When defence experts warned last week that businesses are just half an hour from reputational ruin in the face of terror attacks, the problems facing PR bosses at Britain’s major corporations came into sharper focus. Defence Review publisher Gwyn Winfield told a forum of in-house communicators that major corporations constituted as much a target for terrorists as ‘Whitehall or the White House’.
He said that if terrorists attacked with chemical or biological weapons, companies’ immediate actions could lead to them creating reputations as ‘paragons of virtue or as the people who sent staff to their deaths’.
Although CEOs and asset security chiefs are likely to take key roles in determining firms’ preparations for potential terror strikes, communications departments have a role to play, both in co-ordinating planning activity and ensuring that crisis management plans are continually updated and communicated.
If premises are subject to chemical or biological attack, reducing panic potentially decreases the number of lives lost, say experts, who stress the importance of understanding the ‘psychology of dread’ in handling internal communications on the issue.
Comms chiefs are likely to have a role in both company- (or sector-) specific risk assessment (some sectors being less likely targets than others) and in communicating practical health and safety advice that is relevant to the post-9-11 security environment. Firms that had planned for crises on the model of conventional terrorism by, for example, the IRA, are likely to find their crisis plans unfit for the new type of chemical or biological threat.
Winfield stresses the importance of preventing suspicious substances becoming airborne and points out that staff should head upwind of any affected area. While these may be considered health and safety concerns, the flow of information to all vulnerable staff is most certainly an internal communications function.
Similarly, it will fall to comms staff – without spreading undue panic – to raise awareness of substances’ potential impact on office systems, from IT to air conditioning.
Catastrophe Risk Management editor Lee Coppack says: ‘An appreciation of how people perceive risk should help communicators get the right message across. PR people need to take advice from scientific and risk experts and convey the message to staff in language people will understand.’
A spokesperson for business risk consultancy Control Risks Group, which reports a major upturn in work since 9-11, says: ‘Staff can gain a much greater comfort factor if you take them back one step and use communication to explain how the risk has been assessed. Firms need to take care with their use of language.’
Internal comms consultancy Synopsis director Richard Bloomfield says the comms team’s main responsibility is co-ordinating the internal and external comms. He says staff need to know what they should be doing to prepare for terror attacks – reporting suspicious packages, for example – and what the company is doing to protect them.
One PR head at a company in the chemicals sector says: ‘The job of communication is to keep an open mind and advise decision-makers about the consequences their decisions could have on crisis planning.’
Two organisations that continually review security are the Royal Mail and London Underground, both of which stress they have had to live with the threat of terror since before 9-11. A Royal Mail spokesperson says: ‘We have made it clear in our communications that the risk [of terrorist activity] is low. However, we have alerted staff to potential risks.’
Not all organisations are prepared, according to Commons defence committee chairman Bruce George MP: ‘Many companies don’t have a business continuity plan. Many have rehearsed evacuation procedures, but we’re not talking “fire in the basement” incidents – much more information needs to be communicated.’
Home secretary David Blunkett has acknowledged the public’s ‘thirst for information’, saying: ‘Information must be of practical use in order to reassure the public, [but] we are not in the business of issuing alarmist guidance that does nothing to ensure public safety.’
Wharton Center for Risk Management and Decision Processes at the University of Pennsylvania co-director Professor Howard Kunreuther has examined the changing role of the public and private sectors in dealing with what he terms ‘low probability, high consequence’ events.
Intriguingly, he argues: ‘Mayor Giuliani’s constant reassurances to New Yorkers following 9-11 may have done more to reduce the social amplification of risk than millions of dollars spent on pseudo-protective measures such as stationing the National Guard at airports and train stations.’
Ultimately, whether it is the Government or firms that are doing the communicating, it is a question of getting the balance right between creating awareness and creating panic. And as crisis consultancy Regester Larkin MD Mike Regester says, even if there is a danger of over-communication and thus cynicism, it is far better to have informed cynics than under-informed casualties.