Emergency Response: the art of staying calm in a crisis

Posted by Fifth Ring

When organisations hire public relations firms their first thought is often how the consultants can help them gain visibility in the first instance and, if everything goes according to plan, how to gain favourability in the long term.

The flip side of the coin is that if things go wrong and organisations are faced with a crisis you need PR specialists who can help.

Defining a crisis. 

For the purposes of corporate communications, a crisis can be defined as an event or situation that causes the company to be the subject of negative attention from stakeholders and the media. Stakeholders can be defined as shareholders, employees (and their families), politicians, statutory bodies, environmental groups and – of course – the media.

The main point of crisis management is to make sure a bad situation doesn’t get worse. By the time you realise you have a crisis, it is too late for avoidance behaviour – it’s time to face up and deal with it.

Things that constitute a crisis are likely to include:

  • Loss of life;
  • Product defects;
  • Computer failure;
  • Environmental pollution;
  • Financial difficulties/mismanagement;
  • Labour disputes/industrial tribunals;
  • Terrorism;
  • Criminality and ‘acts of God’.

Crisis? What crisis? 

The simple rule of thumb is to accept Murphy’s Law – ‘What can go wrong, will go wrong’ – so ensure there is a planned response and process in place, rather than taking a leaf out of Mr Micawber’s book and assume that something will turn up.

It’s essential to ensure that your company spokespeople have candour, honesty and integrity so their delivery of correct messaging is deemed trustworthy.

Former BP chief executive Tony Hayward was a high-profile victim of foot-in-mouth disease during Macondo. What he likely meant was that he wanted everything to go back to normal, but inappropriate phrasing meant that what was heard, was that he “wanted to get his life back”. A comment easily misconstrued as a self-serving comment and one that contributed to the public reaction towards BP as a result of Macondo.

Of course, not all crises are so severe – a private (and very intimate) email sent from a company employee to her boyfriend was sent in error to everyone in the organisation. No sooner had that happened than it went viral – and the organisation had to deal with a slew of press inquiries. You can be pretty sure the company senior management hadn’t planned to spend time dealing with that kind of issue. 24-hour news, Facebook and Twitter all allow stakeholders, commentators and experts the opportunity to wildly speculate as a news story unfolds, with potentially unfounded damages to those parties involved.

When dealing with a crisis there are some basic principles that hold true for almost every scenario. There are some simple rules to adhere to: provide consistent, accurate and regular updates and ensure an information vacuum does not occur.

Messages must always take into account the following topics: People; Environment; Asset; Reputation – or PEAR, for short. This handy acronym is based on the priorities of the public (and therefore news organisations). The welfare of personnel and others is always the first thing to consider. Secondly, we all want to know what impact your crisis will have on the wider environment – be that the North Sea or even the Stock Exchange. You must then consider how company assets – be it an oil rig or a factory – will be affected. Only when these first three elements are addressed should the reputation management be prioritised, that is, it may be shut down for a significant period of time. By looking after these aspects, a well-managed crisis communications programme can go a long way to ensuring that reputation management begins on the right footing.

Dealing with the crisis.

So what can be done? Detailed below is the framework we would urge organisations to follow when planning crisis management:

  • Tell, don’t spin. Spokespeople must be factually accurate and refrain from commentary. Stay focused on the details of the response effort
  • Obtain help from statutory bodies. Police, ambulance, government or whichever department is dealing with the crisis could and should be consulted and urged to take a greater role in a joint information process. The public needs to understand there is a highly-trained, experienced team working to put things right
  • Once the story is up and running at the top of the news agenda and if it’s a big enough issue – organise daily news briefings with up-to-date progress reports. Ideally you want someone that people will trust to provide technical information 
  • Accept there is likely be a ‘rush to judgement’ in the media and prepare a swift and robust response to inaccurate reporting
  • ‘Never say nothing’ – nature and the media hate a vacuum. Speculation, comment and vested interests will gleefully fill the void created by your company’s silence. Be proactive and anticipate the worst-case scenario 
  • Identify stakeholders and work out what to say to each audience by anticipating what their particular concerns are going to be. How your company reacts in a crisis will speak far louder than expensive corporate adverts 
  • Accept your punishment: if there have been failings it is better to face these, deal with them, ensure lessons are learned and move forward. Be open, work with the authorities and the media and move forward
  • Monitor the media both online and offline to gauge mood and sentiment
  • Train your response: we exercise with our major clients on a monthly basis – and we work together to introduce realistic scenarios. In a major incident it’s going to be executives making the decisions and taking the lead – they have to have the correct training. A media consultant has to be part of any incident team. Independent specialists can offer objective advice, broach the difficult questions and help formulate answers 
  • Get the web working for you: direct the media and public to a dedicated site that is activated when an incident occurs – press statements, fast facts, photographs and video should be made available. Online and social media offer direct and immediate communication with the public so make sure you respond to them quickly and update the site regularly. Journalists can have accurate, informative copy and will appreciate the company is making efforts to engage

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