Communicating through a crisis Article icon

Communicating Helen Dunne reviews a morning debate

Tony McGarahan, former director of communications, Bradford & Bingley

A crisis represents a massive opportunity for a PR because, if you ever happen to be involved in one, it is normally an absolutely fantastic experience. It is normally pretty stressful but it also can also be a lot of fun. To have one on your CV is fortunate. It is not every day you get to do one. You will come out on the other side having learned a lot.

[A crisis] affects every stakeholder group - from staff, customers, government, regulators, the media. You name it, [a crisis] touches it.

Do not underestimate the power and voice of educated, intellectual, media savvy action groups when a crisis is brewing. Do not alienate action groups. They are sometimes seen as the enemy but really you need to engage with them, listen to them, and work with them and not against them.

If you are dealing with bad news, make sure that you tell the truth. You cannot bury bad news.

One of the things that I have learned, particularly whilst at Equitable Life [the insurance company which had a £4.5 billion funding shortfall], which was a moving target, was the power of being prepared. It is the ability, before a crisis, to know who is going to go where, who is going to say what and how it is going to be said, and where so and so is going to be. If you do have crisis plans, dust them off.

Business continuity plans are not crisis plans. I asked for the crisis plan at a company I am advising, and they gave me their business continuity plan. That business continuity plan was about the systems going down and how it would impact customer service. It had nothing to do with the reputation of the company, apart from the line 'we can't deal with our customers for a couple of hours until our backup systems come in'.

You should not respond and react to everything. Part of planning is educating your executive teams, your board of directors that: 'We are not going to react. We've got a plan. And this is what we are going to do'. However, there is a new phenomena that has grown up in corporate life in the last few years which is social media which can fuel issues that could become crises. But it still doesn't mean that, just because someone is saying something out there, you have torespond. It needs to be a planned response. But make sure that you are responding. Silence is a sin when it comes to crisis.

There is a degree of planning that is needed and, using a military term, it does need to be regimented. Where will the CEO go? Who is going to take him there? Who goes into the 'war room'? Where is the 'war room'? Where are the computers that go into the 'war room'? Is there a freephone number that is set up? Who activates it?

The CEO has to become, when the crisis does blow, the public face of that crisis.

Some CEOs have got great faces for radio but they may be called upon to go on the BBC or on ITN. If handled correctly, this can become an opportunity. I would advise you to read up on Sir Michael Bishop [former chief executive of British Midland] when he handled the plane crash on the M1. On the back of a pilot error, 40 odd people died. The pilot was sacked. But the 'stock' of British Midland - it was not a listed company - actually rose because of the sympathetic way that Bishop dealt with the victims. His immediate concern was not for his company, nor for his balance sheet. It was for his customers. When the reporter on ITN asked What should people do if they are listening to this programme?, he pulled a freephone number from his pocket. He immediately conveyed 'I am in control, I am leading from the front and I am empathetic'.

Going into an issue or a crisis doesn't necessarily mean that you become a different beast. You've got to maintain the same culture, the same behaviours, to understand the need for transparency, empathy, sympathy for the victim (whoever that victim may be) and the need to communicate. You shouldn't change them. And when you're in the eye of the storm, it's time to actually project them.

Within your friends in the media, you should also be thinking about news editors and making sure that you get to know them and they get to know you and your business. I think it's a failure of companies and PR teams that they don't know their media stakeholder well enough. There are certain companies in this country where, quite frankly, the CEO should have relationships at editor level which he can call upon when needed.

Mary Walsh, director of communications, Eurostar

It is, almost invariably, an impetus for change. And actually that is often very good for a business. It also gives communicators a lot of sway, and a very substantial voice, because everything becomes about communications.

It becomes about two things - resolving the problem clearly and taking action to make sure that you don't have the same problem again. Much of that will depend on what you communicate and how you communicate. A crisis is a real opportunity to demonstrate the value and the role of communications in that kind of scenario.

None of us will have been in all the scenarios before that we might face in the future. There are certain principles that you learn. I think some of it is learning when not to react and when not to overreact and when to actually continue to engage and continue to respond but you don't actually take a front line step.

You have to be selective and you have to take a strategic decision in some situations. When you guide people through that, when you are with them in the trenches and helping them, that wins a huge amount of trust and they learn from it as well. So it is a two way process really.

Very often people who haven't faced a crisis are torturing themselves over what the right choice to make is. In most scenarios you don't have that many choices. It is actually about facing up to the fact that you have choices A or B and, only if you are very lucky, C. I think some of our role is demystifying and simplifying, otherwise an awful lot of energy can be misspent.

When I arrived at Eurostar, the social media had been used very much in a promotional context. The Twitter account was linked to the marketing campaign Little break, big difference. So we had to move very quickly [when five trains and more than 2,000 passengers were stuck in the tunnel during December 2009] and we weren't set up - no question - with everything in place. We are now. And we use everything very effectively. But what I learned from [that crisis], and what has really guided me since is that, a consumer-facing business using social media effectively is a bit like an intravenous feed. People are looking for information. Your phone lines get very busy. There's a certain amount of information that goes on your website. But social media goes directly to where the dialogue is happening. It goes straight in in a way that you can't really achieve through any other means. When you are effective through social media, it actually reduces the number of calls you get. It's where journalists start. If there's a problem or any issue or a disaster, journalists go straight onto Twitter, straight onto Facebook and see what people on the spot are saying. You have to be on top of social media. But it's actually a real opportunity. To some extent, some consumers and certainly some parts of the media will judge you on how you perform in that area. It's a very powerful tool.

