Archive for November, 2009

Social media and internal communication, two things crisis managers need to get

An alternative title for this post was going to be “Do you know what your employees are doing while the world’s falling apart around you?”, but we were a bit concerned that it came across all Big Brother-esque.

However, it’s always worth remembering that effective internal communication is integral to the successful management of many crises – whether that’s by engaging your biggest, most readily available army of ambassadors, or alternatively, ensuring that the right people know the right information to get a problem sorted with a minimum of fuss.

It becomes doubly important when you through the issue of employees’ access to social media into the mix.

Because of this natural affinity, the Issues & Crisis team works closely with our Change & Internal Communications team here at Hill & Knowlton. Fellow H&K Collective Conversation blogger and head of our C&IC team, Scott McKenzie, is hosting the Social Media: Friend or Foe? event next week. Click here for further details and to register – some of the Issues & Crisis team will be there as well, reminding people that not all communication happens on the internet.

One of the issues we’ll be looking for an answer on is that of effective social media monitoring. Knowing what your employees are saying about you in the midst of a scandal-driven media storm is a very good thing, but there are some obvious problems with monitoring them (ethics and privacy come to mind immediately, shortly followed by practicality). Check back next week for an update.

Floods highlight the importance of business continuity planning

In his second post for Media Insights and Crisis Expertise, Senior Associate Director, Peter Roberts, reflects on the impact of floods currently affecting parts of the UK, and the role business continuity planning can play in minimising the impact of such disasters.

The extreme flooding that has struck England’s North West in recent days has underlined the variable nature of crises. The situation is also a sharp reminder to all businesses, wherever they’re located of the importance of business continuity plans.

Quite simply, business continuity is about anticipating the crises that could affect an organisation and then planning for them. It’s also something we spend a lot of our time doing at Hill & Knowlton.

So, how best to develop a robust plan? Fundamentally, any company is only five steps away from ensuring that they’re in a far better position to withstand a critical situation, with appropriate planning.

  • Step 1: Analyse your business and get an understanding of the processes involved.
  • Step 2: Assess the risks to your business. Threats come in different forms, from power cuts, to staff absenteeism.
  • Step 3: Develop how you’ll combat such risks. Principally, what needs to be done and who will carry out the actions.
  • Step 4: Develop your business continuity plan (BCP). This can be as simple as you want and will contain all relevant contact numbers, resources and procedures.
  • Step 5: Test and update the plan. It’s vital that your plan is tested and that staff are familiar with their roles.

It’s a common misunderstanding that business continuity is only a big organisation issue; this is, quite simply, not the case. The size of any plan will depend on the risks facing a business – it will be as large or small as needed.

Ultimately, experience demonstrates that organisations are more likely to survive a crisis if they have planned for one in advance. – Peter

For help in reviewing or developing your organisation’s business continuity or crisis communication plan, please get in touch with us by clicking here. – Grant

An extra cheeseburger a day? It could be ok…

The Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) is calling for comments on its draft report into the UK population’s energy requirements.

Fundamental to this draft report is a recommendation to re-calculate Estimated Average Requirements for different genders and age groups.

Some media coverage, such as this BBC piece, report that average daily calorie intakes could increase by up to 16% – the equivalent of an “average size” cheeseburger (that may or may not be appealing, depending on where you get your cheeseburgers).

This is a major issue for food manufacturers, supermarkets, celebrity dietitians and nutritionists, consumer advocates and anyone who actually eats food – so from an issues management perspective it’s one that Hill & Knowlton will be following very closely throughout the 14-week consultation period. We work closely with a number of clients in the food and beverage sectors, and with many products on supermarket shelves already including some kind of guideline daily intake label, it’s an issue that will reach into the larders and fridges of every British home.

As this story on thegrocer.co.uk highlights, the issue could very well create doubt as to whether consumers retain any trust in scientific advice.

Leave a comment and let us know your thoughts on this issue.

What a teenage vampire love story can teach crisis managers about Twitter

At a recent event I was challenged over my views on Twitter – specifically as to whether or not it’s really all that big of an issue in the context of your average crisis manager’s day in the office.

