FOCUS: CRISIS TRAINING; Keeping cool in the line of fire

PRESSURE: Technological growth has reduced the time that companies now have to respond to crises SIMULATION: Staging ‘real-life’ situations to train staff how to manage the media under extreme pressure MANAGEMENT: Changing attitudes have encouraged training to develop to handle most worst case scenarios

PRESSURE: Technological growth has reduced the time that companies now

have to respond to crises

SIMULATION: Staging ‘real-life’ situations to train staff how to manage

the media under extreme pressure

MANAGEMENT: Changing attitudes have encouraged training to develop to

handle most worst case scenarios

When disaster strikes so do the press, but crisis training can ensure

that the PR team are ready to face the barrage of reporters swiftly and

effectively. Kate Nicholas reports

Sunday 8am: the chief executive of a leading petrochemical company

receives a frantic call from his deputy to say that a tanker has gone

aground off the South coast. By 8.30am, the hapless CEO is fielding

calls at the company HQ while international camera crews film crowds of

protesters on the not-so-white cliffs of Dover who have been alerted by

one of the many pressure groups on the Internet.

This kind of hypothetical scenario - so beloved of crisis training

experts - is increasingly likely to become a reality with the growth of

instantaneous communication and the sophistication of the media.

Even the tree-dwelling protesters at Newbury use mobile phones to co-

ordinate their ‘personnel’ while a Friends of the Earth page on the Web

provides constantly updated campaign information. When Greenpeace staged

its high-profile stand against the sinking of the Brent Spar oil

platform, it not only posted information on the Web, but was reported to

have airlifted sophisticated filming equipment and a satellite down

station on to the rig, so that they could provide their own VNRs direct

to news outlets.

Corporate crises, ranging from product failure to consumer terrorism,

can quickly pick up momentum in cyberspace - a prospect which Walborough

Media Relations head John Stonborough describes as ‘terrifying’. ‘The

problem is that there is no way of stopping it and the volume is

relentless. In one case we have seen up to 700 messages appear in day,’

he says. ‘There is also no way of assessing the validity of information

on the Internet.’

PR and training agencies are gradually waking up to this new techno-

threat. Countrywide has just launched SafetyNet, a crisis management and

training programme

designed to help companies at risk from a hitherto unknown phenomenon -

the cyber-terrorist. The agency can now train clients on planning and

response techniques including technical tracking mechanisms and the

practical use of Websites as a means of responding to potentially

damaging criticisms.

Countrywide Communications deputy managing director Chris Woodcock says:

‘By its nature, rumours grow quickly on the Net, can be taken as fact,

and can cause untold damage to a company’s reputation and share value,

as Intel discovered in 1994, when it failed to respond adequately to

Internet users’ concerns about the new Pentium chip.’

The Intel scenario - where Internet users created a ‘virtual’ pressure

group, and forced Intel into a costly product recall - is seen as

something of a landmark in the development of crisis training.

Michael Bland, communications consultant and author of ‘The Crisis

Checklist’, says: ‘It taught people for the first time that you had an

uncontrolled medium. When you look at developments like Intel or a hi-

tech Greenpeace you can see that crisis is always one step ahead - there

is always a new threat to keep your eye open for.’

Independent consultant Simon Taylor, who chairs Hawskmere’s crisis

management seminars, experienced the speed of the on-line pressure group

network at first hand when one of his clients was alerted to a problem

at a factory in Indonesia.

According to Taylor, a local human rights activist got on the case and

within 48 hours pickets had gathered outside a retail store in Aberdeen.

‘The Internet is one of the ways in which pressure groups mobilise

public opinion providing briefing materials and updates on campaigns to

activists all over the world instantaneously.’ says Taylor. ‘To maintain

an effective early warning system it is no longer enough to look at the


So as the Internet turns lead times from hours to minutes, companies are

having to master monitoring of the Internet while also learning how to

use it to their own advantage. At the same time added pressure has been

applied by the plethora of local radio stations, cable and satellite

channels, including 24-hour rolling news channels clamouring for


The media spotlight on high-profile cases such as Brent Spar and the

unfortunately timed sailing of the re-fitted QE2 has undoubtedly led to

an overall growth in reputation risk management. Independent research

commissioned by Regester Larkin partner Michael Regester has revealed

that 70 per cent of top UK companies now have crisis management and

training programmes in place, compared to 30 per cent five years ago.

