Crisis comms: 2009 The Year of the Crisis

This year has seen a barrage of communications and reputational problems hit unsuspecting victims. Matt Cartmell examines some of the big crises of 2009.

Polution crisis: chartered ship dumping waste
Polution crisis: chartered ship dumping waste

This year, there have been fresh challenges in reputation crisis management. The public has become jaded, thanks to the lingering recession, and people are communicating more quickly than ever before. Any crisis will immediately be highlighted and accelerated by social media.

2009 may be the year in which crisis management truly moved from a 24-hour imperative to an hourly one. Insignia director Jonathan Hemus says a tipping point was reached: 'Social media drove and sometimes determined the outcome of some of the year's biggest incidents.'

It was not just Trafigura (see case study opposite) that fell foul of the web. Domino's Pizza had to deal with the fallout from a YouTube clip showing two of its employees depositing bodily fluids on pizza. And Daily Mail columnist Jan Moir was at the centre of a mass outcry on Twitter over her commentary on Stephen Gately's death.

Of course, many of the key crises of 2009 extended way beyond the web. The MPs expenses debacle was perhaps the single biggest crisis of the year. Political consultant and PRWeek columnist Tara Hamilton-Miller (who will speak at PRWeek's crisis management conference on 24 November) says MPs' 'lack of remorse' caused the most damage: 'It's going to keep on going - there is not much they can do now.'

The same might be said of the banks, which have emerged from the past year with reputations in tatters. Smarts director Alan Watson says there is a valuable lesson to be learned: 'They need to have a plan in place to rebuild trust once the crisis is over. It's recovery they need to worry about.'

Then there was the public outrage over the E.coli outbreak on Godstone Farm in Surrey. Tudor Reilly training director Peter Coe says: 'When you're facing a crisis, you have to take prompt and decisive action. The management didn't do that. It took two weeks until the farm was closed.'

Other major crises include the political storm over the release of the Lockerbie bomber, the Spinvox call centre debacle and the highly publicised split of celebrity couple Katie Price and Peter Andre (see case studies over the following pages).

Despite all the crises faced by brands, organisations and individuals this year, Porter Novelli head of crisis Neil Bayley warns comms professionals not to give up in the face of new challenges. 'I don't agree with those who say the digital era has taken reputation out of the hands of brands and put it in the hands of the public,' he says.

Weber Shandwick head of European issues and crisis management Rod Clayton sums it up: 'Ultimately, it's more important to think about what you want to say, and to whom, than about the channel through which you are going to do that.'


Timescale: May to October 2009

PR players: Bell Pottinger, Trafigura, Carter-Ruck

What happened

A cargo ship chartered by multinational oil-trading company Trafigura allegedly dumped chemical waste at locations around Abidjan in the Ivory Coast. In the following weeks, tens of thousands of people in Abidjan reported a range of symptoms, including breathing problems, sickness and diarrhoea.

Trafigura paid £100m to the Ivorian government to remove the waste, but denied any liability. In May, the BBC obtained documents showing the hazardous nature of the waste, and Trafigura announced it was suing Newsnight for libel. The Guardian then published what it said was evidence that Trafigura had attempted to cover up the scale of the pollution.

Later the same week, Trafigura agreed to pay compensation of £1,000 to each of the 30,000 people believed to have been made ill by the waste. On 12 October, Trafigura's legal firm, Carter Ruck, attempted to prevent The Guardian from reporting a parliamentary question by Paul Farrelly, the Labour MP for Newcastle-under-Lyme. Following an outcry on Twitter and among MPs, the attempt was dropped the next day.

How it was managed

Trafigura's PR agency Bell Pottinger declined to comment, but Chime Communications chairman Lord Bell told PRWeek previously that it had not advised Trafigura to seek an injunction and that Bell Pottinger had only provided 'reactive media relations'. Whoever was behind the decision, it has been deeply criticised by the PR industry.

Regester Larkin MD Andrew Griffin says: 'Trafigura, aided and abetted by Carter Ruck, committed one of the worst sins of crisis management: self-imposed crisis escalation. Seeking an injunction against publication of a parliamentary question predictably created additional publicity and refocused attention on the company at a time when media interest was subsiding.'