Before we get too carried away with this (perceived) blasphemy, in principle I agree with the challenge on the following points:

  • Not everyone’s on Twitter
  • If you’re not following a particular Twitterer (e.g. Ashton Kutcher) then you’re not really all that likely to see their tweets (leaving aside for the minute the phenomenon of re-tweeting)
  • The “push” mentality of most Twitterers (yours truly included) means many tweets are practically spam, although working this out for yourself means the quality of your tweets should improve over time
  • With some notable exceptions such as the Iranian elections (or here for The Washington Post’s coverage of the Twitter phenomenon), most trending topics lack apparent relevance for big corporations (the number of companies selling tickets to see New Moon, for example, is far lower than the audience interest in buying them)

However, on reflection, the phenomenon that is Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight saga actually makes the opposite point. Like Harry Potter and The Davinci Code before it, copies of Twilight and its sequels can be seen on trains, planes and around the Hill & Knowlton offices, on our colleagues’ desks. And that’s largely the point.

As the Current Twitter trends column from independent.co.uk highlights, the topics that trend on Twitter are in fact the things that a critical mass of people actually care about. In real life.

And this is where I think many of us have, until recently, missed the point with Twitter and other social media.

There’s something of a bias towards believing that if something’s covered in the news media then it’s objectively important. It must be, because it’s “the news”, as opposed to a published stream of consciousness, right? So it then begs the question as to why a respected newspaper would go to the trouble of republishing a list of things that people are tweeting about.

It’s all about dealing with real people, whose actual lives exist offline. No-one lives on the internet. You can’t eat it, you can’t breathe it, it doesn’t keep you warm. Social media is populated by real people, with concerns that are as real to them as the need to eat and breathe.

The role then for crisis managers, is to recognise that grievances, complaints, valid concerns and, dare I say it, helpful tip-offs, are all getting aired in pubic, around the clock, around the world, and on the internet. Good crisis management requires us to be alert to that scenario, and do something about it (which is why the Issues & Crisis team here at Hill & Knowlton works closely with our counterparts in the Digital team to make sure we’re continually learning about how to do this better).

As I’ve said in a previous post, social media should be considered on its merits for every individual case. However, understanding the premise of the beast is no longer optional for any crisis manager.

As an aside (although somewhat related from the perspective of corporations using social media as a communication channel), check out this post from the Brand Twist blog on why you don’t need a social media strategy…

Also, follow Hill & Knowlton UK’s Twitter feed here.

Disclosure: this is an edited version of a post I made last week. While some of the examples have been updated, the basic thrust of the post hasn’t.

Climate change: highlighting the importance of behaviour as communication

Last night I attended the launch of the Advance Green Network at Australia House in London. This network seeks to bring together ex-pat Australians, and their colleagues, to help get people involved in the quest for a more sustainable future.

Keynote speaker, Howard Bamsey, Australia’s Special Envoy on Climate Change, made the point that in the lead-up to the UN Conference on Climate Change, COP15, what governments around the world are looking for are commitments. And this is the basis for this post – on an issue such as climate change, the public requires not a communication solution (ugh), but a behavioural one. What is it that I/you/we/they can do that actually makes a difference? And…will you do it?

This differentiation can be a difficult one for issues and crisis management. If your crisis is an oil spill, a plant explosion, a tsunami or any one of a hundred other things that visibly change the world, then your response involves actually fixing something – either patching it up, or eliminating the source of the problem. Clearly that’s behavioural.

The challenge comes with reputation-based issues where there’s a desire to deal with the symptom rather than the cause. Anything that falls under the general heading of “complaints” is usually a good example, i.e. product faults, customer service incidents, automated “help” lines and the like.

In these instances our first reaction is usually to deal with the complaint, and if that’s successful then that’s usually the end of the issue (in our eyes). The problem with this approach though is that it never deals with the cause of the complaint – we just slot into a pattern of complaint, fix, complaint, fix, wash, rinse repeat. Until one day we realise we’ve accrued dozens of complaints, made hundreds of refunds or lost thousands of pounds worth of sales.

For crisis managers then, it’s important when these niggling issues arise to take five minutes out from the problem, and really consider if fixing it requires us to say something, or do something. Think about the message you send by acting, rather than placating. Actions speak louder than words, and for good reason.

Ashes to regain crown-jewel status?

Our first post from Senior Associate Director, Peter Roberts (who will soon be posting from his own account):

 

In 1998, England’s home Test cricket matches, including the Ashes, were controversially axed from the list of so-called, “crown jewel” events; that is those events that are deemed far too precious not to televise on free-to-air. Other jewels include the Olympics and football’s World Cup.

