Category Archives: Crisis Management Guides

The ‘how tos’ of managing a crisis.

Crisis Management – The Idiot’s Guide To Creating A Plan 1

2009 Research by Burson Marsteller (a PR company) into European companies’ level of crisis-preparedness revealed that while 60% of companies polled had encountered some sort of crisis, 53% didn’t have a plan in place to deal with a crisis when it happens to them. Just so the full horror of this has time to sink in – I’ll repeat it in slightly different terms.

Over half of European companies, it would seem, are wholly unprepared for the ‘phone call at 3.00am that tells you your factory’s on fire, or one of your planes just came down. The Monday morning call from the Department of Health to say that hospitals up and down the country are stuffed to the gunwales with patients, poisoned by your range of ready meals. The sight of two of your workforce plummeting past the window, having been issued with badly-maintained harnesses. Your CEO shooting himself in the foot, describing your product range as ‘off the record, real shit, know what I mean’, or your CEO simply shooting himself, having realised that the whole fraud game is up.

Do I need to go on? Everyone knows that a good crisis – or sometimes just a minor issue – can destroy a company, brand, organisation, or person’s reputation overnight if it’s not handled in the right way. Think of the examples. Hoover and the flights debacle, Ratners, Nestle and the baby milk, Coke and Dasani, Thierry Henry, Goldman Sachs, Britney Spears, Enron, Exxon Mobil – the list is, quite literally, endless.

And still, over half of European companies do not have a crisis plan in place. Without labouring the point, a crisis can happen at any time, and it’s one of those strange serendipity things that at any time is exactly when crises do happen. There’s no warning and it will be the middle of the night – that much is guaranteed. It is tantamount to malpractice for any communicator daring to describe himself or herself as professional to ply their trade in, or on behalf of, a company that doesn’t have a plan in place. Think about that for a moment.

Of course, it’s easier said than done. If you’ve not created a plan before it might, understandably, seem a bit daunting – and it’s not made any easier by the fact that there are a million conflicting opinions on what a plan should look like and what it should contain.

It’s also all to easy to put off, or ignore. Hey – your company, or your client’s company has never had a crisis – why’s it going to start now? Anyway, how difficult can it be? And just think of the cost, time and effort involved in putting a plan together! All perfectly good arguments – until such time as you are bitch-slapped by the big, wet, metaphorical haddock of crisis. At which point you are going to be really, really, abjectly sorry. Trust me.

In a perfect world, one would expect the industry bodies, or the industry’s ‘bible’ (copyright PRWeek 2009), to provide a handy cut-and-out-keep guide for the benefit of their members and readers – something to get you started. But it’s not a perfect world, and they don’t. In fact, as far as I can see, during the lazy and brief trawl of t’internet I conducted earlier today, there’s not much out there that doesn’t have a price attached to it.

So, for the good of mankind, I’m going to do a partwork here, just for you, my faithful blog snorkellers. Over the next few days – could be weeks, depends how deeply I dive into my subject – I shall, I hope, give you enough information on the key aspects of crisis management for you to develop your own skeleton plan. I shall deal with what constitutes a crisis, when issues become crises, who is responsible for the various facets of a crisis, preparing for a crisis, communicating during a crisis, business continuity and getting back to normal after a crisis. And, most likely, one or two spin-off topics.

So – tomorrow, in Creating A Plan 2, I’ll deal with What Is A Crisis.

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Social Media in a Crisis

More evidence, if more were needed, that we really do not have a clue what we are doing with social media (in using the word ‘we’ I am embracing the entire PR and Corporate Affairs community, even the slightly creepy ones, like one I met this morning. The one who was so engrossed in herself and her own importance she forgot the first rule – don’t believe your own hype. There’s nothing more edifying than watching someone who thinks they’re good being seven shades of awful).

Anyway, long story short, I was at something billed as a breakfast briefing on ‘The Role of Social Media In a Travel Crisis’. Which sounded fab – and there were two speakers, who definitely had had crises. Sadly, the session never really got past the ‘travel crisis’ bit with the ‘social media’ piece being relegated to some screengrabs and an admission that neither of the spokepeople’s organisations had either dedicated budget or dedicated resource to deal with the phenomenon that is social. Which is fine – but I know something about crisis management and I don’t need to be told to ‘have the facts’ and ‘be sincere’ – I really wanted to hear about others’ experience of crisis played out on social.

