The opening of British Airways' flagship Heathrow Terminal 5 in March could not really have gone much worse for BA's press team. A tardiness in getting spokespeople to apologise and explain, queues of angry passengers, mountains of lost luggage - even, at one stage, a journalist having the door slammed in his face on camera.
Just two months earlier, the airline's press team handled the crash-landing of a Boeing 777 at Heathrow with textbook aplomb. In full crisis management mode, BA's PROs expertly shifted the story from corporate disaster to the skill of the flight crew in saving the lives of 136 passengers.
The contrasting coverage meant the same team's PR efforts were cited in a PRWeek poll of comms professionals as both the best and the worst of crisis management practice over the past year. The survey carried out with crisis comms trainer Electric Airwaves also found the three main things that keep PROs awake at night: unexpected disasters such as a factory fire or terrorism (64.3 per cent), loss of public confidence in a company because of data loss or product defect (50 per cent) and losing control of an 'issues management' process (28.6 per cent).
Perhaps more worryingly, 78 per cent of respondents cited a lack of testing, training or preparation as their biggest challenge in preparing for a crisis.
At a seminar hosted by PRWeek and Electric Airwaves to discuss the findings, one reason for this was seen to be money: crisis exercises might need to involve a variety of government departments or agencies, making the cost seem prohibitive. Mind you, if you do carry out a full-scale crisis exercise, let the media know in advance. One London council famously created an entirely avoidable news story when the local paper turned up wanting to know what all the fire engines were for and why residents were wearing gas masks.
PROs agree that best practice dictates that scenario planning is a vital part of the process of crisis planning and preparation. 'But it is important not to make an industry out of it,' says Dominic Walters, head of brand & corporate promotion at BAE Systems. 'Some things can never be predicted - you'd be scenario planning forever.'
The wheel does not have to be reinvented with each issue or crisis either. Stephanie Forrest, Motorola's external comms director, business & technology, explains: 'Comms is closely linked to the legal team and we have set up an intranet site in EMEA for statements that can be reused or reworked.'
Media training is also a must, although deciding who gets it needs careful thought. One company's PRO told PRWeek off-the-record that none of its spokespeople had a media profile and that they refused to talk about anything other than the company's products. But talk to other comms heads and the opposite problem often occurs: a plethora of spokespeople happy to talk on a range of subjects, making them harder to control in a crisis.
Primacy is the key to handling information flow, deciding who has ownership of the message and when. This is increasingly important as web 2.0 changes the game for crisis PROs - news organisations are not the only source of potentially damaging material.
Electric Airwaves MD Andrew Caesar-Gordon points out that traditional media could not get to the Buncefield oil terminal fire in 2005 for a couple of hours after the fire started, but that did not stop Sky News playing amateur footage uploaded to its website, allowing conspiracy theories to fester. And in the midst of last year's shootings at Virginia Tech in the US, in which 32 people died, the media agenda was not set by the authorities, but by students on Bebo, MySpace and Facebook repeating rumour and half-truths about the ongoing crisis.
'Journalism has shifted from "trust me" to "show me",' says Caesar-Gordon. 'But the public still thinks of journalists as verifiers of truth and hasn't cottoned on to the change.'
However good your crisis planning, the biggest random element is people. Asked how BA could get it so right in one instance and so wrong in another, one crisis PRO remarked: 'You may have internal politics and egos to deal with. Things happen when people are involved.'
