Archive for December, 2009

Twelve tips of Christmas: #8 Dial up the fear factor for your scenario plans

In case you haven’t been reading the news lately, a recent issue with a number of trains has been garnering headlines for all the wrong reasons.

We’re going to take a look at this after the dust has settled somewhat, and given that from time to time we’re also on the receiving end of public scrutiny what we’re not going to do is attempt to evaluate anyone’s “performance”. Instead, we’ll look at some of the lessons we can learn from watching the issue unfold, and break them down so they can help guide future crisis management efforts. If that sounds like something you’re interested in then please check back over the next few weeks for an update.

However, there’s already one glaring lesson for all crisis managers (and trainers) to take on board (pardon the pun). Often when our Issues & Crisis team runs a crisis simulation, or in the occasional media training scenario, we’ll be met with the kind of skepticism that’s usually reserved for spoon-benders.

The cry of: “That’s not realistic. That could never happen”, rings loudly from the naysayers, usually members of the crisis management team we’re working with. In all honesty, they’re probably right – it’s probably not realistic. But here’s the thing. That’s absolutely not a reason why it couldn’t happen. Just look at our trains issue.

It’s one thing to have a single trans-national train break down. It’s quite another to have six go all at the same time. And then when you compound that by scheduling the breakdowns for the weekend before Christmas, and then you add in an unprecedented cold snap that’s seen most of the UK’s airports either closed for action or running drastically reduced schedules…all of a sudden the scenario starts to look “unrealistic”. Except it isn’t, because it’s still having an impact, five days after it happened.

This is why at Hill & Knowlton we train our clients for the “nightmare scenario”. It’s not something we expect to happen. Rather, it’s a scenario that’s designed specifically to test and train at the limits of the organisation’s capabilities. There’s an adage about bleeding more in training so we die less in battle. While corporate communications is usually a much safer environment that requires very little bleeding, the principle still holds. It’s no good training for what happens when just one train breaks down if you’re running a fleet of 20.

Similarly, if you’re training for a product recall, it’s a no-brainer to use a scenario that involves some kind of threat to consumer health or safety. But to get the most value out of your scenario, dial up the element of fear. Work within the constraints of a climbing mortality rate, or an international recall across markets with different regulatory requirements for example.

So for crisis managers working on your 2010 training calendars, pour some fuel on your scenarios and give your team a truly incendiary problem to work with.

Twelve tips of Christmas: #7 Make it easy for those left behind

Our seventh tip for the holidays is provided by Senior Associate Director, Peter Roberts…

The Christmas period will, as expected, see many businesses manned by a fewer number of people. Invariably, departmental heads will be away and so it falls to designated alternates to keep the ‘ship on course’.

Subsequently, it will be a time when individuals are anticipated to cover projects, or accounts (in the agency world) that they may not be overly familiar with. Therefore, it will be a tremendous help both to those who are charged with the covering and those who are out of the office (as they won’t take too kindly to being disturbed) if documents particular to a project are easily retrievable.

A crisis situation, no matter the time of year, demands a quick response, and it will save your organisation, precious minutes or possibly hours if the paperwork is identifiable and accessible to your holiday cover staff members.

Fundamentally, this about instilling best practice throughout the year. For an effective response without bothering the boss during their vacation, make sure:

  • Documents are shared in the right place
  • Any updated documents are dated and finalised work, such as statements, or press releases are marked as such
  • Client, and/or internal contact details are stored
  • Any legal sensitivities particular to a project are clearly marked
  • Passwords are shared with appropriate individuals for protected documents (it really, really happens)

Forgive the cliché, but it’s not rocket science, but increasingly, it would appear that fewer businesses are putting an emphasis on effectively organising its collective know-how. The Issues & Crisis team at Hill & Knowlton is particularly well versed in assessing an organisation’s ability to continue functioning during crisis situations. Time spent on your filing may be the difference between handling the scenario successfully, or not. – Peter

Twelve tips of Christmas: #6 Use the slow period to your advantage (part 2)

In the last post we looked at using the winter slow-down as an opportunity to get your team back on track with their regular crisis management training. However, it’s important that your procedures and processes are also kept current, which is the topic for this post.

Every crisis management plan or manual that we write at Hill & Knowlton has an update register inside the front cover. This is to remind users that a plan is only as good as the information it’s based on. If you let it lapse, or the content is obsolete, then you’re not much better off than if you’d never had it to begin with.

