When flawed Lucozade bottles were recalled in the UK several years
ago, within hours shoppers were returning their perfectly sound bottles
to stores in Singapore.
This anecdote, related in a coming book Communicating out of a Crisis
from crisis consultant Michael Bland, affirms the truth of the global
village - and the need for crisis planners to think, and act,
Demand for UK crisis consultants overseas is booming. Bland estimates
that his international workload has increased five-fold. Mike Seymour,
Burson-Marsteller Europe’s managing director, issues and crisis
management, reports a 40-60 per cent leap. And David Brotzen, Hill and
Knowlton’s director of issues and crisis management, says H&K’s
international workload has also mushroomed.
Various factors have contributed to this breakdown of frontiers in trade
and communications. Global commerce is increasingly dominated by
multinational companies that operate across national borders. A problem
in one market can spread to others, bringing down profits, share prices
and even brands themselves.
The proliferation of the media has also slashed a company’s chances of
keeping a problem ’in the family’. International news organisations like
CNN, WTN and Reuters can quickly flash information around the globe,
while 24-hour news channels and the increasing number of cable and
satellite stations are insatiable for news.
The Internet, with outlets in bedrooms and boardrooms throughout the
world, is also making nonsense of national borders. Although still used
a lot less often in the UK than a daily newspaper, the Net is not bound
by laws of libel or slander. Companies can answer critics by joining
Internet discussion groups or promoting themselves through their own
home page but, as Bland says: ’an anorak is more likely to believe a
fellow anorak than a company or a large organisation’.
Faster news transmission, via the Internet and more sophisticated media,
means the luxury of preparing a press statement to catch the evening
news, or the first edition, has gone. Mike Regester, a partner with
crisis specialists Regester and Larkin, says: ’There are no deadlines
anymore. There will always be journalists on the spot gathering
information, or people sending it over the Internet, as soon as a crisis
occurs. If a company has not prepared for a crisis before it happens,
they have very little chance of communicating effectively during the
The regular incidence of wrong-footed companies squirming under the
international media spotlight is also encouraging greater crisis
preparation. Last November’s Eurotunnel blaze, for example, was made
worse by the handling of the affair. Only 20 lines were available to
cope with thousands of press calls, media briefings were sparse and
French officials, who were criticised for their glib and vague comments,
seemed ill-prepared for the demanding UK press.
When a company does commit to global crisis preparation it faces
tremendous challenges, not least the need to foster a consistent
approach between corporate HQ and local offices - often separated by
time zones, culture, language and thousands of miles.
Regester says: ’A multinational company is like an octopus with its head
as the corporate centre and its national offices as the tentacles.
Trying to manage what is at the end of each tentacle can be
Centrally-imposed crisis operators must also be sensitive to local
Chris Woodcock, Countrywide Porter Novelli’s client services director,
says: ’No one takes kindly to having rules imposed from the centre, yet
it’s vital that HQ gets involved in sorting out serious incidents or
crises. Hence, those coordinating a crisis approach need to realise how
much time they need to invest in rapport building and crisis
Various approaches are used to ensure a company’s far-flung empire gets
- and, in the event of a crisis, gives out - the same message. The
process can be taken on the road: Hill and Knowlton recently took a
crisis roadshow ’on tour’ to a major food manufacturer’s sites across
Europe. Alternatively, crisis simulations can bring international staff
together in a neutral place or else utilise a time when key
international managers are already together, such as for a board
meeting. Another option is to take a modular approach and to hold
simulations in pertinent or key markets.
Experts agree, however, that foisting an ’off-the-peg’ crisis management
package on a company is not the solution. Before doing anything,
stresses B-M’s Seymour, it is important to examine the company’s context
to determine what international risks and threats it faces, what would
be appropriate crisis responses and who would take charge. Such
arrangements should always be ’road-tested’ through simulation. The
crisis plans themselves should be simple, clear and flexible enough to
adapt to any scenario and pay heed to different international time
Operators must also be aware that the media will treat an issue
differently in different countries. Regester reports that staff in
Malaysia and Indonesia, where a largely state-controlled media is gentle
on big business, can find it hard to comprehend how invasive Western
media can be. At the other extreme, in his coming book, Michael Bland
claims that, during the Brent Spar affair, the traditionally impartial
German media painted a much rosier picture of Greenpeace than of its
Agencies must also ensure their staff share a unified approach to
crisis-handling. To ensure Hill and Knowlton crisis staff tread a common
road, they meet up at least one each year to share best practice and to
hear global experts. A meeting, in Edinburgh this month will bring
people from around 30 H&K offices together for three days.