The Ashes have since, largely, been the preserve of digital television, bar the 2005 series, which was shown to great public approval – undoubtedly, a sure testament of free TV’s ability to bring the nation together.

A review of the listed events has been ongoing with the recommendations set to be announced tomorrow – Friday. England’s homes Ashes Test are set to return to free-to-air, much to the vexation, no doubt, of the England and Wales Cricket Board.

However, here lies the nub; the current contract to show England’s home test matches runs until 2013. Consequently, England’s first Ashes series to be shown on free-to-air won’t be until 2017.
 
Now, that may be a long time in cricket, but it’s an awfully long time in television terms. With analogue switch off expected to have been completed in the UK by 2012, the fractured broadcasting landscape will be an altogether different place compared to the relatively stable picture in 2005, which begs one to ask how much coming together will accompany the Ashes return.  – Peter

How social do you want your crisis management to be?

Nearly every article written on the role of social media in crisis management overlooks the hundreds of crises managed by organisations every year that no-one outside of a very small management team ever hears about. However, that’s a topic for another day because we’ve found a very good article by Euan Semple, on the Internal Comms Hub, on the importance of incorporating social media into your crisis management plans.

Euan makes a good point when he says: “When you have an unpredictable situation the distributed nature and inherent spontaneity of social media is just what you need.” That’s absolutely true when you need to get a message out to as broad a population as possible, as quickly as possible.

But good crisis management planning should increase the predictability of most situations facing organisations today, and the likelihood that you need to alert a whole country to a problem is very, very small. There aren’t really that many people in the world who will ever have to deal with a tsunami, earthquake, flood or terrorist attack.

So while it’s important to understand how social media works, and how that can help or hinder you in your crisis management efforts, it’s probably more important at the planning stage to understand how it fits with your organisation’s overall identity, and your existing relationships with your audiences both on- and off-line. At the end of the day, we’re still talking about real people (you and your colleagues) talking to other real people (the rest of the world). Just because it’s on the internet doesn’t change that.

If you’re using a facebook fan page as a one-way channel to push information out to a customer base, a sudden switch to two-way crisis communication is going to create more problems than it solves because that’s not what your audience is coming there for.

Social media is the great communication equaliser in that it levels the information playing-field for both organisations and their stakeholders. This also means that cranks, charlatans, hackers and general trouble-makers get to enjoy the power shift as well. In the midst of a crisis do you have the physical resources available to tackle these head-on? Probably not. Can you rely on any social media platform to self-regulate itself into a rational state of mind? Probably, eventually. In the timeframe you need it to? Probably not.

When crisis plans aren’t worth the paper they’re written on

Our recent Public Health Crisis event drew out a number of observations from our guest panellists, one of which was the importance of training for crisis teams and spokespeople.

While crisis management plans are important, they should always be regarded as a tool to help your crisis management team do what you need them to. Fundamentally though, your crisis will be managed by real people, who make real decisions, which have real consequences.

For this reason it’s essential that your crisis management team is well trained. Governments and emergency services run highly sophisticated training drills to keep skills up to date – and so should your organisation. Crisis management teams tend to involve people from quite disparate roles within the business. A crisis should be an unusual event, which means in an ideal world there won’t be many reasons for the crisis management team to work together in their crisis management capacity. Unless you’re regularly experiencing business-wide crises, your teams’ skills will deteriorate over time. You literally must “use it or lose it”.

Here are five things you can do today to immediately make a difference to your crisis management team’s preparation to handle a real crisis:

