From financial collapse to body dimples: 'Control the narrative'

Forward planning and controlling the narrative were the most important messages from communications professionals as they shared their approach to handling a crisis.

Speaking at PRWeek’s Crisis Communications conference in Victoria last week, three comms professionals talked through their own crises, which included body dimples, financial catastrophe, and a network outage.

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Beauty brand Avon’s executive director of corporate affairs, CSR and sustainability, Natalie Deacon (pictured above), described what she referred to as ‘dimples gate’.

In January, Avon ran an advertising campaign for its anti-cellulite cream that had the slogan: ‘dimples are cute on your face (but not on your thighs)’. The US-led campaign was accused of body shaming and the brand ended up having to apoligise and pulled the campaign.

Deacon said they were not monitoring social media effectively enough to predict what would happen next as complaints and criticism spread across Twitter. "C-suite should have been more involved," she said. "And comms staff could have had more education on brand values."

She joked: "Dimples are cute on your face, but not in your crisis comms plan."

In banking, Chris Turner, director of corporate affairs at the Royal Bank of Scotland, explained the biggest turnaround in UK corporate history. Turner described how a bank with £2 trillion in assets, which was making more money that McDonalds just before the financial crash in 2008, needed a £45 billion bailout from the taxpayer.

"At the time, the bank had no voice, so it lost control of the narrative, and couldn’t explain how it was going to put things right. The comms approach at the time was not to engage, and [it was] quite hostile."

In comparison, Turner said the team planned for the ten-year anniversary of the crash. "We were going to be in the news whether we liked it or not, so we fed a narrative of how the bank had turned itself around."

The bank now regularly talks about topics like a no-deal Brexit and female entrepreneurship, and is more vocal about how it protects its customers.

Later, Nicola Green, corporate affairs director at Telefonica UK, explained waking up to the news that the O2 data network was down. It was the start of a 22-hour day that included 12 media statements. "I love a crisis," she began, "It’s one of the best moments in my job. The adrenaline gets me through."

On 6 December last year, thousands of O2 customers were unable to access the internet on their phones. While the network was down, she said it was important to be able to "dial in" for technical and legal advice. "Utilising WhatsApp group chat was crucial so that all of the comms team and senior leadership could respond instantly," she added.

Green said having a crisis management plan that includes the entire organisation is important. "We revisit ours on a monthly basis." After nearly a day, services were restored. You should never run away from a crisis," she added. 

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