How to cope in a crisis

PRWeek's recent Crisis Communications event explored how companies can stay in control during a crisis. Kate Magee outlines the highlights.

Pierre Goad on the SARS crisis, pic by Rex
Pierre Goad on the SARS crisis, pic by Rex

Prepare, prepare, prepare - that was the message at PRWeek's Crisis Communications conference in London last week. Speakers including 10 Downing Street's head of news Vickie Sheriff and Channel 4 News' deputy editor Martin Fewell discussed what firms and PR teams can do in a crisis. Here is a selection of their insights.

THE BASICS - BE HONEST WITH THE AUDIENCE

Pierre Goad, Global co-head of comms, HSBC

Pierre Goad

Goad kicked off the day by outlining the three basic ingredients of a crisis - 'contagion, many victims and a perpetrator'. He spoke about his time in Hong Kong, where he experienced the Asian financial crisis of 1997 as a journalist and the SARS crisis of 2003 as a PR professional.

The Asian financial crisis taught him about limited perspective. 'During a crisis, not everyone will be perceiving or experiencing the same set of facts as you are. You need to be aware of everyone's limited perspectives,' he said.

He argued health crises are the most difficult to manage due to the high level of panic. The SARS crisis was frightening because there was a lack of information about how the disease was spread. At the time he was at HSBC and staff died. The medical advice kept changing. The bank took the decision to be honest with employees that it did not understand what was happening either: 'That's hard for a corporate to do. It took tremendous courage but over time it made people feel like they were in it together.'

The response reminded him not to underestimate the intelligence of audiences: 'Recognise your audience is more sophisticated that you think. If you don't know, tell them that.'

His best practical tip was to make sure you have a radio that runs on batteries: 'Often entire crisis plans will collapse if the power is out. Make sure you have extra phone batteries and buy pay-as-you-go SIM cards.

'Crisis planning is not about high level deep thoughts about the big issues. It's thinking through in detail what would happen.'

SOCIAL MEDIA - HOW TO HANDLE THEM

Mark Schmid, Comms director, TalkTalk Group

Mark Schmid, Talk Talk

TalkTalk's customer services team, comms team and community managers sit together in the office. This ensures the comms staff do not end up answering customer service issues. Internally, Schmid has made the case that Twitter and Facebook are editorial channels, so they do not come under the same legal scrutiny as advertising content.

Schmid's main message was to take a step back when dealing with social media: 'Fingers get itchy on social media,' he said, 'but you don't need to get involved in every issue. You can make matters worse. Always think what your exit point could be when engaging one-on-one.'

Schmid advises people to put a social media conversation in a real-world context. 'If I was in the pub and I overheard someone saying they were interested in a new service from TalkTalk but they didn't know how to find out whether it would work in their area, I would step in and tell them there's a finder on the site. I think that's me being helpful. But if I heard someone slagging off how terrible the service is, I wouldn't step in and tell them they were wrong. It's the same on social media.'

THE MESSAGE - HOW TO PRESENT IT

Vickie Sheriff, Head of news and deputy official spokesman, 10 Downing Street

Vickie Sheriff, 10 Downing Street

In a crisis people want certainty, information, reassurance and parameters.

Make any messages brief and simple. Be careful and mind your language - whatever you say at this time will be pored over. If you're going to say something sensitive, you need a named spokesperson. Really think about how the message will be perceived. Acknowledge the problem - put it in context, recognise the inconvenience for people and be consistent. And provide an action - for example, commission a review or seek legal advice.

If you are going to say sorry, the right time to say it is before it is dragged out of you.

Don't overplay your CEO or leader - save them for the major crises. Use experts. Visual stereotypes work - don't underestimate the power of having a doctor or policeman in uniform. If your CEO or leader is not a good media performer, take a video of their message and get another senior person to take the load.

Explain the process to show that you're doing something, not just running around the office with pencils shoved up your nose.

TOP TIPS - KEY STEPS IN A CRISIS

Rob Skinner, Head of PR, PayPal UK

Rob Skinner, PayPal UK

1. Take responsibility. Accept what's happening. Not knowing the facts isn't a licence to do nothing.

2. Have one voice - and find it before a crisis. There are so many moving parts in a crisis, you need to work together. For example, make sure any automated feeds are cancelled to avoid inappropriate messages like offers going out and looking insensitive. Also think about how a crisis for an industry competitor could affect your brand.

3. Be human in the way you act and the language you use. Act like a faceless corporate and you'll suffer. Many of us speak a different language when we walk through the office doors. For example, the term 'EMEA' only exists in organisational charts. Only put out messages that your users will understand.

4. Get social before the crisis. Have an established voice. It reduces the risk of satirical accounts.

5. Support your people. Crises can leave scars. They are emotionally draining. Withdraw spokespeople if they've had enough. Be aware that in the aftermath, employees may be ashamed of the firm.

'TRUST ME, I'M A JOURNALIST'

Martin Fewell, Deputy editor, Channel 4 News

Martin Fewell, Channel 4 News

Fewell said he wanted to dispel the myth that journalists are untrustworthy:

'The best stories come from trusted sources. If a journalist can't build a network of confidential sources, they're not going to be a high flier.

If you are not operating on the principle of "what will this look like on the news tonight" then you should be. My team are tasked with finding the truth. I want them to find new insights and ask counter-intuitive questions.

Aside from the FT, trade and select specialists, most journalists these days are generalists. The biggest problem you'll find in a crisis is ignorance, journalists that do not understand your business.

We are all in the content business. Twitter turns all your staff into a PR officer for your business. Get to know your relevant journalists. Find out what they are interested in and build relationships. Make sure you have trust in the bank.'

THE DAY IN TWITTER

@TUINewsRoom Great presentation from Vickie Sheriff from No. 10 at #PRWcrisis session on getting the tone and message right in a crisis - chloe

@joelbrowncnn Interesting morning #PRWcrisis Next up Vickie Sheriff, David Cameron's official

@VirgoConsumer Thanks to Sam Lister for insights on how DH handled PiP implant scare and having to communicate with very little evidence #PRWcrisis

@robskinner Pierre Goad: treat audiences as intelligent. If you don't know the answers, be honest and say so. #PRWcrisis

@hannahcole83 Great start to the PRWeek Crisis Communications conference with two talks from HSBC and Starbucks.#PRWcrisis

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