Crisis Training: Facing the media

In the event of corporate disaster, a blood-thirsty media won't let firms take the ostrich approach. Mark Johnson reports on successful crisis comms.

Hiding from a problem only makes it worse. Oil giant Shell, one of the world's best-run companies, has fallen foul of this simple maxim.

It upset oil markets and investors in January when it admitted that it had over-estimated its oil reserves. It then found that its CFO Judith Boynton had failed to check oil reserves figures personally - she later resigned - and an investigation revealed that Shell's keenness to protect its public image prevented executives from addressing negative issues.

Although Shell may be taking steps internally to prevent another over-estimation of oil reserves in future, a fierce blow has already been dealt to its reputation by the whole episode - vividly highlighted in the media.

Shell provides a clear illustration of what crisis managers call the 'bunker mentality'. Many companies are guilty of adopting the same mindset when in crisis, the proverbial rabbit in the headlights effect. Experienced crisis managers argue that when any form of crisis develops, the way the company communicates internally and with the media will determine how much damage is done to its reputation.

Regester Larkin co-founder Mike Regester, a specialist crisis consultant, offers simple ground rules to companies in crisis when talking to the media: 'The worst thing is to lie. The second worst is to say nothing.

The key is to tell it all, tell it fast, and tell it truthfully.'

Preparing for the unexpected has a paradoxical ring about it. But crisis training in the form of simulation, involving full role-play with emergency services and journalists, is increasingly seen as the only way to prepare for scenarios that present a threat to corporate reputation.

Food giant Nestle operates in a sector notoriously prone to crisis, with its vast range of consumer food and drink brands available all over the world. Nestle UK communications and corporate affairs director David Hudson has been through several crises at the company. The most recent was last year when Nestle demanded the Ethiopian government repay £3.7m in debts while famine was ravaging the country.

Hudson says crisis training on how to handle the media is essential to preparation. 'The Ethiopian debt servicing crisis came from nowhere,' he says. 'Every crisis is different. Nestle has had, over the years, a simulation practice where we work with the police on an extortion threat. That reminds us all of the procedures to follow and we do that every two or three years. But the reality is that we've had a real crisis every two or three years anyway, so we keep our hand in.'

Handling the media is not the only concern for a crisis team, but when the media begin calling around the clock and from all reaches of the globe, it plays a central role in deciding how the company is perceived by the outside world, according to College Hill Associates partner Caroline Wagstaff.

In 2001, Wagstaff was director of communications at insurance company Lloyd's of London, which lost employees in the 9/11 attacks on New York and was widely highlighted by the media as the insurer likely to be footing huge compensation bills.

'What we were not prepared for was the sheer volume of calls. We were taking 500-plus calls a day from all over the world,' she says. 'You can't man-up overnight for a situation like that, so we developed a "triage" system in which the non-media relations people were a filtration system to assess the expertise level of the person who was calling. They would then log the call, ask an appropriate member of staff to call them back, and if it required an expert spokesperson to make the call it would be escalated to that level. If not, then a non-expert member of staff would call back and not deviate from the script.'

Managing a crisis

Lloyd's managed to field a vast number of media calls in this way. Wagstaff points out the danger the company saw in missing calls.

'Not answering the question was not an option,' she says. 'The usual instinctive response is to not deal with it and go into the bunker. The one thing that drove us was the realisation that this was the one time we needed to be totally transparent. We knew that if we didn't answer, we could have been seen to be hiding something.'

With a supposedly increased terrorist threat, crisis preparation has taken on a new urgency, says Mentor Consultancy MD Magnus Carter.

But he takes issue with some current methods employed by crisis trainers. The former BBC journalist argues that the use of actors in crisis simulations is unhelpful. 'We've found that actors never really understand how the media work. Real journalists can provide extremely helpful feedback,' he says.

Options in the face of disaster

He goes on to highlight a more worrying trend in media management as part of crisis training. He says the tactic adopted last year in Iraq by the allied invasion force - when it 'contained' the media away from the action in order to spoon-feed information - has become the accepted view of how the media should be handled by an increasing number of companies.

'There appears to be a trend of military interventionist styles of controlling the media,' he observes.

'In a crisis, people tend to feel journalists are a nuisance and think that managing the media is about sticking them in a room so they can't get out. What they fail to realise is that the media are often the only speedy way of communicating with all audiences, including staff,' Carter adds.

Nevertheless, talking to the media can be unwise for a company in the early stages of a crisis when the crisis team is busy gathering facts and information, advises Hudson. He says taking an honest approach and simply admitting 'We don't know' is the best approach at that point.

In some situations, a company has no choice but to deny the charges against it, such as in court cases. When former employee Steven Horkulak successfully sued Cantor Fitzgerald International over mistreatment at the hands of the brokerage firm's president Lee Amaitis last year. Cantor could do little to deflect the negative messages in the media following its legal defeat.

The aim of role-playing is generally to familiarise all staff involved in the management of a crisis with key procedures. Carter says: 'It will not feel like it at the time, but a crisis represents a fantastic opportunity to talk to the media that are on your doorstep.'

Communicators must never keep things hidden. Once the media uncover a secret, it will have attained a much higher public-interest value, and will be far more damaging as a result.


Coca-Cola announced the recall of all its Dasani bottled water in the UK on 19 March after bromate content was found to exceed legal levels. The decision came after Coca-Cola consulted the Food Standards Agency, which found that although the levels of bromate - a chemical that it says can increase risks of cancer after long-term exposure - exceeded legal levels, there was no immediate health risk.

'We volunteered to withdraw it on the basis that we could put (the problem) right immediately,' says Coca-Cola director of communication for Europe and the Middle East Jonathan Chandler.

'We spoke to about 100 journalists on that day.' The embarrassment was compounded by the fact that Dasani suffered bad publicity earlier on when British newspapers reported at the end of February that it used tap water as its source.

Once the decision was made to withdraw the product, the company was obliged to let global consumers know the reason.

'We needed to reach millions of our customers in 200 countries, so we went to the newswires first to ensure that other countries got the news from a reliable source,' Chandler says.

The UK withdrawal announcement compromised plans for different Dasani-branded products in France and Germany that were close to launch. After considering the situation, on 25 March Coca-Cola decided to postpone the launch of products in France and Germany in light of negative publicity coming from the UK.

Bromate was discovered in a single batch of Dasani on 15 March and the results were validated two days later. It was at this point that Coca-Cola's Instant Management and Crisis Resolution (IMCR) team swung into action.

IMCR was set up three years ago and runs in tandem with the company's many global bottling partners that operate as separate franchises.

Chandler says handling the media announcement was crucial to the whole process: 'It takes time to get round to everybody in the media at times like that. But during that news cycle, nobody was left unanswered.'

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