Last week I was offered the chance to attend a CIPR Cymru business breakfast meeting in Cardiff Bay. Speaking on the subject of crisis communications was Alex Singleton, former Telegraph journalist, former associate director of The Whitehouse Consultancy and author of the book ‘The PR Masterclass’.
Crisis communications is always an engaging PR topic. By its nature, we tend to be more aware of organisations which have badly handled crises, rather than those which have successfully evaded or deflected the threat of poisoned PR darts.
The subject appears to relate most readily to brands of high profile; brands the media knows well and those in which mass market consumers are heavily invested. This is why there’s media interest and reporters may pick at facts, attempting to extrapolate something juicier.
However, for those brands constantly battling for editorial attention, large scale crisis management may be less of an issue. Its closest relation could be customer satisfaction.
Arriving shortly after the session began, I grabbed a coffee and took a seat at the back of the room.
Alex Singleton wore a smart suit and waistcoat, decorated off with a vibrant tie. He was extremely well spoken, as you might expect.
Crisis Case Studies
Underlining how the media does not do nuance, Alex walked us through a number of his recent noteable case studies.
He also cited the case of Johnson & Johnson’s Tylenol medication, which in 1982 commanded around 15 per cent of company profits. Then the drug was laced with cyanide, seven people died and the company’s market value fell by $1 billion. In 1986 when the same thing happened, lessons had been learned. Tylenol was recalled from every outlet and the product was not reinstated until Johnson & Johnson developed tamperproof packaging, helping to recover market share.
In speaking about unprepared crises, Alex mentioned that journalists will always report unwise comments, particularly if it adds spice to a story. This can lead to “paralysed decision making” and encourage the attack by mobs (especially via social media).
He drew typical characters that threaten effective crisis management:
– Crisis Deniers
– Overly Busys
– The Wing-its
– Dodgy characters hiding stuff
– Low self-esteemers
These resonated with me. In crises there are often multiple stakeholders sitting at different points of a value chain, and with sometimes wildly different perspectives. Most of them neatly fit into one of the above categories. Depending on the complexity of messages, the differences are where everything can break down and the whole process can become muddy.
Another preventative measure in crisis management was the establishment of a thought leadership programme as an insurance policy. In PR the idea and development of corporate thought leadership is often promoted, but perhaps less regularly practised – arguably due the aforementioned Overly Busys. Its virtues are clear, and never clearer than in a crisis, when credibility, profile, and authority has been effectively built. At that point the instinctive trust of reporters really matters.
As a communications tool of crisis management, content marketing came in for a harder time. Alex dismissed the medium as being typically generic and cheap, usually farmed out overseas, delivering low quality content. By way of experiment, I put this to Twitter, employing the popular #contentmarketing hashtag.
In my experience, using this hashtag tends to yield small flurries of interaction. However, in effectively asking users to debate, it yielded nothing at all. This silence, you could argue, supports Alex’s hypothesis. (Or perhaps my lack of followers).
On a related point, he touched on the dangers of ‘zombie (social) media’. That is, the danger of having social media accounts you neglect: bad thing.
Additional key techniques in crisis response included the following.
– Values, then action statement. “Our company is opposed to racism, we won’t tolerate it and are investigating…”
– Pre-recorded interviews are dangerous. Conduct interviews live or bring a dictaphone to prove any quoting out of context
– Stick to the script. Stop chief executives from answering emails or questions from reporters on the street. Emotional responses should always be prevented.
– Don’t feed trolls. It may not be wise to engage with all social media followers; consider whether they are stakeholders or not.
– Communicate broadly. Brand advocates who love you unconditionally can be powerful.
There were plenty of nuggets in Alex’s presentation to chew on over breakfast. With more time, I would have been interested to hear more about techniques for winning over critical journalists, and methods of getting media outlets to delete disputed articles. With complicated, sensitive political messages involving multiple stakeholders, particularly in smaller worlds like south Wales, these points can be critical.
That said, this crisis management talk offered a number of insights, and also did that impressive thing of crystallising techniques you had a sense of, but never fully addressed.
If you’re seeking more topical Crisis PR material, take a look at this piece on The Drum about how Lufthansa handled the recent German Wings disaster.