Best practice Top Tips
Must be a process framework, not a crib sheet, flexible, constantly updated and accessible. It should contain:
- Guidelines for assessing whether an incident constitutes a 'crisis'
- Communication flow for alerting key players within the first hour
- Roles and responsibilities of key individuals and contact details
- Internal and external audiences and comms channels to reach them
- Practise continual assessment and consider crises that may not be within your direct control but which could affect you
- Involve everyone in planning, from chairman to receptionist
Testing and training
- You can never do this enough - train new members of the communications team especially
- Arrange one on-site simulation exercise a year as well as crisis media training for spokespeople
- Impress upon participants that the main benefit of exercises comes from testing the process for managing information flow
- Establish primacy of role and communication, aligning internal and external message
- Speed of response may well set the tone of the coverage
- Have the right spokespeople (not necessarily the most senior executives) accessible to the media
- Don't make spokespeople your incident handlers
- Consider how to push the story on
- Control photo and broadcast images where possible
- In crisis mode, don't overlook the purely practical. You need to consider an alternative base if your premises are off-limits
- Another consideration is whether to switch from mobile to satellite phones, given that mobile phone networks can be requisitioned by the emergency services, as happened on 7/7 (see case study, right)
- Have a 'grab bag' that the duty press officer must take home, containing a manual, contacts and so on
- Make sure it contains keys for the office, too: that would have helped the PRO who arrived at the office at 3am on being alerted of a crisis - only to have to call workmen to break down the door
Terrorism case study 1: 7/7 London bombings
Crisis: London bombings
When: 7 July 2005
PR team: VisitLondon
Within hours of the explosions on three tube trains and a bus, which killed 52 commuters, journalists were asking the VisitLondon PR team to put some kind of figure on possible losses for tourism. 'We resisted engaging in speculation, partly because it would simply add to the drama of the story. Equally, we felt it was inappropriate given the loss of life and injury,' says head of comms Ken Kelling.
Transport disruption meant that the Tourism Industry Emergency Group, made up of people from VisitBritain, Visit London and British Airways, could not meet until the next day, but the group agreed lines to take, including not to 'worship the crisis' by speculating on losses to the industry. 'As well as the media, our key goal was to keep lines of communication open with the travel trade and other industry representatives who were desperate for information and reassurance to pass on to clients who had either booked to come to the UK or were thinking of travelling,' says Kelling.
The team quoted police advice instructing people to go about business as usual and conducted interviews in busy places to negate media images of the damaged bus. However, the attempted bombings on 21 July made it clear there was little the PR team could do that would be of total reassurance. It stuck instead to lines about the rarity of such incidents, Britain's safety record and the competence of security services. 'Whenever we could, we also made a point of correcting media comparisons with 9/11 and the earlier bombings in Madrid, partly because of the difference in scale. Our ability to recover, as well as to handle such incidents, would be crucial in giving a good account of ourselves to the world,' says Kelling.
Terrorism case study 2: Docklands IRA bomb
Crisis: London Docklands IRA bomb
When: 9 February 1996
PR team: Metropolitan Police and various government departments
An IRA bomb, estimated to contain half a tonne of explosives in a lorry parked near South Quay station killed two people, injured many more and caused millions of pounds worth of damage, devastating a large area of Docklands south of Canary Wharf. The incident also broke the IRA's 17-month ceasefire at the time.
All in all, this was a difficult enough exercise in crisis management, but the consequences of the blast had one crucial PR element that was initially - and understandably - overlooked by the Metropolitan Police's comms team. 'One of the issues on the night was not immediately obvious,' says David Holdstock, now head of corporate comms at Hillingdon Borough Council, who was then an area press officer for the Metropolitan Police. 'It was important that all the national newspapers that came out of Docklands were able to be delivered as normal on Saturday morning.'
As the PR team concentrated on getting information out to the media, answering questions about fatalities and property damage, newspaper delivery vehicles came some way down the agenda. However, Docklands was the home of several papers and it could have been seen as a greater PR coup for the IRA if they had failed to be printed and delivered the next day. The trucks were duly let through.
Holdstock recalls the comms effort as a partnership with the local council, government departments and the private sector: 'It's the same with any crisis: different audiences have different needs.' The Met PR team was on site for the best part of a week handling media enquiries, holding briefings in a hotel near the scene and at Scotland Yard, after which the local authority took over comms.