As industrial action and tabloid exposes dominate the headlines, how do organisations prepare for the worst before it happens, asks Adam Hill

It has been a year of discontent. Neither public nor private sector operations have escaped their share of crises. Wildcat strikes were the industrial action of choice for unhappy British Airways check-in staff this summer, while postal deliveries are only now getting back to normal after postal workers at the Royal Mail decided to vote with their feet.

Elsewhere, a BBC TV journalist working undercover in the police force unveiled evidence of racism.

Incidents such as these have been in and out of the headlines throughout 2003, and while each organisation handled its crisis in its own way, it has raised the question of whether a full crisis management plan can feasibly be put in place prior to an incident occurring. To some extent preparation is essential, but do things happen exactly how they are envisaged?

Manchester United, for example, has set up plans to deal with stadium disasters. But it has nothing in place for star players being struck by a flying boot in the dressing room or missing drugs tests. 'We have detailed plans for major disasters, but not for more day-to-day issues,' admits outgoing director of comms Paddy Harverson.

It also poses the question about who is best suited to respond to a crisis - the communications industry has a multitude of crisis management experts, but many in-house teams would argue their inside knowledge leaves them best suited to deal with it.

Strategic Rail Authority (SRA) head of comms Paul McKie claims that industry experts are needed as experience of the sector is important. 'For example, while it's been a long time since the rail industry has done physical crisis simulations, we regularly run desk-top exercises to help concentrate the mind on what we should do in the event of a crisis,' he says.

British Airways senior communications manager Beverly Coates also states that the airline has developed its own crisis apparatus. BA has an emergency operational team, and Coates explains that the press office works within it.

'The vast majority of issues are managed by the in-house team,' she says.

'If it's a crisis or significant issue we keep the office open 24 hours and each take on specific roles: dedicated writer, updating the website, managing broadcast requests, fact-gathering, employee comms, an international role and so on.'

Pharmaceutical company Astra-Zeneca takes a similar approach. Crisis management plans have been developed in-house, with no consultants involved, based on the company's experience in various situations.

A strong element of defiance about their ability to handle crises is certainly discernible among in-house teams, and there appears to be a virtual refusal to countenance crisis help from outside consultants.

London Underground (LU) chief press officer Stuart Ross argues that while it is conceivable that private companies could advise on strategy, he wouldn't envisage it. 'The simple fact is that to deal with a crisis here, you need an intimate knowledge of the issues and personalities in London Underground,' he says.

He points to the fact that it is not just external events that shape crisis plans. LU's crisis management plans were revised in the summer, as responsibility for the organisation passed from the Government to Transport for London.

Ross adds: 'We have developed our crisis plans over the years, but have had to revise them. Now, different officials need to be informed, in the mayor's office rather than government departments.' So while LU's immediate crisis response processes have not altered, the key personnel have.

Interestingly, however, a survey released earlier this year exclusively to PRWeek (23 May), by KRC Research, revealed that less than half (32 per cent) of public sector PROs said they felt 'very well prepared' to handle a crisis situation, while 38 per cent had no formal warning system in place for tackling a crisis.

Yet, it is an issue the IPR Local Government Group has been trying to rectify. Chair and Chelmsford Borough Council head of corporate policy and comms Pat Gaudin explains how the group has pioneered the Crisis Communications Network, an 'informal' scheme intended to link local government practitioners who've had experience in crisis communications with another authority if, and when, it's needed. 'The objective is to put people on a register who are willing and able to give practical support at short notice, and whose chief executive is willing to release them,' Gaudin says.

She does acknowledge, however, that there could be problems with this: small authorities who have just the one press officer may feel penalised by losing them for a week simply because they have dealt competently with an earlier crisis. And, Gaudin adds, serious incidents tend to already galvanise communications support from other local authorities.

A formal scheme may even stop authorities from hiring external PROs, since they know they will be able to rely on support if a crisis hits.

'We are not trying to rush into anything full-scale,' Gaudin says. 'It's early days, but we have had expressions of interest. Gradually, we'll build support for the scheme.'

Despite the survey's revelations, and the set-up of the Crisis Communications Network, managing director of crisis management specialist Limehouse Partners Charles Lankester argues that in many cases, public sector organisations will already be prepared and often have enough resources.

'The level of attention from the press and interest groups means the public sector has to be more alert to crisis management,' he says.

Kaizo director Rosemary Brook agrees. She says the consultancy has worked with public sector clients on these crisis issues, and most have had the need for more elaborate plans than private sector counterparts. Health authorities, for example, won't be awash with communications people, but will probably have to deal far more frequently with what private companies would call a crisis.

Of coures, there is evidence of private sector companies having firm crisis plans in place, but Equanim MD Andrew Baud argues that from experience, it is private sector firms planning around crisis preparedness that still remains patchy. 'Occasionally, when talking to clients about the need to put plans in place to protect their reputation should the worst happen, the initial response we often hear is that it's something to be considered later,' he says.

Baud advises, however, that while organisations should rely on the level of experience of the in-house comms professional, it's entirely appropriate to cherry-pick consultancy services, particularly useful if there are any budget restraints.

