Embrace the vacuum, rip up the rule book (sometimes): 11 tips to improve your crisis comms

PRWeek hosted its Crisis Communications conference this week in London, with speakers from brands including KFC, Samsung, Direct Line and Williams F1 telling delegates about some of their own experiences dealing with crisis and averting disaster.


From how to not say sorry and redefining a crisis as an 'investment', to establishing rules and then ditching them altogether, we've compiled a list of some of the takeouts from the Crisis Communications conference at Etcvenues in London's Victoria.

1) Prepare, prepare, prepare

While the causes of crises by their very nature often emerge from out of nowhere, comms professionals can help deal with the unexpected with a healthy dose of prep.

Before heading up internal comms, Direct Line's Jennifer Thomas worked in external PR for the group. She learned a lot about preparing for a crisis ahead of the UK bird flu epidemic that never actually happened.

"It was insightful to see how much effort is put into documentation and teams, educating and exercising," she said. "It taught me that there is a place for planning and preparation and that you should use non-crisis downtime to be as prepared as you can be."

Meanwhile, Mark Hutcheon, communications and brand director at Williams F1 Group, has worked in PR roles for a variety of sectors. His experience in companies in the gym and consumer electronics markets (including Samsung and Fitness First) make him well aware of the potential disruption a crisis can cause.

"Your core responsibility is having an architecture and framework [in place], with the ability to remain calm, not overreact, see the bigger picture and have common goals," he said. "If you can practise that inside the business, test it in a simulation exercise, it has a valuable role."

2) ...But be prepared to rip up the rulebook

But as much as planning and preparation can prepare a crisis comms team for the unpredictable, sometimes the old rules need to be thrown out.

James Coyle, head of PR at Samsung Electronics UK, had a baptism of fire into crisis management. In 2016, Samsung's global launch of its Galaxy Note 7 went from universal critical acclaim to media condemnation following incidents of batteries overheating and causing fires. Following an initial outcry, matters only worsened — from an airline flight being abandoned and outright bans of the device, to a new supplier battery proving just as defective.

"You are probably going to rip up your rulebook," Coyle told delegates. "Don't expect your comms team to have all the answers. What you can plan for in advance is ways of working on the procedural aspects of your response. But in a company that employs hundreds and thousands you have to tailor that response."

3) Build your team

Ensuring that a company has the right team in place to deal with a crisis is crucial. For Direct Line's Thomas, it's important to have mapped out the areas of the business that need to be at the table, irrespective of the crisis type.

"The obvious [disciplines] are HR and legal, the core members of the organisation you need no matter what the crisis is, and then build out from there." A specific crisis type will then require people from the business relevant to the audience and stakeholders potentially affected.

And who shouldn't be in the room? "People who are not media-trained should not be able to speak, period," she insisted. "Although you might need them peripherally, as gatherers to help you get through the crisis, but who don't sit at the decision table. Fundamentally you need decision-makers from the business, so it does need to be a senior team."

For Hutcheon, "when done well, a crisis management team should be lead by comms people and senior execs". "The chief comms person should be there as a quarterback and a subsidiary group should meet chaired by the communications manager," he said. Having an agency primed can also be key.

4) Refresh your team

He advised that "adrenaline only lasts so long in a crisis", and stressed the need to have "a line up of people" and "refresh the team".

5) Identify when you're in 'crisis mode'

Knowing when a crisis is a crisis is essential. Thomas stressed the importance of "really understanding your business and knowing what is an operational issue and what is a reputational issue". Assess which it is before entering crisis mode.

"There are all shades of grey," she added. "It's back to that core team of decision-makers. There's nothing wrong with mobilising and establishing what you're dealing with. It's crucial in those early hours that you've got people in the room. You might convene the core crisis team, but it doesn't necessarily mean you're in crisis mode."

6) Don't panic

"We went from hero to zero in a matter of months," Samsung's Coyle said. "Something that started on the operational side very quickly escalated into a reputational issue."

His key lesson from the debacle is that staying calm is vital. "In a situation like this, people are looking at the PR and comms teams for a sense that it's OK. You need to be the calmest person in the room to provide clarity. I found that being informed helped that sense of calm."

7) Embrace the vacuum

The traditional PR advice is not to leave a communications vacuum because the likes of the media and social commentators might fill it with erroneous, specious or deliberately misleading information.

"I'm not sure that stands in a situation that lasts 179 days with a technology media that is insatiable," Coyle said. "It's dependant on what the industry is and what the situation is, but you don't always have to fill a gap. It's OK to signpost information when it's coming, but you don't have to have answers at every point."

8) Avoid the over-trained spokesperson

Sometimes, being 'on message' can come across as too mannered: a robotic response from a company, or platitudes spewed forth by an overly slick spokesperson can do more harm than good.

"My sense is that people want to avoid overtraining talking heads," Coyle said. "Don't have them avoiding the question. If you're putting people forward for broadcast, make sure they have the authority to answer the questions that match up to your key messages.

"Trust will be dented by mistakes but it will be destroyed by deception."

9) Don't do a Paul Pester

Which leads us on to TSB boss Paul Pester (pictured below, image via tsb.co.uk). Six weeks following the meltdown of TSB's IT systems and payments infrastructure, Pester was grilled by a panel of MPs from a Treasury select committee. To be fair to him he did apologise. But he did so 21 times, to the point of it becoming meaningless.

As Gavin Davis, director of corporate communications and campaigns at Sky, points out, this was a character issue that further harmed TSB's reputation in the wake of a capability issue (the IT failure itself).

He quoted late American author and businessman Stephen Covey, who said: "You can't talk your way out of a problem you behaved your way into."

10) Redefine crisis as an investment

In the midst of Samsung's Note 7 scandal, DJ Koh, head of Samsung's mobile business, told Coyle that the company should "define the situation as an investment in the organisation".

"Flip it internally in the organisation as a mindset. Yes, it's a bad situation, but view it as an opportunity to make us a better organisation. The view from the top was that it was not something you would want to buy, but something that you can learn from as an organisation."

11) And finally... be honest

In the last few years, KFC has transformed its corporate culture from one of opacity to one characterised by transparency. It's a move that helped it hugely during its recent supply crisis, when it ran out of chicken and had to close 80 per cent of its 750 restaurants at its worst point.

Leading KFC's exemplary approach to crisis management was Meghan Farren, chief marketing officer of KFC UK and Ireland.

"Have a tone of voice," she advised delegates. "We weren't learning live. We were talking ourselves as we would as a team. It wasn't really a plan, We just stood up and explained what was going on and I think in the end the sharing of knowledge paid off."

KFC's honesty was a thread running throughout the crisis, to the point where it use a print ad to apologise. It did so with a "FCK. We're sorry."

"We needed to take control and to apologise, but in a way that people would notice and we wanted to stay true to our voice — us as a brand and how we were feeling at the time."

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