  • Establish a regular training calendar for the crisis management team. This needs to take into account your organisational culture, team members’ day-to-day responsibilities, and the physical location of team members, but ideally we’d recommend having some kind of formal crisis management training scheduled every six months as a minimum. Include the induction of new team members into this calendar in addition to your scheduled training
  • Conduct a technology audit for your crisis management team. Your plan should include a designated meeting room or control point, equipped with the technology the team will need in order to do its job. However, it’s not uncommon to find that “spare” equipment (i.e. that is usually set aside specifically to be available in the event of a crisis) disappears when you need it most. Pull out your list of required equipment and go see if it’s all where it should be. This can also include checking that all of your team’s phone numbers are still current (it happens…)
  • Develop a scenario library. When we run crisis training and simulations for clients, we tap into a global knowledge bank of scenarios that we can tailor to be fit for purpose. Some of these are developed in creative brainstorms, but almost always the most left-field crisis scenarios are things that actually happened in the real world.
  • Get your crisis agency in for a familiarisation day. When you’re in the middle of a crisis you need to know everyone on your support team is a trusted, capable member of the team. Make sure that you know who your agency will have on hand for you if you need support. A great way of building that sense of teamwork is to have the agency team come into your organisation for a few hours, meet the crisis management team and then take a tour of your operations. This gives them a first-hand experience of the scope of your business, and it also gives your agency team the chance to identify potential fail points (very helpful for developing future training scenarios)
  • Organise a team outing. Crisis management is a serious business, which means you need your team to be comfortable working with each other under intense pressure. During a crisis there’s little time to nurture those relationships, so getting together in a more social sense can help here. There’s something disconcerting about watching a crisis team meeting each other for the first time five minutes before running a crisis simulation

Bonus tip: If your organisation has identified a back-up control room that’s situated in a nearby hotel, then getting the team together at the actual venue means you can also work on your relationship with the hotel’s management, including the all-important AV team and catering staff. 

Note that for the purpose of this post, we’re assuming your organisation has a formal crisis management team, and a crisis management plan – if you’re missing either of these things then get in touch with us so we can help get your organisation’s crisis management function up and running quickly.

Escalating a crisis, 140 characters at a time

In an article last month published in Communicate, Hill & Knowlton’s own Peter Roberts made the following point:

…social media does two things incredibly well: “The first is creating an environment where people can communicate one-to-many, instantly. The second is the observer’s view of a conversation. Thanks to social media, we can now watch a conversation unfold.”

In his Telegraph.co.uk blog today, Head of Technology (Editorial) for Telegraph Media Group, Shane Richmond, highlights some of the issues that this phenomenon represents – particularly when you or your organisation become the subject of the conversation in the context of Twitter.

This raises an interesting question for communicators, and particularly with respect to crisis management. Do these increasingly transparent (if not voyeuristic) forms of communication mean we’re facing a different type of crisis? Our Canadian colleague, Brendan Hodgson, shares his views. Ultimately, the principles of crisis management should remain the same, but the emphasis on speedy and transparent response is more pronounced than ever.

The importance of stakeholder relationships in a crisis

One of the key points to come out of last week’s Public Health Crisis event was the importance of building and maintaining strong relationships with your stakeholders – before you need to call on them.

This is often a challenge for organisations because relationship management takes work. You have to commit time and resources to something that usually doesn’t deliver an immediate benefit. But as we saw in our case study, successfully managing a crisis can often depend on those relationships.

For an organisation that feeds into the consumer supply chain, many of these relationships will be self-evident. For example, our hypothetical farm consortium can easily trace its relationships to its veterinarians, its customers, its shareholders, and consumers of its products. Specifically in the case of our exercise, it should also draw a straight line to the pharmaceutical company trialling its vaccine in the farm’s cows.

However, where things often fall down is in managing those relationships. Public relations is about doing just that, through ongoing communication (ideally that would be two-way, which is PR jargon for listening as well as talking). In our case study, this absence of coherent communication between stakeholders set the company up for failure. It’s a scenario that repeats itself all too often.

Here are five things you can do today to start improving your relationships immediately (or if you have a PR agency already then get them to help you do this):

  • Identify the stakeholders your organisation deals with most frequently, and which ones you’d likely need to call on in a crisis
  • Map them out so you can see the connections your stakeholders have between each other, as well as with your organisation. Any line that you’re not connected to has the potential to be part of the rumour mill, so it’s helpful to know just how big a network you’re potentially dealing with
  • Find out (if you don’t already know), who the spokespeople are for each of your stakeholders, as well as who your organisation already has existing relationships with in your stakeholder organisation
  • Get in touch. Every solid relationship has to start somewhere, so make a call or send an email today, and arrange some getting-to-know-you time. The occasional coffee is always a good idea
  • Reciprocate. You’re trying to build a network of people who you can call on in times of crisis – so make sure that you can also fulfil that role for someone else

A crisis might not start with you, but that doesn’t mean it won’t affect your organisation down the line. Make stakeholder engagement a habbit, and not a campaign activity, and you’ll build one of your greatest defences against a future crisis.