Got me thinking though. Thinking a couple of things. Once again – and in this context – social media is not a force for good – it is likely to carry reputational risk and will suck at your time like a Goldman Sachs(*). And, again once again, our industry is bullsh*tting and bl*stering its way through, ‘avin’ it large on topics about which it wots not. We do not understand social media, fellow communicators mine, and maybe it is time that we did. Maybe it is time – to address the specific point – that crisis management planning, training and simulation all contained dedicated social (new) media modules. Maybe it’s time we planned, rather than – as I saw this morning – leaving it to chance and doing it on the hoof.

I for one shall be taking this very much more seriously from here on in.

And finally – a general comment on people who work in PR. If you’re asked to speak on a topic – then speak on the topic. Please don’t attempt to spin it to suit you. It doesn’t work (mostly) with general audiences – what makes you think it’s going to work with your peers?

(* Vampire Squid)

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Social Media – Best Practice Social Media Policy

This was first posted in 2010. Starbucks are still global coffee shop of choice and divide opinion in much the same way as political allegiance, ‘leave or remain’ and the debate over whether Wonder Woman is really a feminist icon and, if she is, why does she go into battle wearing wedges? And yes, I know the answer, which is ‘because she can and because she wants to’. And who’s arguing with a god?

The Coca-Cola Company are still displaying the document that I found so praiseworthy and, revisiting it, I still find it so.

Two firsts in one week – Starbucks display best practice in reinventing themselves through employee and customer care (yes, I know, I had difficulty as well) and now this.

Yes, your eyes do not deceive you. It is a document entitled ‘Online Social Media Principles’ from The Coca-Cola Company, and it is – dear blog snorkellers mine – as near to a best practice social media policy as you can get.

OK, it’s not quite draconian enough for me – I’d like to see a list of cruel and unusual punishments for those found to be in breach of the policy, but – hey – you can’t have everything.

What I particularly like about it, however, is that it’s not all evangelical. It doesn’t start from the position that social media is the biggest thing since the Bible, and that it is going to transform the world as we know it and everything in it. It is sensible, and considered, and everything I would not necessarily have expected, rightly or wrongly,  from Messrs Coca and Cola.

It also – beautifully – can be easily adapted and plagiarised. These guidelines could be applied to any business or organisation – go ahead, fill your boots. It’s also, as I’ve recommended on this blog before, something of an ’employee benefit’ – in that it advises employees on how to use social media in their personal lives as well as on company time. It demonstrates a duty of care – without ramming it down their throats.

Finally – another big thing of mine – it would sit very nicely in a crisis management plan, and provides a good basis on which to build the social media section of that plan.

It is genuinely brilliant. I’m lovin’ it.

(Oh – hold on……..)

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Crisis Management – The Idiot’s Guide To Creating A Plan 10

Key to crisis management and business continuity – and, clearly, enshrined in the crisis management plan that (if you’ve been following this series of occasional diatribes) you’re on the cusp of completing – is employee communication, for reasons which should (really) be obvious. In case they aren’t, here’s a taste.

Your employees are your greatest asset and your largest potential liability – if they’re on side, then you have a network of ambassador/evangelists, spreading your messages. If they’re not on side, mind, then you have an uncontrolled flow of misinformation, biased opinion and perhaps even vitriol

When disaster strikes, your employees need to hear from you – preferably before they hear from anyone else

In the case of a crisis, your employees will need to know what to do and where to go, and they’ll need to know quickly

Most importantly, in the crisis scenario, your employees will need to know what NOT to do and to be reminded what policies and rules they are governed by, as employees

These are just a few of the things you should be considering, and incorporating within your plan, and within the communication process around the finished plan. I’m certain you can think of others. (And if you can’t, then sit in a darkened room, or have an ideas shower, or go and see your boss, or whatever it takes for you to be able to think of others. Because there are some others.)

So, briefly – because I know you like brevity, dear blog snorkellers – here’s some of the mechanisms you need to have in place and a selection of the communications issues that you might need to consider. It’s not extensive or complete – I want you to think for yourselves.

  • Have you got an ‘employee hotline’ number? This is a dedicated telephone number that any number of employees can call at any point in time to get an update on their employer’s status. That update is, normally, something along the lines of ‘This is the XXXXX Corp Employee Hotline – at the present time, it is business as usual’. Obviously, it would be best to prepare a selection of messages that can be put on to the hotline as soon as something occurs. ‘This is the XXXX Corp Employee Hotline – an event has occurred at/near the XXX site. All employees should remain at home unless otherwise directed. Further details will be available at (time).” Or similar. You get the idea.
  • If you’ve only got a few – or a manageable number of – employees, do you know where they all live? Do you have their telephone numbers and personal email addresses?
  • Does your workforce have access to the company’s computer systems when they’re away from the office – if not, is it something they should have?
  • Do you have, or is it worth arranging, some kind of text message alert system for your employees?
  • What are you going to say to your people – there might be different messages dependent on who it is and what they do – those who may be indispensable in a crisis and those who can stay in bed.
  • Who’s going to take responsibility for employee communications and welfare (because it might not be you, the communicator) and how is the interface between internal and external communications going to be handled?
  • How are you going to remind people of your social media policy and how they should be behaving?

