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; cyber attacks; 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, but with 24-hour news and social media, it allows 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: 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 i.e. it may be shutdown 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.