returned, before widening the recall to Europe and China. Maclaren buggies took a similar approach, issuing a product recall in the US after 12 children lost their fingertips, without issuing a recall in the UK.

The company only started issuing parents with protective hinge covers when British families complained.

As Bensilum says: 'I hesitate to comment without knowing what's behind the decision, but taking two different approaches would have been perceived negatively, or at least seen as confusing.

'It's the same brand in the EU and the US, but it is using a different strategy. That's very dangerous.'

TOP TIPS

- Be prepared to address the crisis in all markets. 'Crises have never respected borders,' says Edelman's international director, crisis & issues management, Mike Seymour. PROs should be ready to communicate clearly with different markets.

- Do not think it requires a one-brush approach. Media, customs and cultures vary in different markets. What works in one, may exacerbate the problem in another. 'Make sure you have a robust response, but remember to tailor it to individual markets. I don't believe we'll ever get to a point where one size fits all,' says Woolfall.

3. THE DEATH OF THE SUPER-INJUNCTION

While crisis experts assert that the legal route is still a valid approach to take, from a reputational point of view, it can actually do more harm.

Take John Terry, for example. England's former football captain was granted a super-injunction to stop newspapers reporting details of his alleged affair. But when the judge overturned the ruling a week later, the scorned media went in for the kill.

'Making the legal route one's first or only recourse in such situations is rarely the best option,' says College Hill's Woodcock. 'Legal options should be part of the solution, but rarely all of it.'

Bell Pottinger's Woolfall adds: 'Every time someone attempts to suppress information, it has the effect of increasing speculation online. What bigger signal could you sent to the media that there's a story than if you get an injunction? In the long term, online will make the legal route untenable for clients.'

TOP TIPS

- Understand that the legal route can present greater reputational problems in the long run. 'The very fact of taking legal redress causes reputational issues as everyone focuses on that action,' says Hill & Knowlton's Luckett. Be ready for a media onslaught.

- Be aware that the legal route takes time. 'Time is not something on your side in a crisis. The legal route also doesn't allow you to react in a human way,' says Edelman's Seymour.

- Do not be afraid to take the legal route if you believe you will win your case. Sometimes it is still the right course of action.

4. MAKE FRIENDS WITH THIRD PARTIES

After the global banking crisis and the politicians' expenses scandal, public distrust of politicians, company spokespeople and big brands is at an all-time high.

Third-party endorsement is now more influential than ever.

However, Bell Pottinger's Woolfall believes this is something that firms facing a crisis often forget.

'A huge amount of work goes into what your company will say, but think about who else might speak up for you.

'Who will support you? What do you have a good record on?' says Woolfall.

Luckett says that companies can even pay to train media stakeholders to ensure they are ready to respond when a crisis hits.

TOP TIPS

- Make your friends in advance. Have a stakeholder map and nurture relationships with these people in advance of a crisis.

- Think like a journalist - who will they ask to comment? 'This is not about charming or coercing people, but about connecting. Ensure you take a proper look at who will comment on your story. To whom will journalists speak? What will each paragraph in a news story about your firm say?' says Woolfall.

- Do not overlook online communities. Regester Larkin's Bensilum says firms should understand how these communities operate and how they can make contact with you.

5. GET YOUR OWN HOUSE IN ORDER

Making sure you have a strong base to operate from in a crisis can really help. Look at the way you are structured. Are you working in silos? Will that impact on your crisis response?

'The speed and ferocity of an online crisis demands joined-up thinking to protect brands - marketing and crisis management need to operate hand-in-hand as never before, or something decisive can easily be overlooked,' says Woodcock.

Look carefully at how you will brief your staff. They are key ambassadors for your brand.

'Don't undermine your most solid group of trust management. Every comms plan has to take account of both internal and external audiences, and should be consistent with both,' says Edelman's Seymour.

TOP TIPS

- Take your internal communications seriously. Avoid getting caught out when a staff member interviewed by the media does not know the story. 'It's one of the cheapest ways of doing the story. Don't let staff in one market find out about a problem in another through the media,' advises Woolfall.

- Make sure your crisis manual is up to date and accessible. Give people hard copies in case electrical systems fail.

- Practice makes perfect. 'You should rehearse your procedures. It sounds dull, but it's absolutely key,' says Luckett.

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