If you already have a crisis management manual for your organisation, now’s an ideal time to get up to date with your housekeeping and give it one of your twice-yearly reviews. Here are a few pointers for things to pay extra attention to:

  • Confirm that the right people are still on your crisis management team. People move on and change roles, so it’s important to make sure you have the right people in your team for the next six months. The new year is a natural time of change, so now’s as good a time as any to review this critical detail. (Year-end is also a common time for appraisals, which means the job description of many deputy/alternate crisis team members may have changed and they may also need replacing)
  • Ensure contact details are accurate. It’s been a tough year and many organisations have seen staff numbers decline. Often, this results in some kind of physical re-shuffling of staff. Make sure that in any relocation your crisis team’s contact details either a) haven’t changed, or b) have been appropriately updated.
  • Call your alternative control centres. Usually these are local hotels with good AV and IT facilities. But while we’re looking at the general corporate slow-down, for industries such as leisure and hospitality this is a peak period. Make sure that those facilities you’re relying on to be there if your business is shut down, will in fact be available to you if you need them. It’s not uncommon for hotels to be fully booked at this time of year.
  • Check your hardware. We say it a lot on this blog, because it is the single most common issue we come across in any crisis simulation – the technology that the team needs to operate effectively just isn’t where it’s supposed to be (or worse, hasn’t been identified). Seriously, it’s a boring exercise, but it needs to be done.
  • Get a fresh pair of eyes on your manual. Our Issues & Crisis team frequently reviews clients’ existing plans just to see if there are any new ideas we can contribute, or glaring omissions we can help correct. It doesn’t take long if your manual is regularly updated, and frequently we find that having someone else look over a document provides the opportunity to improve something, even if it’s only incrementally. A suggestion that will save you half an hour in the midst of a crisis is worth the effort now.

The above tips are a useful starting point for reviewing an existing crisis management plan or communication manual. If you don’t already have one of these in place for your organisation, now’s as good a time as any to start.

Twelve tips of Christmas: #5 Use the slow period to your advantage (part 1)

So far we’ve looked at a number of suggestions to help make your yuletide crisis management as simple and pain-free as possible. However when it comes to best practice crisis management, the smart money is always on prevention being far preferable to the cure – so that’s what we’re looking at here.

For the moment, let’s assume that anything that’s going to go wrong between December 20 and January 10 is probably still going to. It’s no good having a coronary over it, so let’s look at a happier, healthier future. One with lower blood pressure.

Preparation, for crisis managers, takes into account both procedures and people. We’ll look at the latter in this post, as the people you rely on are, ironically, more fallible than your procedures (a procedure’s a procedure – so long as someone follows it, there’s not much more you can ask of it – a bit like blaming a calculator if your numbers don’t add up).

However, January (winter generally) is a brilliant time to nab people for their regular training updates. The weather’s rubbish so it’s no fun to travel, everyone’s a little sluggish after the holidays, and it’s usually easier to get into diaries – both at your end and also with your training providers.

Our head trainer, Catherine Cross, says we’re already seeing several clients planning their winter to include things like media training, refresher courses for spokespeople who may have gone a little rusty after a period of inactivity, and even a number of crisis simulations. Now’s the perfect time to schedule in your team’s training requirements for the start of 2010. If you’d like to talk to one of our team, you can contact Catherine directly here, or call us on 020 7413 3000.

Twelve tips of Christmas: #4 Enhance your monitoring to avoid unpleasant Christmas surprises

We’ve touched on this briefly in earlier posts, but a reminder from our friends at Dow Jones Factiva suggested this was worth revisiting in its own right.

With staff away and out of contact, it’s easy to lose one of your best sources of informal business intelligence – the office grapevine. Because the day-to-day interactions between staff are so significantly curtailed over the holiday season, the rumour mill tends to grind if not to a halt, then into a very lazy holding pattern.

Unfortunately this also means that those little, niggling issues that are only ever picked up through such informal channels will tend to slip through the cracks.

Without this channel in place, some of those issues are more likely to escalate, and particularly in the case of customer service issues we usually see that “escalation” means they find their way into local (and occasionally national) media – and once a small issue breaks as “news” it’s no longer a small issue.

That being the case, now is the ideal time to get in touch with your media monitoring account manager (or PR team if they handle your monitoring), and run through your current keywords to see if there are any others you should be adding.

Additionally, take a minute to consider whether you need to increase the frequency of your monitoring – do you need alerts a couple of times a day, or is once a day enough? Is your regular clipping service suitable for your needs, or should you supplement it with online tools such as Google Alerts? Or do you need something more sophisticated again, in which case, it’s worth having a chat to either your existing agency or Hill & Knowlton’s digital specialists about what kind of real-time monitoring tools they can provide you with.

Remember – at this time of year, your speed of response is already hampered (no pun intended!) by holiday diaries; re-claim some of your time margin by getting ahead of the issues as early as possible.

