FOCUS: CRISIS TRAINING - Making a molehill out of a mountain/Unexpected crises needn’t spell corporate disaster if staff are properly trained to remain in control

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.

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

actual event.’

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

adversary Shell.

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

package SafetyNet.

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

pressure groups.

’It is not rocket science,’ she says, ’but it takes a lot of effort and

focus and it needs to be sustained.’


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

bells triggered.’

Woodcock stresses that this balancing act is even tougher when running

an exercise on the actual site of an erupting ’crisis’ or when involving

different cultures.

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

and Larkin.

’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.’


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

top positions.

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.’


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.’

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