Taking the drama out of a crisis

December 9, 2015

Last night I was a speaker at an event organised by the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) focusing on crisis communications and what to do if the worst should ever happen.

Here are is my take for working with the media along with a few tips I’ve shamelessly thrown in from Hilary Allison, Head of Public Affairs at Gloucestershire Constabulary and Police & Crime Commissioner for Gloucestershire, Chris Jackson, Communications Manager at Gloucestershire Police and Julie Jupe, communications guru at the University of Bristol and before that at the Environment Agency and Avon and Somerset Police.

I was focusing on media relations so it’s needs whole new set of presentations to talk about what needs to happen internally for employees, customers, suppliers and stakeholders.

Crisis, what crisis?

First of all let’s define a crisis. The BSI defines it as an ‘abnormal and unstable situation that threatens the organisation’s strategic objectives, reputation or viability’.

But I prefer to think of defining a crisis not necessarily by what has happened but where it could go next.

That’s why the media is so important. Screw it up and you would see your share price plummet, or your customers find alternative suppliers, get it right and you may have some tough times ahead in getting everything back on track but you’ll recover quicker and you’ll be much stronger with all the lessons you’ve learned.

Feeding the media

My presentation was called ‘Managing the Media’ but with the traditional media – newspapers. TV and radio ­– now feeding output 24/7, the demand for content is insatiable. Add in the social media and we all become the media sharing news in seconds. All we can do in a crisis is aim to successfully feed this voracious appetite.

In the immediate aftermath, the most urgent questions you will need to address are the human ones. Fatalities and injuries are first and the advice here is don’t try and estimate, only deal in facts. If you haven’t got accurate advice, explain you are seeking to secure that as quickly as possible and whatever you do don’t speculate as you’ll soon see your guesswork become media statistics.

Next you’ll have the other issues affecting people such as what is happening to employees, customers and other stakeholders. Then before you’ve had time to draw breath it will be who or what is to blame and how are you going to put it right.

20 years ago you’d have hours, maybe even a couple of days to prepare some of these answers. Now you’ve got seconds, and even then someone else on social media may be fuelling the frenzy for information online.

Tops tips

This is what you need from your media relations experts:

  • A first point of contact for the media. A dedicated manager, co-ordinator or team that everyone involved knows is doing that job. All press enquiries go directly to them. No question.
  • That person/team liaises with the important people internally and stakeholders externally to prepare statements, organise press conferences and interviews
  • Be very quick to say something. An official statement or comment out within 20 minutes is considered good practice by the emergency services leading a crisis response.
  • Issue regular updates and ‘boss’ the time. Let the media know when the next statement will be coming to manage expectations.
  • Never, ever have no comment. That response will be quoted directly implying you don’t care or you’re not in control. Think laterally about what updates you could share. The issue playing out on social media could be an update as it is can be with police investigations and the public sharing hashtags to find missing people.
  • Use the best communicators in the business as your spokespeople. Early on in the crisis they may well be operational. Save the big guns until later. Wheel out your MD, CEO, Chairman when you most need them. And, for goodness sake, make sure they are media trained.
  • Think photos, video and images. What can you supply the media that paints an accurate picture and adds to your response.
  • What about ambassadors, partners etc? How can they support you at this time by making a statement on your behalf, adding a quote or simply deflecting the heat from you for a while.
  • Monitor what’s being said in the media and don’t be afraid to challenge to make sure accurate information is out there.
  • For media outlets that you need to stay close to long after the incident has passed such as the local press or trade media, make sure you give the exclusive content or access to interviews. You are going to need them long after this crisis has played out so those relationships need to stay strong.
  • And above all, plan, rehearse and evaluate your crisis communications plans. It could be invaluable.

One last thought if I haven’t convinced you of the need to think to invest in preparing ahead…if you think planning is expensive try chaos!







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Caroline Rawlinson is passionate about the power of PR and its ability to impact the business bottom line. In recognition of her services to the sector, she is now a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR). Her business, The Vivid PR Consultancy, is an award-winning agency offering marketing communications, design and digital services.