Jonathan Hemus, Electric Airwaves: Think the unthinkable

Three crisis communication priorities should be considered for reputation protection.

What happens in the aftermath of a crisis shapes the future reputation of a business. According to BAA's Malcolm Robertson: 'You don't ever know what you will or won't do until you're in the eye of the storm.' Perhaps, but thorough planning, training and testing can remove much of this uncertainty and increase confidence that the right decisions will be made when the crisis strikes.

Many organisations plan and train for crises - although our research shows that most do not - but how does one ensure it is done effectively?

- How best to think the unthinkable and plan accordingly? BAA struggled to cope with extreme weather at an especially busy (and emotionally charged) time of year. But to be effective, crisis communication plans must be designed to deal with worst-case scenarios. This requires a willingness to think the unthinkable and consider risks from alternative perspectives.

Our solution is a reputational risk assessment, which flushes out risks that may otherwise be ignored or underestimated. We consider risks from the outside in (through the lens of an investigative reporter, a disgruntled ex-employee or a vexed passenger) and assess the risk impact in the context of corporate values. The end result is an approach to crisis management capable of addressing clients' worst nightmare, not just a day-to-day incident.

- How can we integrate our operational and communication response? At the heart of BAA's communication challenge was its inability to fix the problem quickly enough. Spokesmen did their best, saying: 'We're sorry, we accept responsibility and we'll learn the lessons.' But the most powerful message of all - 'we've fixed the problem: planes can now take off' - was missing. As Robertson says, BAA's challenge was not quantity of information, but more importantly its quality.

In his own words: 'We need to emphasise to our operational colleagues and the airlines that we need to provide better information to passengers.' How can one do that? We have found that inviting operations people to participate in crisis communication exercises cements relationships and, most crucially, increases their understanding of the importance and information needs of the communicators.

- How best to stress test our decision-making process before crisis strikes? BAA's decision-making process and its internal comms were severely tested by this incident. Allegations emerged that staff prevented passengers from filming disruption with mobile phones. Channel 4's camera crew was denied access. If these decisions were made, one has to question their wisdom. But the issue more likely lies with getting quick and clear instructions to frontline staff to avoid the communication of mixed messages.

One of the best ways of preventing own goals is a walk-through of your crisis processes via a desktop exercise. This war-gaming approach challenges every element of the plan and behaviours of team members. It forces you to consider the decisions you would make under extreme pressure and across multiple scenarios. It also allows businesses to understand better the reputational impact of individual decisions.

Judgements formed about businesses in a crisis are influenced by pre-conceptions. The British transport infrastructure is seen as inefficient, slow and over-crowded. Events like the Terminal 5 opening and chaos caused by the ash cloud mean that Heathrow has reputational challenges of its own. Businesses that communicate a compelling corporate narrative ahead of a crisis benefit from that positive platform.

Intense stakeholder attention will be focused on a business in crisis, but this should not be seen purely as a threat. Put your crisis planning into action and it can be a perfect opportunity to reinforce a strong reputation, or even overturn negative perceptions. That's why, as Robertson says, it's so important to 'keep rehearsing and evolving that well-used crisis plan, as you never know when the next one will strike'.


Which crisis did you learn the most from working on?

Advising the International Cricket Council on corruption allegations.

What were the most important lessons?

Communicate a clear action plan to tackle the crisis to show the organisation is in control. Make a trusted leader responsible for implementing the crisis response to preserve stakeholder confidence. Commit to transparency and two-way communication to emerge with your reputation intact.

Jonathan Hemus is crisis and issues management director at Electric Airwaves

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