‘People are less resistant to spending money on preparing for a crisis

which they hope will never happen,’ says Sheldon Communications managing

director Peter Sheldon Green. And Taylor, who has traditionally been

called upon to train major public companies and big brand producers,

says that seminars for government bodies, local authorities, government

executive agencies and newly-privatised associations now account for

around half of his company’s turnover.

Significantly, Taylor has also been called in to train lawyers in PR

crisis management skills, while Stonborough has noted an increasing co-

operation between the two traditionally antagonistic camps. ‘Lawyers are

beginning to recognise the importance of PR in any crisis,’ says

Stonborough. ‘In the past clients used to listen to their PR people but

do what the lawyers said.’

Countrywide has also reported an increase in the breadth of

understanding that clients want to buy. ‘In the last three years, we

have offered training in the UK, Europe and Asia Pacific, ranging from

environmental hazards to insight into the protocol of emergency

services,’ says Woodcock.

This increase in the diversity of training demands led Countryside to

establish its Reflex crisis network of experts including ex-Scotland

Yard assistant chief constable Brian Worth who has worked with the

agency training clients such as Texaco.

The media explosion surrounding ‘mad cow disease’ has also alerted many

companies to the importance of spotting perceived threats. As Colin

Doeg, author of the recently published Crisis Management in the Food and

Drinks Industry points out: ‘In the case of BSE, the fact that there is

no sound scientific evidence of a link is unacceptable to consumers but

organisations are often not in a position to give a simple black and

white answer to a question and it looks as if they are being evasive

when all they are doing is being honest.’

As a result of such seemingly intangible threats, Hill & Knowlton

director, issues and crisis management David Brotzen, is currently

training his staff in ‘vulnerability management’ skills.

While media training remains at the core of crisis preparation, this

discipline too is changing. To prepare clients for the intensity of the

media onslaught, agencies such as H&K and The Communicators not only

handle face-to-face interviews but provide training on press conference

techniques and down-the-line radio interviews. Peter Geraghty, director

of The Communicators, has installed ISDN links for several of his

clients: ‘ISDN introduces the real person to the broadcaster rather than

just a syndicated tape,’ he says. ‘You don’t want to be sending a chief

executive out to a radio station when he needs to be monitoring response

to an incident.’ The company is also now arranging for clients to use a

video contribution point to enable them to conduct remote interviews

with TV stations.

But no matter how fast the technological goalposts keep moving, the real

challenge of crisis training boils down to changing management

attitudes. As Bland points out: ‘ you have to be a professional trainer

and something of a psychologist. People such as chief executives and

lawyers will never say or do the right thing in a crisis until they

understand how it feels to be an angry customer, a journalist under

pressure or a mildly unhinged campaigner.’

Technology: Software to restore a level playing field

David Brotzen director, issues and crisis management at Hill & Knowlton,

has taken to fighting fire with fire and developed a crisis management

software programme designed to help companies deal with, and train for,

a broad range of potential crises. The agency has already supplied

bespoke versions of the software to several of its clients and is

actively employing the system in its training programmes.

Brotzen describes the programme as ‘a crisis manual stored in

interactive format.’ The entire programme and relevant company data is

stored on an easily portable disc which can be cheaply and easily

distributed to manufacturing sites or distribution outlets worldwide.

‘A number of clients have it in place at the moment. It is an

inexpensive medium, it also a lot easier to use than a massive crisis

manual,’ says Brotzen. ‘Almost all of our clients are multi-operational

often in different continents and something like this enables them all

to sing from the same song sheet.’