This 'clumsy decision' made the parliamentary backlash virtually inevitable and awakened the media's sense of duty to fight the case, adds Griffin. It also gave social networkers a chance to enhance their status by leaking the story.

Porter Novelli head of crisis Neil Bayley suggests a better route might have been to face the music earlier: 'Dealing with the negative coverage might well have been more straightforward and allowed for quicker damage limitation. In the circumstances, the company cut its losses quite quickly and retracted the super-injunction, which really was the only course of action open to it.'

He says the case highlights a critical crisis management principle: 'People will judge you as much on the way you handle a crisis as on the crisis itself.'

Weber Shandwick head of European issues and crisis management Rod Clayton points to Trafigura's £100m payout as a mistake: 'When you make a payment without accepting you've done anything wrong, people make deductions of their own.'

Insignia director Jonathan Hemus sums up what can be learned: 'The law can no longer contain damaging news. The need for swift, open, empathetic and proactive communication is all the greater as a result.'


Timescale: August to November 2009

PR players: Scottish Government and UK Government

What happened

Convicted bomber Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi was jailed in 2001 for the murder of 270 people when Pan Am flight 103 exploded over Lockerbie in 1988.

This August, the Scottish Government decided to release al-Megrahi, who was said to have terminal prostate cancer, and allow him to return to Libya. Medical experts estimated al-Megrahi had three months to live.

US President Barack Obama said the decision was 'a mistake' and some US victims' families reacted angrily. Conflicting claims were made about the decision-making process. Prime Minister Gordon Brown denied the UK Government had any involvement in the decision. But in September, UK Justice Secretary Jack Straw admitted the prospect of trade and oil deals had played a part in the release of al-Megrahi.

In the past few weeks, news reports suggesting al-Megrahi's health has not deteriorated over the past three months have reignited the row over his release.

How it was managed

Media House executive chairman Jack Irvine, who represents relatives of the Lockerbie dead, has dubbed the PR handling of al-Megrahi's release a 'disaster'. He says: 'The BBC in Scotland broke it as an exclusive. It then ran away with itself and got out of control. The rumour is there was a leak from the Scottish Government.'

Irvine suggests a better way of handling the story would have been to pre-brief editors of the national and international press: 'None of the PR people at Scottish Government level are really experienced enough. They are classic civil servants. They really could have used somebody with an enormous amount of experience to advise them.'

Irvine adds that the crisis was also damaging for the Prime Minister, who tried to suggest he was not involved in the decision. 'Most of the people in the US don't know Scotland has its own government, so that really puzzled Americans,' says Irvine.

Further PR trouble is expected, because this week marks three months since al-Megrahi's release on 20 August - and he appears to have defied the doctors' three-month prognosis.

Regester Larkin MD Andrew Griffin criticises the Government's use of language and 'spin'. 'Foreign Secretary David Miliband said neither he nor the Prime Minister wanted al-Megrahi to die in jail. Children's Secretary Ed Balls then said "none of us wanted to see the release of al-Megrahi",' he says. 'So they didn't want him released, but they didn't want him to die in jail?'

Fiona Wilson, deputy head of news in the Scottish Government's press office, defends her department's handling of the media. She says it had a lack of time to plan effectively, as the press conference was called the day after the decision to release al-Megrahi was made.

She adds: 'It would not have mattered what the decision was. Various people would have disagreed with it.'


Timescale: July to October 2009

PR players: Spinvox, Porter Novelli

What happened

In July, Spinvox, the company that converts answer machine messages into texts, was hit by BBC allegations that the process was undertaken by people in overseas call centres rather than by technology.

Spinvox chief executive Christina Domecq responded that the 'vast majority' of the voicemails were transcribed by technology, but it did use human intervention to add words to its database when discrepancies arose. Domecq blamed the rumours on a 'sustained attack' by former employees.

Subsequently, Spinvox has been rocked by a dossier, circulated anonymously to shareholders, containing accusations of misappropriated resources. Advisers at Deloitte and law firm Jones Day are investigating.