Smaller consultancies, without the luxury of an international network,
often work in alliance with foreign agencies for help with local,
cultural and linguistic expertise. This alliance can extend beyond a
single training event. Regester says: ’Training has to occur regularly,
to take account of changing circumstances. We cannot keep flying off to,
say, Argentina, so we try to help the client identify a local
consultancy to whom we can pass on our knowledge and who can take on the
training thereafter. Typically, we will return to the client every two
or three years, to keep them and the agency up to speed with best
Increasingly, crisis management specialists are also working with
clients to help identify and neutralise troublesome issues before they
become full-blown crises. The value of this ’stitch in time’ approach is
backed up by 1995 research from the Kentucky-based Institute for Crisis
Management, which showed that more than three quarters of crisis news
stories result from mismanagement.
The research found just 17 per cent of stories followed incidents
involving business crisis stereotypes, such as fires or explosions.
Media tracking of issues is a key tool in spotting possible crises. Paul
Georgiou, managing director of media analysis firm Impacon - whose
briefs have included keeping a Middle Eastern government up-to-date with
Western media opinion during the Gulf War - says media analysis helps
issues management PR overcome its dependency on ’gut feel’.
However, Georgiou says tracking the Internet is not so easy. He says
that although Impacon can calculate how many users visit the 70 or so
web sites the company monitors for clients, it cannot yet identify who
individual visitors are - so raising the possibility that a firm’s home
page is being visited solely by competitors, not customers.
Tracking is a key part of Countrywide Porter Novelli’s Internet crisis
Director John Orme, who devised the package, outlines three ways of
tracking news groups likely to discuss information pertinent to clients:
regular manual checks, agency software searches, or external monitoring.
’Manual tracking is the best way, because it takes the human mind to
follow the many subtle connections that shoot through the Net,’ says
Rosemary Brook, chief executive of Brook Wilkinson, also underlines the
human contribution to issue monitoring. As well as researching issues of
current importance, she says it is important to develop an intuitive
sense and knowledge of evolving issues, through such means as joining
’It is not rocket science,’ she says, ’but it takes a lot of effort and
focus and it needs to be sustained.’
CASE STUDY: EMERGENCY PROCEDURES
A recent Air UK disaster simulation training exercise, organised by
media management company Jeremy Hands Associates was even more realistic
than the organisers wanted.
Problems started when gung-ho journalism students, recruited as
reporters to cover a ’crash’ at Norwich airport, overstepped the
guidelines given to them and caused confusion at the local hospital.
The Daily Telegraph got hold of the story and reported that that the
hospital was poised for emergency standby - although JHA said that this
was not the case.
However, most crisis PR practitioners would agree that, when staging a
simulation, getting the right balance between credibility and chaos is
no easy task.
Chris Woodcock, of Countrywide Porter Novelli, says: ’Much of the time
that goes into planning a simulation revolves around two areas: making
it as realistic as possible, to achieve the objectives and deliver a
credible scenario that is fulfilling and valuable to the team, and
putting in place all the controls to make sure that participants don’t
get over-stressed or that outside players are dragged in and false alarm
Woodcock stresses that this balancing act is even tougher when running
an exercise on the actual site of an erupting ’crisis’ or when involving
To ensure participants are best prepared for a simulation, experts often
urge preparatory training. ’I think it is a big mistake to kick off
training exercises with a simulation. In such cases, people often make
lots of mistakes and become demoralised,’ says Mike Regester of Regester
’We always ensure people are well prepared before they run exercises.
Having done that, I think it is fair to push people to their
Regester also says organisers should not over-egg the crisis
’Some will try to squeeze two or three separate crises into one day.
This is unrealistic and can damage the credibility of what you are
trying to achieve,’ he warns.
Burson-Marsteller’s Mike Seymour stresses that one must always keep the
training imperative in mind.
’A training exercise has to be finely-tuned, managed and co-ordinated,’
he says. ’So that people are learning all of the time.’
