I have been advising on crisis management for about a decade now and have written a couple of guides on the topic – including ‘Handling Public Difficulties’ with CIPR President Sue Wolstenholme, alongside whom I’ve delivered training on the topic since 2007.
Here is a condensed draft of a chapter commissioned for a book on PR issues that sadly never saw the light of day; I thought it was worth recycling as a couple of blog posts. These are the very basics of crisis planning, but hopefully they’re useful aide-memoires. There has been a huge amount written on this subject, so what I’ve tried to do here is provide a digest of practical advice.
Aristotle was right and Kissinger was wrong.
“The wise man does not expose himself needlessly to danger,” said the Greek philosopher.
“In a crisis the most daring course is often the safest,” wrote the American.
Close, Henry, but no cigar. What is true of the Cuban missile crisis is not true of professional crisis communications. Daring should not come in to it. It’s all in the planning.
There are situations when unexpected media interest is viewed as entirely benign and welcome. More likely, you are dealing with it because there is a problem. You are facing a crisis of some kind. A building has burnt down. The finance director has disappeared. There has been a crash, an arrest, an accident. Customers are complaining angrily on radio, daytime television, social media. There is a sudden strike, a product recall, a supplier out of business, a vote of no confidence.
So how do you deal with these crises communications? The Aristotelian answer is – don’t have the crisis in the first place. Manage the issue.
In academic terms, a crisis is a stage in the life-cycle of an issue, the other stages being: potential, emerging, current, and dormant. Issues management is the practice of identifying an issue in the two earlier stages when there are still opportunities for influencing the outcome and thus reducing risk, creating opportunities and managing reputation.
The role of the communications professional in issues management can vary tremendously depending on the type of organisation and the role of public relations within it.
If you are the communications director of a large utility company you may well invest heavily in issues management training and consultancy from a specialist communications agency, not least because it could be a perquisite of your corporate insurance package.
If you are a public sector organisation such as a council or a police force you may have created an issues management group which seeks to identify emergent issues, understand who they are likely to effect and how, and plan your next steps – are you going to change what you do, or try and change stakeholder or publics’ attitudes to it?
Crisis Management Planning
But let’s imagine that your organisation either has no issues management structure in place or this is an issue with a particularly fast metabolism – the time between the potential and current stages is extremely short. Events are essentially unpredictable; a member of staff is a victim of a serious assault, a runaway lorry crashes into a factory, volcano ash grounds your entire sales force.
Aristotle still stands. Crisis management planning is your bulwark when issues management has failed or cannot apply. Ideally a crisis management plan is refreshed and tested once a year and that practice session involves representatives from across your business, key publics, emergency services and, if possible, a friendly journalist.
There are generally five key stages to a crisis management plan:
Stop or go – Quite rightly the first consideration is often nothing to do with communications per se. Are your staff safe? Should the business stay open? Whatever the decision and the reasons for it, it must be communicated immediately to those people who will be most affected. In the short-term, crisis communications is often less about media management and more about giving staff, partners and customers the information they need.
Assessing the level – The next task, if something has happened that might attract media or public attention, is to assess the level of interest. Is this a particularly newsworthy event that could attract international media interest and many weeks worth of questions from journalists or something of short local human interest? Your assessment will determine how you proceed and the resources you apply. Social media can be both extremely helpful in this regard – giving you immediate access to a range of views on the issue – and potentially very misleading, as anonymity of the commentariat might lead difficulties in assessing the true strength of feeling among a wider, less partial public (for instance).
Key messages – Creating and maintaining a limited number of key messages promotes consistency of message across audiences and channels, whether it is a media release, advertisement, public or staff meeting etc. Contradictory statements weaken an organisation’s position, lead to the perception that it is hiding something and that what it says cannot be believed. Whatever you do say should be clear, show competence and concern. Do not speculate, give as much factual information as possible and never, ever lie.
Response team – Who is your spokesperson, your leader, your media liaison, your note taker, your relatives’ liaison officer, your social media monitor? Do they know their roles, have each other’s contact details? Do other staff, in particular your switchboard operators or receptionists, know who does what?
Debrief – Will you record what worked and what didn’t, who said what and who didn’t? Crises almost always revisit the ‘scene of the crime’, not least on anniversaries. You will only improve if you audit your activity the first time around.
Next time: What happens if you have no plan?
Some useful reading on issues management….
Hainsworth, B.E. (1990). The distribution of advantages and disadvantages. Public Relations Review, 16, 33-39.
Hainsworth, B.E. & Meng, M. (1988). How corporations define issues management. Public Relations Review, 14(4), 18-30.
Tucker, K & Broom, G. (1993). Managing issues acts as bridge to strategic planning. Public Relations Journal, November.