How it was managed

The story was picked up by the media and became a trending topic on Twitter within hours. Journalists and bloggers questioned whether the involvement of call centre workers in the Philippines and India in transcribing voicemails could constitute breaches of privacy.

In response, Spinvox launched a major PR offensive. The company extended the brief of retained agency Porter Novelli and used direct comms, media relations, blogs and social media to 'correct and explain the erroneous information'. It also invited the BBC to tour its UK HQ. Spinvox global PR director Jane Henry claims the coverage was not damaging: 'The bad coverage was almost entirely confined to the UK. Spinvox is essentially an export business and that has been unaffected.' She also hit out at the UK media: 'Such a feeding frenzy would never have happened in the US, where they believe it is their duty to support entrepreneurs.'

In August, SpinVox was accused of posting fake blog comments on several tech blogs - a common astroturfing tactic. Former Spinvox head of social media James Whatley claimed the author of the comments was 'a personal contact acting of their own accord'. Whatley subsequently resigned from Spinvox.

Industry figures have criticised Spinvox's tardy response. Speed PR MD Stephen Waddington says: 'PR is partly how it built the brand. Suddenly it has changed the way it communicates.'

Weber Shandwick head of European issues and crisis management Rod Clayton says: 'The way Spinvox chose to deal with the crisis was to be quite aggressive in public. Undermining your critics is a course of action to consider, but you have to do it credibly and with the right tone.'


Timescale: May to October 2009

PR players: Peter Andre with Can Associates, Katie Price with the Outside Organisation

What happened

In May, the couple who met on I'm A Celebrity ... Get Me Out of Here! in 2004 announced their separation after three-and-a-half years of marriage. Glamour model Katie Price (aka Jordan) said Peter Andre had made the decision to separate and that she would always love 'my Pete'.

But their split appeared to take a bitter turn as Andre, 36, said he could no longer cope with his 'out of control' wife. 'I'm not jealous of anybody until Katie's drunk,' he told The Sun. 'There's nobody I feel threatened by when she's sober'.

Meanwhile, Price made headlines with allegations that Andre had been unfaithful with one of their bridesmaids and she later started seeing a cross-dressing cage-fighter. She also jetted off for a weekend of 'alcohol-fuelled hedonism' in Ibiza, just five weeks after the split. The divorce completed on 8 September, with each blaming the other for the breakdown of their marriage.

How it was managed

Can Associates co-founder Claire Powell, who handled PR for the couple, issued a statement in May that they were separating. At that point, she made no further comments to the press.

Within days, Price had ditched Can, in order to appoint the Outside Organisation weeks later. Powell continues to handle Andre's PR. From that point on, there were clear differences between Andre and Price's media handling, with the latter indulging in frequent mudslinging. Powell said of Team Andre's response: 'The only time Peter has commented is when he had to respond to lies or had to clear his name. It's very hard, because he's had to do interviews for his album and single. You have to not give the full story and keep a dignified silence.'

Powell's stance has been to take up legal action against publications that print libellous material, if they refuse to apologise.

Andre gave his first interview to Fabulous magazine, which was deemed a successful placement by Powell. Another key campaign point was that Powell briefed Andre that no-one on his side should go out and sell their story.

Social media have played a role, but mostly for Price. 'There have been lots of things that the other side have put on the internet,' says Powell. 'Then the press calls. We have to respond if it's a lie, but if it's true and we respond, then it is represented as tit for tat, which we don't do.'

So how does Powell respond to Price's handling of the media? 'I would say Katie loves being in the media. That's her way of dealing with the situation. Some things have to remain private - that's the way we have told Peter to handle it.'

Taylor Herring co-founder James Herring says of the former couple's divided response: 'The fateful Ibiza weekend was a massive own goal for Jordan. Andre has chosen his words carefully and uses TV as a tamer outlet for his responses.'

Herring adds that Price's media backlash is probably nothing to do with Outside: 'Jordan appears to be out on a limb and running circles around her advisers. Andre is playing the wounded dad card well - although some of the long-lens photo opportunities are pretty cynical.'

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