Your staff - your people - have to go to the pub, talk to their family, explain to their friends, and you have to arm them with the knowledge and the facts in order to do that. They need some ammunition, just as our executives do when they go in front of the media. You have to give them the confidence. You have to win their trust. You have to give them the facts.

A review is one way of moving on and drawing a line in the sand [under a crisis] and then creating an opportunity to explain, when things are calm, and to get the facts out on the table, and then demonstrate the action that you're going to take. Whilst it makes for a huge amount of work and actually a lot of pressure, because it means that the story then goes on, you have a vehicle through which you can explain. When you're in the midst of it, what people really care about is, say, getting the trains working. You're saying that you're very sorry but actually they just want the service working. No one's hearing you. When you come back, you draw a line in the sand. You say We take responsibility, we know we didn't treat people properly, and this is what we're going to do moving forward. It just really galvanises the business.

Charlotte Lambkin, group communications director, BAE Systems

It is not personal. Your management team think that journalists are out to get you. That is not true. People just have jobs to do. Trying to depersonalise was a key feature of what I was trying to do. I tried to make comparisons and showed them who else was being attacked and show them that it was not just us.

I would like to raise the role of the chief executive because, although I don't want to denigrate our roles in any way, we are in support. It clearly depends on the organisation and it depends on the chief executive, but I haven't met one chief exec yet who doesn't take the leadership seriously in his or her company. What we are trying to do is instil in them the right guidance so that we can move forward in a clear and coherent way, but they will take the ultimate decision. Comms and legal are the two people in a situation who are advising the chief executive (hopefully in agreement) but, at the end of the day, it is their decision and you will either support it or you will fall on your sword depending on how strongly you feel. It is leadership from the top in these issues, and the chief executive should make the ultimate decision on behalf of the team.

We are often bombarded with legal advice that is very hard for us to challenge. [US Airways, whose jet crashed into the Hudson River] gave $5,000 to each person who got off that plane because they had nothing. Everything that they had was at the bottom of the Hudson River. They said We will help you get home. The stock price of US Airways actually went up. Their first thought was not If we give everyone $5,000, we are accepting culpability - which is usually what happens. They recognised that it was a horrible situation. Be human and think in that way.

As a company you have to empathise and, if you don't, people will nail you. If your organisation doesn't have the culture to support a crisis appropriately, all of the other factors in the world will not help you.

[We need to think] how we can use our function more effectively as an early warning system to stop an issue from becoming a crisis. Something that looks quite innocuous to the local people on the ground in Houston [may raise alarm bells] to the more experienced eye sitting in PLC with a reputational hat on. I'm keen now to create a functional network in partnership with legal to make a much more effective, what I call, early warning system.

Don't underestimate the fact that people don't want to tell other people about issues because they hope they can sort them themselves. I do not want to emasculate our businesses in any way. That is their job. But at the same time I think we have the ability to recognise things from a top down approach that could become an issue and that, frankly, I'm going to end up having to manage anyway.

[Recognising a potential crisis] is very subjective, but you'll look at something and say Ooh, that's got semi-disaster written all over it. Whereas you'll know that something else is going to go nowhere. That's another reason that you need to have things escalated because people locally don't necessarily have that experience.

[You know an issue has become a crisis] when your chief executive starts to look worried.

Jonathan Hawker, managing director, FD

You can't ignore the media. A crisis will usually have a perceived victim and journalists will usually want to write about the victims. They firmly want to position themselves on the side of the victim and they want to position you as the villain of the piece unless you engage with them. Unless you have a dialogue with a journalist to explain your perspective, how on earth are you going to get your mitigation across?

I think in crisis situations people look internally, they don't look at the external world. The amount of time that has been wasted trying to get people to look up and think about the future, people only really think about what is immediately in front of them. The best approach to crisis communications is to start off with basic PR really. Establish the facts of the situation as quickly as possible, as far as you can at the initial outset. From that work out what is the impact on your stakeholders and work out the best means to get your perspective across to those stakeholders. The media is a fantastic way of doing that.

Consider crisis communications to be more than just communications - it is really about strategy. This is why it is such a good way of engaging with the top of the business. It represents one of the few times that people in PR will actually be listened to and some of that advice will actually be implemented.

The vast majority of crisis plans are not worth the paper they are written on. There is a practice in PR which is multiple scenario prediction, where you have a different plan for virtually every scenario that you can think of and you end up with volumes of information. I call it a Manuel because it often leads to John Cleese-like behaviour when people are trying to deal with a scenario that perhaps falls between scenario A and scenario X. Keep it simple. In terms of your crisis plan, take a look at it and see whether it can be adapted to almost any eventuality. No plan is going to work unless you have tested it.

The law in this country is a fantastic aide to us in our role to protect the role of our company. You may be dealing with an attack crisis where somebody is using the Internet or the media to propagate something about your business which perhaps isn't entirely founded on fact. There's usually a true element and several fanciful elements

that make it a better entertainment story for the media. You need to look at it from a defamation perspective, or a privacy perspective to see, is this a really story which should be allowed to go to print or can impediments be put in place to prevent the complete publication of this story, or the refocusing perhaps of the story on the reality, rather than the fanciful elements which make it great titillation for readers of that publication. We need to understand the law to understand our rights.

In my experience, CEOs want to do everything. Dealing with the media is time consuming. If the CEO is devoting his efforts to being the face of the issue, somebody else is going to have to make some decisions. That is a very difficult situation which often leads to indecision until the CEO re-enters the crisis room, having done 15 interviews, to find that nothing has moved on in the development of the operational response to that situation.