The software leads participants through all the major elements of a

crisis management campaign from key principles and objectives through to

pre-prepared contact lists and approved holding statements all accessed

through a series of hotspots. Lists and holding statements can also be

printed out and dovetailed with existing databases to create standard

letters to be sent out to distributors or customers likely to feel the

knock-on effect of the crisis. The system also allows clients to store

maps and video footage. At present the programme is available in two

formats; a graphic format for training, and the more ‘incident-friendly’

quick response format which allows a crisis team to instantly pull up

the required checklists, contact information and prepared statements.

‘The disc contains the basic information you need to solve the crisis

from a communications point of view,’ says Brotzen. ‘It is not

sufficient to say it is okay our corporate headquarters is dealing with

it - it is just as likely that media in a remote location could drive

the issue. That’s why a system like this,where a manager has the basic

skills in place, can provide an initial reaction that has been approved,

while more sophisticated reactions come racing down the line.’

Case study: Texaco prepares managers for the front line

When Texaco briefed Countrywide to prepare its front line site managers

to handle a refinery fire or criminal attack, the consultancy went to

the top floor of Scotland Yard for assistance.

An audit of depot managers highlighted their concern about how to handle

the potentially conflicting roles and priorities of the emergency

services - the fire brigade, police and ambulance - as they arrive on

the scene of an incident. Texaco has a central press office situated in

London so if an incident took place many local depot managers would find

themselves fielding press and emergency service enquires for up to four

hours before the company’s crisis management specialists could appear on

the scene.

Countrywide drafted in Brian Worth, former assistant chief constable of

Scotland Yard and a founder member of the consultancy’s Reflex crisis

network to help to develop a training programme. He used his experience

as a co-ordinator of emergency services to help train Texaco’s managers

to understand the different concerns of the various emergency services,

and to anticipate the potential heat of a crisis.

More than 50 managers were put through the two-day training course,

which included a media relations element. Radio and TV newsman John

Humphrys was brought in to apply appropriate media pressure as the

managers developed techniques for assembling, communicating and managing

information in a crisis. They were subjected to direct doorstepping,

filmed and then shown how judicious editing could take their comments

out of context and alter the flavour of the story.

‘We trained the managers to help them through the three or four hours

when they might be the only face of Texaco,’ says Countrywide director

John Orme. ‘If they are the only person available to stand in front of

the camera they have to be credible’

Other crisis training projects undertaken by the agency for the

petrochemical sector include the organisation of Europe’s largest

simulated motorway crash. Paul Davidson, head of Countrywide’s

environmental communications unit designed the simulation with the aim

of linking communications planning and management with hazardous

operations training and crisis management within the oil industry.

The event was staged at the Fire Service College at Moreton-in-Marsh,

Gloucestershire and involved more than 35 vehicles including a petrol

tanker, commercial vehicles and a number of cars provided by the

college. Actors were recruited to play crash victims to add urgency to

the simulation, which was staged on a stretch of motorway used by the

college for the training of emergency services.

‘We took the kind of exercise that the Fire Service College runs and

then added the impact of media attention,’ says Orme.

The programme attracted around 50 oil and petrochemical company

delegates, many of whom returned the following year when Countrywide

devised a simulation to help the college launch its latest training

facility - a full-size mock-up of an oil platform on to which the

Countrywide team arranged for a helicopter to crash, creating a crisis

training incident around a formal programme.

According to Orme: ‘Normally talks on hazardous planning take place in

lecture rooms. This was the first time that many delegates had been able

to combine the benefits of dealing with the shock of a live incident

with planning and communications.’

Case study: London City Airport plays crash test dummy

The world’s airlines and air transport operations are among the most

enlightened industry sectors in terms of crisis management preparation

and training. With direct responsibility for not only their own

reputation, but customers’ lives on a daily basis, airports such as

London City have invested in complex crisis management systems and

undertake regular trials and testing in order to meet Civil Aviation

Authority regulations.