Cherry-picking the services that you have identified as necessary is not the same as cutting corners, explains Hill & Knowlton director of issues and crisis Damaris O'Hanlon. 'But you do need some form of process pulling the organisation together,' she adds. 'There is no "one size fits all", but if you do your homework, you can buy crisis management smartly.'

Whether companies are within the public sector or the private sector, there are three questions that must always be asked. How exposed are we?

How prepared are we? And how risk-averse are we? By asking these questions, it's a way of making the right investment in the right place; if you know the answers, you can buy what you need.

It is an issue Gaudin can relate to. 'In something such as the Victoria Climbie enquiry, you have got time to look at the situation, working out how best to handle it when the report comes out,' she says. 'In a managed plan of measured communications it might be that you'd buy in a consultancy on a particular aspect, such as identifying the key messages. But your strategy would still be led by your chief executive.'

Many in-house teams already seem well prepared. But, while crisis manuals should contain contingency plans, including holding statements, press releases and perhaps details of third-party spokespeople, it's not possible to include everything. Otherwise, you may end up with a huge manual no one can read.It would be better to provide something instantly accessible, a distilled version of what you need to know.

Yet, for companies that do want external help, planning should be broken down into clear phases, says Brook. 'Phase one is always an analysis and review of current processes and procedures. It may be that it's an extremely helpful overview and in-house teams are able to take it to phase two - call-out procedures and messages - themselves.'

Crisis simulation is also important, claims Regester Larkin co-founder Michael Regester, but all the procedures are wasted if people get scared or forget. 'Crisis plans can be in place and procedures can be documented, but it is vital to test these procedures to check they work in practice,' he says. 'Make sure individuals understand their roles and responsibilities.'

Is it always feasible to have a ready-made plan to spring into action when a crisis hits? While it may be impossible to predict exactly what will happen, in a real crisis, it is important that full attention is devoted to responding, not working out how to respond.

What would you do if... experts on how to handle common crises

Product recall: your products have been tampered with, resulting in angry consumers, a drop in sales and a fall in the company's share price. What advice would you give the communications team?

Charles Lankester, MD, Limehouse Partners

Gather facts. There are a number of questions to answer. Will the result of the tampering merely be a nuisance or does it pose a health risk? Is this part of a concerted blackmail attempt or a one-off? Is a pattern emerging? Are the police involved? Act decisively. Based on what you learn, the primary objective is to secure customer and investor confidence.

As the problem is visible, and having a clear impact on business and share price, action must be swift. The company must demonstrate it has the situation under control.

If the tampering may result in consumer injury or death, there is little choice: recall all product and issue 'what to do' instructions to the public via the media (including advertising announcements) and retailers.

If the tampering will be a nuisance, but not a risk to consumers, communicating 'what to do' should suffice, and a full recall should not be necessary.

Plan for the worst-case scenario. Remember it is better to do too much than too little and then have to play catch-up. Customers and the trade respect a proactive approach. They do not respect a poorly thought-through approach that has to be amended as the situation develops.

Be open and accessible to all interested groups. Set up consumer helplines, put press hotlines in place, provide information on your website. If something is serious enough to worry your customers and move your share price, it is serious enough to devote resources to explain what you are doing to fix it.

Provide good and bad news. If you have only been able to recall 95 per cent of the stock, say so.

If you identify the tampering culprit, release this news. And highlight reforms.

Explain what you will do to make sure the problem cannot be repeated, such as new packaging, production techniques and employee checks. People understand that problems happen, but they won't forgive you if they happen twice.

Your local authority has been set up by an undercover reporter, posing as a member of staff. The journalist has exposed information that has caused public outrage. Without a large budget, how should the local authority PR team respond?

Andrew Baud, MD, Equanim

If the outrage has already been caused, you're on the back foot. It's no time to curse your lack of preparedness for crisis now, the key priority for the local authority is to regain control of the story and make sure its voice is being clearly heard. The senior management 'gold team', including the chief executive, should meet as quickly as possible to determine a plan of action.

During the course of the crisis, the team should meet regularly. Deputies should be put in place to ensure smooth running of the team's departments.

If the facts of the matter need investigating further before any public statement can be made, tell the media at what time they can expect news from you - this will buy you valuable time, reassure them you're taking the matter seriously, and confirm you're willing to talk about what's happened.

As well as the moral aspect of being open, honest and truthful in their communications, local authorities need to be extra careful that actions do not risk non-compliance with the Freedom of Information Act. The Act grants the public increased access to information, and unduly withholding the facts of a situation risks breaking the law.

Take steps to sort out the problem immediately, whether by suspending members of staff or eradicating the loophole.

Quickly prioritise your key audiences and messages, including councillors, town mayors and the local MP - all have an influential voice in the media, so it's important to ensure that they're telling your side of the story.

Decisive action is important, but hurried policy is usually bad policy. A consultative approach is required in which all interested parties should have a chance to comment on and input to any changes.

And it's always best for the authority's most senior person to take personal responsibility for fronting media interviews, as it says to the audience that the organisation is taking the matter seriously and dedicating resources to sorting things out.

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