FOOD CRISES: LEAVING THE PUBLIC WITH A BAD TASTE IN THEIR MOUTHS
The last decade has proved that there is no such thing as a crisis-free
lunch. Salmonella in eggs, BSE and E.coli in meat, and listeria in
cheese are just some of the added ingredients that have dominated the
Unsurprisingly, confidence in the industry has plummeted. A 1996
credibility probe by PR consultants Cameron, Choat and Partners found
food manufacturers, farmers and supermarkets/ shops came, respectively,
second, fourth and fifth in a league table of the least reliable
information sources on food safety. The survey, based on 1,000
interviews, put Government ministers and daily newspapers in the other
Despite such lamentable ratings and its past crises, some critics feel
the food industry is still ill-prepared for future bacteriological
Jonathan Choat, managing director of Cameron, Choat and Partners, says
another crisis will ’almost certainly’ see the industry in the same
’People are never prepared,’ he says. ’Some manufacturers do not want to
look at problems early enough because they hope they will go away. When
you are working with slim margins you do not want to look ahead.’
Choat believes issues like salmonella and BSE have hit the industry so
hard because it has ’too many chiefs’.
’In a company, when crisis strikes you have an MD who can decide what is
to be done. In an industry, it is almost impossible to have one person
in charge,’ he contends. ’It usually takes a disaster before people are
prepared to be cohesive. It’s like a war.’
Colin Doeg, author of Crisis Management in the Food and Drinks Industry,
says the food sector has been dogged by the fact that science is not
easily translated into straightforward PR. It can be hard to communicate
scientific concepts simply. So, when a bacteriological crisis hits,
science can rarely produce the immediate reassurance that the public
wants. ’The way information has come out over BSE has made it look like
a cover-up, whereas really it has just involved one scientific discovery
after another,’ he comments.
Rosemary Brook, who has advised the National Dairy Council for 13 years,
says that planning and on-going monitoring are doing much to help food
industries prepare for crises. However, she admits that it is hard to
see how the beef industry could have prepared itself for the enormity of
the BSE disaster.
Brook says the NDC uses a raft of measures to keep in touch with rising
issues, including regular meetings of a technical working party, where
technical and scientific experts pool topical intelligence. Information
from the meetings, which are chaired by Brook, then supports NDC
Brook says: ’The NDC is is as well prepared as any trade organisation
should be. ’Some companies are not well resourced enough to be prepared
to take crisis planning to its logical conclusion. It can be expensive
to get yourself in shape but, if something happens when you are not
prepared, it can cost an awful lot more.’
CASE STUDY: HELPING HANDS ACROSS THE BORDERS
When catastrophe hits an international company, executives face not only
the crisis itself but also the pressures of communicating with far-flung
parts of their organisation and of ensuring both local and corporate
communicators speak as one.
To ensure US cereals giant Quaker Oats was prepared for such a scenario
in Europe, it worked with its retained crisis support agency
Burson-Marsteller on a continent-wide crisis preparation and training
Mike Seymour, MD issues and crisis management, B-M Europe, said: ’Quaker
Oats already had a series of plans but, because they were operating
across borders, they wanted to update them and make them cohesive.’
The programme kicked off with the development of a draft crisis plan
which, following research, outlined possible problem issues and
identified appropriate crisis teams and communications plans.
After drafting, B-M sought to ’road-test’ the draft plan. Firstly, each
country office tested out the draft procedures to check their efficacy,
amending them where appropriate. After these local rehearsals, B-M
brought together nine country managers and representatives from Quaker
Oats’ European head office and its Chicago HQ to stage a complex
simulation on sixth floors of a Brussels business centre. The crisis
scenario involved production, operational and environmental issues,
which had caused spin-off problems, nationally and across-markets.
The simulation was made as realistic as possible: emphasising their
geographical separation, participants - who were in different rooms and
served just by fax, telephone and televisions - received only their
usual national broadcasts. The German manager, for example, only
received Dutch and German channels, not UK ones.
Despite such realism, B-M sought to balance stress with exercise
Radio contact was maintained between the facilitator and those
responsible for input, such as faxes, journalist enquiries and pressure
group demands, to ensure an optimum level of pressure.
Seymour says the operation was a success. ’It raised awareness of the
problems that could arise in a crisis and developed the ability to
manage issues and resources in a local and European context.’