Bear in mind that these are just a few of the things that you should be thinking about, and that there will be more – and that they will change and develop as your crisis unfolds. The key point here is about scenario planning – preparing everything before hand so, when the time comes (as it inevitably will) you can act immediately. An ill-informed workforce left to their own devices and free to speculate are at least as potentially damaging as any crisis or issue that your organisation may be facing.

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Crisis Management – The Idiot’s Guide To Creating A Plan 9

In this post – number 9 of a series, and, dear blog snorkellers, if you’ve missed the rest, you might want to read them just for context – we’re going to have a look at the role of social media in both creating and handling a crisis situation.

Before we go any further, by way of declaring my interests, I must say that I am not a fan of social media. I do not believe it is a valid (or valuable) communications/marketing tool. I believe there are still too many unknowns and thus it remains more of a threat than an opportunity. Those who are rushing headlong to embrace social media appear to have forgotten one key learning from traditional media. It can bite you. There is no reason to suppose that social media is not the same. As of yet, there is very little evidence of any business, brand or organisation actually getting a return on their investment in social media. On the other hand, there are plenty of examples of businesses, brands and organisations getting into trouble because of social media. All this being said, social media exists – no-one can or should ignore it. The best you can do is limit your corporate exposure to it, by controlling the part of it that you can control, which is your interaction with it.

Social media can create a crisis for you, or can propagate one when it happens to you. And it never takes time off – it’s on all the time.

Ill-advised comments or content posted to a social media site by your employees – eg Dominos Pizza in the US and the UK electrical retailer, Dixons Stores Group – can cause you problems, as can commentary from unhappy customers, or trading partners. Decisions you take as a business, marketing material you produce, changes to your product line-up – all these can spark off a backlash via social media. Because of social media – and the wider internet – everyone has a voice, a voice that is instant and has global reach.

And this voice can be equally active in the case of a crisis that’s not driven by social media. In the case of an incident at your premises, or an accident involving staff and/or customers, or a problem with your product, or a gaffe by a senior executive – these things will be posted to social media within minutes. Mobile device penetration by population in the UK is over 100% – some people have two or more, d’you see? – which means that there’s always someone with a camera and internet access.

In terms of dealing with social media in a crisis management plan, you’ll be glad to know it shouldn’t be that difficult. It’s simply a question of incorporating elements of your social media policy into the plan. (And if you haven’t got a social media policy, now is the time to get one.)

Policy – your policy should (amongst other things) outline how your organisation and your employees interact with social media, when you’re using company facilities and are on company time. It should also contain information and guidelines around social media usage ‘best practice’ – both in and out of work – which should be promoted as an employee benefit.(Helping you to protect yourself and not f*ck up!) Most importantly, there should be a clause which specifically deals with crisis situations, where employee posting to social media is expressly forbidden, on pain of dismissal. Some people will say I’m being too draconian – but this is the only way to ensure your employees are not tempted to ‘participate’ – even with the best of intentions.

Monitoring – you could outsource this to an expensive outfit of social/digital media gurus, who will blind you with science and then steal your wallet. On the other hand, you could save your money and – once a day – spend half an hour on Google, searching for a selection of key words pertaining to your business. These could include your brand names, your company name, the names of your external communications staff, and the names of your c-suite. This is, of course, not scientific, and stuff will slip through the net, but if the issue’s big enough, chances are you’ll see a mention of it. Once you’re on to an issue, it becomes easier to track down where its epicentre is.

Reaction – things move fast with social media and in the blogosphere. Your standard, pre-prepared response statements (neatly filed at the back of your crisis management folder) will not suffice here, however. They’re OK and they’ll work with journalists looking for an early response to a crisis situation, but social media is not staffed by journalists – it’s populated by individual members of the public, none of whom want to listen to a corporate message. What you’ll have to do is translate your reserve statements into social media speak – humble, to the point, on a level, using language that everyone will understand (jargon-free). Put your case, and if there’s something your company/organisation needs to do to set things right, then do it. As quickly as you can. On the other hand, if you’re being mistreated, say so, and seed that message as far as you possibly can. You may have to set up your own Facebook group or Twitter feed – make sure you know how to do it, and what the basic rules of engagement are. Make sure that instructions on how to do it, and the rules of engagement are in your crisis management folder for everyone to see. Remember that social media is not a sales tool, does not tolerate corporate bullsh*t and is the soul of brevity. Ensure there is only one message coming out of your camp.

