The rulebook for crisis survival

There has been no shortage of corporate emergencies this year - not least at the BBC recently. Cathy Wallace pulls together expert views on the importance of planning

Cutty Sark
Cutty Sark

A severe crisis for a company used to mean being locked out of the building, freak weather or IT systems -going down. While these are all still real threats, most companies now face a bigger spectre – the looming impact of the credit crunch.

The economic downturn has already claimed several victims –  Northern Rock, Bradford & Bingley and HBOS, among others. But it is not just banks that need to be prepared for the worst, says Alex Woolfall, head of issues and crisis management at the Bell Pottinger Group. ‘Events are changing so fast in all sectors, not just banking,’ he says. ‘It’s completely logical for in-house communications teams to now think, “if something happened tom-orrow, how quickly can we respond and does everyone know what to do?”’

Most companies do have a business continuity plan in place that sets out what will happen in a crisis. But Woolfall says most plans are weighty, filled with jargon and do not really address how communications teams will handle the situation.

‘When it comes to who is going to be on the front line if something happens, it will be the comms team,’ he says. ‘Teams are now saying they want a standalone crisis comms plan that reflects what is in the business continuity plan, but can just be picked up and used in a heartbeat, rather than a phonebook or encyclopedia that no-one is going to read.’

Jim Ensom, a former BBC journalist and editor of new online crisis management magazine Reputations Online, says if Northern Rock’s comms team had been better prepared with a proper crisis communications plan, they could have avoided the chaos that ensued.

‘The business model was quite clearly flawed and they weren’t managing their risks,’ he says. ‘But when it finally came to a head they weren’t ready, so they misplayed that first touch from the media and support was lost. They should have seen it coming and been prepared.’

Tony Langham, chief executive of Lansons Communications, agrees: ‘Across the financial ser-vices industry, companies that had more detailed planning in place have fared better. If you look at the websites of large fin-ancial service companies, some have statements and a Q&A or film of the chief executive talking about the issues – and some haven’t.’

He says in future all companies should be putting basic -inf-ormation on their websites about the impact of the economic climate. ‘The real questions customers are going to be asking are, “what’s happening?” and “is my money safe?”’

Nick Leighton, CEO of NettResults and co-author of a chapter on crisis comms planning in a new book, Crisis Communication: Practical PR Strategies for Reputation Management and Company Survival, says a well-handled crisis can actively benefit both PR agency and client.

‘No-one would wish a crisis on a client, but it does provide an intellectual, and -often profitable, -opportunity if handled quickly and -professionally,’ he says. ‘The best way to avoid coming across as an
“ambulance chaser” is to build a proactive crisis communications plan before a crisis ever hits.’

Stephen Archer, director of communications and trustee for the Cutty Sark, learned the hard way how important a plan is when the ship caught fire last May. ‘The one thing we didn’t have in place was a crisis communications plan,’ he admits. ‘We did a good job without one because there were enough people around who knew what we needed to do – but everyone should have a plan in place.’

learning the hard way The Cutty Sark

Stephen Archer (pictured below) head of comms and trustee of the Cutty Sark. The team had no disaster plan in place and were forced to think on their feet

‘The fire started at about 4am and was out by 6.30am, and it was all over broadcast media and going into print by 7.30am. We had a press release out by 8am and continued to put out releases through the day.

We kept pushing with the story so everyone had something to refer to – you can’t talk to all the media all the time so you have to push out releases quickly. Ours went from “is it arson?” to “have we lost the ship?” to “what happens next?”.

‘We went to the media and said we wanted to talk to them about a public appeal for funds to repair the ship. I went on breakfast TV 24 hours after the fire to say what had happened and announce the launch of the public appeal.

‘Every crisis does hold an opportunity. You can’t bury your head in the sand; you have to know what the issues are and say you’re working on it. You have to come out fighting. As a result of this crisis, when the ship reopens in 2010 public awareness will be a lot higher.’


Seven rules of crisis management

1 People

The team involved in managing crisis communications should be fully briefed on who will contact who in the event of a crisis, and which method of contact they will use. Don’t bother with complicated ‘cascading’ systems of contacting people, advises Bell Pottinger’s Woolfall. ‘It’s got to be simple and realistic, because if the process is complicated it creates more problems. People must understand who to phone and what number to get them on.’ The Cutty Sark’s Archer also suggests keeping the crisis comms team fairly small. ‘You don’t have time for committees, as the med-ia drive the pace, not you,’ he says.

2 Roles and tasks

Have a checklist of what role each team member will fulfil during the crisis, and what tasks they are assigned as the crisis breaks, during the crisis and afterwards. Suggested roles include: briefing members of the board; internal communications and keeping staff informed; media relations; media monitoring; and online monitoring. Each team member needs to know their role, and other people’s roles, so they can work together.
‘You are effectively dividing and conquering,’ says Woolfall. ‘Instead of a comms manager having to ask people to draft statements and prepare Q&As, it should be happening already.’

3 Messages

Work out in advance the key messages you will want to communicate in a crisis. Don’t bother with corporate messages about vis-ions and mission statements – journalists aren’t interested in these. Think about what messages you want to get across about which journalists will realistically write.

4 Draft statements and responses

Having template statements ready prepared can help you turn things around quickly when a crisis breaks. ‘Most companies will know the kind of crises they might face and should have little difficulty in pulling together template statements,’ says Woolfall. Have background facts and Q&As about the company ready and to hand – journalists will want to know things such as how many people are employed by the company, how many -offices you have, are you UK only or do you have offices overseas?  A lot of this information may be on the company website -already, but don’t expect journalists to go looking through the website – have the facts to hand for them.

5 Speed

‘You need speed of response, but also speed of thinking and act-ions to be in control of the situation, rather than panicking to catch up with the media,’ says Archer. ‘You want to run the pace of the story your way and have the -media responding to you, rather than the other way around.’

6 control

Work out how you will take control of the story for each likely scenario. The plan should identify media-trained spokespeople who can talk in a crisis. Have some ready-prepared images available. If you don’t, the media may look elsewhere to fill the gap. ‘Control is the name of the game in a crisis,’ says NettResults’ Leighton. ‘This will allow you to protect the reputation of your organisation, so look at it as a wise investment.’

7 Practice

Teams need to be familiar with the crisis comms plan. Woolfall recommends crisis training twice a year and a simulation exercise at least once a year.  ‘One client I work with made it a condition of employment for senior executives to go through crisis training twice a year,’ says Woolfall. ‘That means when you run courses, people turn up. They know it’s a vital part of the business, but it’s also linked to salary.’

planning ahead Allen & Overy international law firm

Fiona Gaze-Fitzgibbon (pictured) head of comms for Allen & Overy Global, approached Bell Pottinger for help drawing up a crisis comms plan

‘We wanted something that would underpin the company’s business continuity plan. I had worked a lot in banking and consumer PR and the teams were really up to date with doing exercises where we looked at lots of different scenarios, and how we would react. I wanted to introduce that kind of thinking into the team so if something came up, our response felt like a natural reaction.

‘We worked with Bell Pottinger to draw up flow charts and checklists to make sure everyone understands their roles and responsibilities. We are still working with the agency in terms of pulling together scenarios and testing the comms response. We could have done it ourselves, but I was interested in an external view and the added value of learning how other people are responding to different issues. We wanted to learn best practice for crisis management and how we can adopt that and take it on board.

‘I would like us to revisit the plan on an ongoing basis and do a specific comms test twice a year. Every time we do it we will learn more about how we work together and keep improving it.’

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