Ben Lock, Ogilvy: Make a story out of a crisis

Storytelling is a key skill for representatives of beleaguered firms who deal with the media.

So far 2010 has been quite a year for public relations crises. One of the world's biggest religions has faced ceaseless criticism for its failure to be honest. The world's largest car manufacturer responded too slowly to a major safety problem involving a very public mass recall. The Prime Minister of a G7 country was caught referring to a potential voter as a bigot in the middle of an election campaign. I could go on ...

We are all aware of the impact that these and other crises have on reputation. Instead of listing the mistakes, I think it is more important to remind ourselves of a few fundamentals and then focus on the role of the individual at the centre of a crisis.

Speed of response is paramount. It is a constant surprise how few clients have systems in place to react accurately and quickly to a problem.

Always tell as much of the truth as you can at any given point during a crisis. Full disclosure is the only way to maintain public and media confidence. Too many of this year's PR disasters have worsened after the organisation or individual did not come clean swiftly enough.

Identifying the most effective spokesperson is crucial. Most of the companies that experienced problems this year have, by default, put their CEOs centre stage. In the media's eyes they are 'uberspokespeople', but is it healthy for the corporation? Are we expecting too much from one person?

Not every CEO can respond to a crisis with as much emotional intelligence as Sir Richard Branson in the aftermath of 2007's Kendal rail crash. The CEO must always take ultimate responsibility, but this does not mean that he or she is the most capable media performer in a crisis.

The proliferation of new media has created a myriad of exciting opportunities, but a consequence of the more linear engagement is the need to personalise corporate identity. A CEO's gaffe can now be more widely distributed - and for an extended time.

Companies and PROs must think more creatively about which spokespeople are best suited to the market experiencing the issue, train them and empower them to help shoulder the demands of the modern media.

The PR industry must share some of the blame. We've created the language by which the modern company is defined, based on the CEO's mission statement and a toolbox of safety-first corporate-speak phrases ill-suited to the countless challenges they face.

We've moved away from two of the fundamentals - the need to put customers and employees first and the need to engage and enthuse an audience with your message. Industry leaders need to go back to these basics to become inspirational once again.

Consultants should teach their clients the art of storytelling rather than just trying to play safe with the media. Company spokespeople must learn how to convey their messages in a narrative arc.

A recent example of this approach came from Cadbury's former chief executive Todd Stitzer during Kraft's hostile takeover. His mission may have been to extract more money from the US conglomerate, but he spent valuable air time illustrating how Cadbury was run differently by reflecting on its Quaker roots and thus priming the media to question whether Kraft was worthy of such a venerable British institution.

Above all, this year has taught us that, while there are a whole host of public relations best practice boxes to tick in a crisis, the person you put in front of a camera and the way in which they communicate with the audience are paramount.

Views in brief

- Which organisation has most improved its reputation in the past year?

The Royal Bank of Scotland was enemy number one but is now seen to be returning value to the taxpayer under CEO Stephen Hester's calm leadership.

- What is the most important lesson to have emerged from the BP saga?

You should not underestimate how fast you must respond in the digital age.

- To what extent do dwindling public sector budgets offer an opportunity for corporate CSR programmes to fill the void?

Businesses have a fantastic opportunity to make their CSR programmes really count. Imagine Dairy Crest giving free milk to primary schools ...

Ben Lock is associate director at Ogilvy London

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