In spring 1995, London City Airport’s head of airport operations Jon

Horne staged a full disaster scenario with the co-operation of the local

authority, police force and fire brigade. The airport’s retained agency

GCI advised on media relations, and with three of the Airport’s

marketing team acted as representatives of the media in the role-playing


One Sunday morning at 10am, the ‘media’ at GCI were alerted by ‘Reuters’

to the hypothetical accident at the London City Airport in which a plane

had overshot the runway and crashed into a Docklands Light Railway

train. The team then rushed to the airport and began their real time

‘role playing’ as news-thirsty media hounds, attending half-hourly press

briefings and gaining access to administrative areas of the airport

normally out of bounds but likely to be breached by investigative

reporters. GCI staff, with access to in-house direct lines, busied

themselves ringing through to senior directors on their private lines

‘testing how people react to phone calls when they least want them. With

the sophistication of the media, there is no privacy these days and the

lines are having to be drawn further back,’ says GCI director and role-

playing ‘journo’ Nicholas Walters. ‘Camera and sound equipment is now so


As part of the training scenario, the GCI team flagged up the speed with

which information can be accessed and relayed by journalists. ‘The

amount of database information which journalists can now tap into via

information services worldwide gives them access to information about

aircraft so quickly,’ says Walters, who used crisis manuals and in-depth

knowledge of the airport to recreate the informed level of investigative

reporting that the airport authorities would be likely to face in a

real-life accident scenario.

‘You can easily be wrong-footed by going to the first press conference

with sketchy details as you haven’t yet got information back from the

site, only to be faced by a technical journalist asking detailed

questions about accident ratios world-wide.’ adds Walters.

The crisis team received a drip-feed of information throughout the day,

to duplicate the frustrations of a real accident scenario, in which a

real picture of the event would be built up gradually.

‘Although they know that it is a training exercise, they are

frighteningly ignorant in the first few hours,’ says Walters who adds

that training days can often prove almost as stressful as a real-life


At the same time, the media was provided with access to telephone lines,

the police and airport staff. ‘By the time they attend the second press

conference, the journalists were well-informed, and the airport

crisis team’s efforts to field their enquiries were captured on video

for later analysis.

‘24-hour media has changed things enormously, ‘ says Walters. ‘ Seven or

eight years ago, you would have been writing plans where the kind of

time lag between an accident taking place and the media being at the

airport was anything up to an hour. Now in the case of an accident, the

first stringer will be in the area within about seven minutes.’

Simulations: Creating a sense of team spirit

Despite the expense of running full scale simulation training and

testing sessions, an increasing number of companies are willing to put

themselves through the stress of real-time mock-up crises to prepare

themselves for the speed of a modern media onslaught. At the same time

companies also see simulations as a team building exercise and a means

of ensuring that a future crisis won’t be handled by a group of

comparative strangers.

However, in practice, most staff find training simulations almost as

terrifying as a real-life crisis, and in the relatively rare situation

where the staff are led to believe that the nightmare unfolding in front

of them is for real, the reaction can be one of anger.

As Sheldon Green points out, handling such ‘real-life’ simulations

requires not only superb interpersonal skills, but also stringent damage

limitation to prevent the ‘crisis’ spreading from the fictional into the

factual arena, as worried staff seek to reassure friends and relatives.

Media handling also requires a rather different training perspective.

‘It is a kind of negative training,’ says Sheldon Green. ‘The vast

majority of people who work in our business spend a lot of the time

looking to gain coverage. It is quite an unusual experience for people

in this business to be managing press coverage instead of just trying to

obtain it. It is a major shift of attitude and position and unless they

are trained, they are not competent to do it.’

Hill & Knowlton director David Brotzen, who was responsible for setting

up H&K’s European crisis management network, now plans to use simulation

as a means of bringing his own crisis management staff up to a common

European standard. He has already run a series of workshops bringing

together crisis management specialists from 19 H&K offices to share

their experiences, while also analysing past crises such as the Estonia

ferry disaster. But he says that talking about theissues involved can

only take operatives to a certain level of readiness and it is through

real-time simulations that staff really learn how to prepare for a

crisis scenario. ‘The time to start learning about a crisis management

is not at the client’s expense’ he says.

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