This is only the beginning – you’re going to want to go away and think about this (oh yes you are) – and you’re also going to want to think about how you ensure your people know about what you’re doing in a crisis situation. Your people are your greatest asset and one of your greatest liabilities – I’ll deal with them next time.

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Crisis Management – The Idiot’s Guide To Creating a Plan – Supplementary

This post – the latest in an occasional series about crisis management, the importance of having a plan and what you should think about when creating a plan – was to have been about social media, its place in the anatomy of a crisis, and how your social media policy (you do have one, don’t you?) should have strong links and cross-reference with your crisis management plan.  I promise faithfully that I will post with my thoughts, but in the meantime, have a look at:

THIS

It’s long, but it’s definitely worth the read, and it makes all sorts of interesting points, which anyone thinking about crises should be bearing in mind.

Enjoy.

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Crisis Management – The Idiot’s Guide To Creating A Plan 8

Last time, I went through a crisis scenario – one that I dealt with myself, involving glamour models, murder and steak and chips (this is what I love about this industry – that fact that you couldn’t dream most of this stuff up if you tried) – on a gene-molecule level.

Well, in fairness, I probably missed loads, but I hope it gave an idea of the questions you need to ask, the things you need to prepare and the actions you need to take in the event of a crisis – involving customers, media, emergency services and staff – happening to you. I hope I also managed to communicate a) just how full-on it all is and b) the fact that loads of people are – and should be – involved. If any of this is news to you – go back and have another look at it.

This time, I want to do a fly-past of three incidents – not all mine and all very different – each of which contains a key learning that might help in the future when you’re in the middle of it. (I can’t reinforce this enough – it’s not a question of ‘if’, dear blog snorkellers, it’s a question of ‘when’. It IS going to happen to you.)

The first one is the Kegworth air disaster. For those who don’t know, Kegworth is a small English village in the county of Leicestershire, not terribly far away from the M1 motorway, a main arterial road link. In January 1989, a British Midland 737-400 passenger aircraft crashed some few hundred yards short of the runway at East Midlands airport, into an embankment of the motorway, killing 47 people. “A remarkable” 79 people survived however and, as you can imagine, the media were all over it like a rash – let’s face it, a passenger plane, in bits, lying on a motorway makes good television.

No doubt about it – this was a disaster both in terms of the incident and for British Midland the company. All sorts of stuff came out – the plane, for example, had recently had some upgrades and the pilots had had something like one half-hour briefing on the changes. The cause of the crash was a problem with one of the engines – the pilots shut the wrong one down, turning the aircraft into a 50-tonne glider. It was messy, and yet the company’s reputation survived – thanks to the actions taken by its chairman. It seemed like minutes, but it must have been hours, when Michael Bishop first appeared on the scene. He went straight up to the media and said (something like) “this is a dreadful incident, and we’ll get to the bottom of it as quickly as we can – in the meantime, I’ve got to go and help those people” and off he went towards the ‘plane. In that moment, he swung public opinion on to his side, on to the side of the company. Sheer brilliance.

Secondly, we have a product recall situation at a brewery. The ‘contamination’ of one particular batch of a very famous beer product was reported by quality control in the brewhouse – because of a worn component in the pipes, bacteria had escaped the regular cleaning process and were present when the beer travelled through the lines. Unfortunately, such was the turnaround time that the batch in question (amounting to as many as 1 million pints) was already in pubs and shops nationwide.

‘Contamination’ is such a strong word, don’t you think? What was really wrong with the beer? Well, actually, as it turns out, nothing, other than it may taste a bit funny – no-one was going to be made ill, no-one would be shouting Ralph in a pub car park, in fact – whisper it – no-one might actually notice.

We were prepared to do the recall and we were ready for all the fall-out. In the end, it was much, much simpler – and much, much cheaper – not to. The point is that one should always think through every situation before taking the obvious course of action. Sometimes you’re better off not doing anything.

Finally, Domino’s Pizza on YouTube. Well, you can read my post on it. Some say they handled their crisis well, others say they didn’t. Certainly, following on from the incident, their UK team has made a little hay while the sun was shining (or otherwise). It’s an ill wind, as they say. The reason I cite this here is because this was one of the first incidents that was created by social media and which – rightly or wrongly, to a greater or lesser extent – was dealt with via social media.

The point is that whether we like social media or not – and I don’t – it has changed the landscape of communications and the way that information gets around. It is a threat and (apparently) an opportunity – what’s certain is that social media needs to be dealt with in your crisis management plan – and I’ll get to this next time

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