Chancellor’s Pre-Budget Report – Hill & Knowlton Public Affairs Analysis

Not strictly crisis-related but relevant to many of our readers, here’s a link to our Public Affairs team’s analysis of yesterday’s Pre-Budget Report.

From a crisis management perspective we’re very big on the importance of understanding what’s going on in the news cycle, and how this can affect a crisis you’re faced with at a given point in time. With the release of the Pre-Budget Report now done and dusted, the next six months are going to present us with one of the most pessimistic political debates most of us are likely to ever see. It will be fascinating to see how this affects the tone of reporting in the nation’s daily media, beyond the current doom and gloom camped out in the political and economic pages.

Twelve tips of Christmas: #3 A crisis shared is a crisis made a lot more manageable over the holidays

One of the biggest problems crisis managers face is that by definition you’re on call 24/7. Of course, thankfully, that’s not to say most of us actually get the dreaded 2am phone call on a regular basis.

Being on call is a cost of doing business, and if you weren’t prepared to do it you wouldn’t work in crisis management. But, being permanently available is untenable. We talk about the “holiday season” because it’s just that – a time of year where people take scheduled holidays.

So, there are two implications for crisis managers. The first is obvious – make sure you have the people available to manage a crisis if and when one arises, because your usual team will probably be affected by holidays. If you’ve read either of the last two posts on this topic you’ve probably seen quite a lot of reinforcement of that particular message!

But the second implication is easily over-looked by busy crisis managers, and it’s this: take time out for yourself as well. You need to recharge your batteries as much as the next person – probably more, in fact, if you’ve spent most of the last 50 weeks with your phone perpetually on.

You have a crisis management team in place (or should do) specifically designed to take account of scenarios where particular individuals aren’t available. Surely you’ve got a designated alternate for your own position – take advantage of having them there.

Likewise, tap into your agency’s resources. For example, at Hill & Knowlton we have a sufficiently large enough Issues & Crisis team that we rotate availability over the holiday period – specifically so that there’s always someone immediately available in case of a client call.

None of this is to say you should take your hands off the wheel completely and let fate do its worst. Rather, spend an hour mapping out your alternative contact strategy for the next few weeks and ensure that responsibility for managing any crises is suitably delegated. This shouldn’t be an issue – if your crisis management plans are already solid then you’ll have taken into account the possibility that your unavailability is a legitimate issue in its own right.

Likewise, ensure you and your team are clear on how your agency support will be staffed over the period.

(If you’re reading this because you’re looking for immediate crisis support during the holidays, click here to contact us directly or call our switchboard on 020 7413 3000)

Why Message Development is important

From time to time on this blog we talk about the importance of driving communication through organisational behaviour, and how this can be of great help to crisis managers because it gives you a solid base from which to start managing the fallout of a crisis. This is possibly even more integral to strategic issues management, i.e. where we work with a client to turn a potential issue into an area where they can establish a competitive advantage.

However, a recent conversation with a design agency highlighted that the infamous “key message” is something that, while still a fundamental part of any communication strategy, is also increasingly likely to be overlooked.

What brought this home was hearing said design agency recycle a quote we often use ourselves: “If you want someone to think you’re funny, don’t tell them you’re funny. Tell them a joke.”

The issue we need to clear up is as follows. I agree one hundred percent that your behaviour needs to demonstrate the message you’re trying to convey (i.e. display congruence). But that’s kind of the point – you need to work out what your message is first.

The “what” of “what you say” really is more important than how you say it, because it actually is what you’re saying. What you say should be what you want your audience to understand. If you don’t (can’t?) define what that is, how will your audience ever know what it is that you want them to do? Here’s a great presentation by Dr Vincent Covello from the Centre For Risk Communication in the US that explains in great depth a number of tools we regularly use for developing crisis messages. The fact they’re needed at all should say something about their importance.

This is particularly important for issues and crisis managers because invariably we want our audiences to do something, usually within a very short time frame. If it’s a product recall crisis then we want people to return affected products (in the first instance we often want them to stop eating those products). If it’s a gas leak and we want people to evacuate then we need to tell them that – driving up and down their street in a fire truck will not, on its own, convince residents that they need to get out of the area.

Similarly for a consumer PR campaign – if we want an audience to do something (e.g. share this blog with a friend), we actually need to tell our audience that’s what we want them to do (seriously, please share our blog with friends and colleagues).

The point is, until you know what you want your audience to do (your objective), then you can’t know what you need to tell them to get them to do it (your key message). And until you can define your message, you can’t work out how you’re going to deliver it (your strategy) with any real effectiveness. After all, if you don’t want people to think you’re funny, why on Earth would you tell them a joke?

Hence – message development. It’s not sexy, it’s rarely fun and frankly it’s one of the hardest parts of communication planning because every single person in your organisation will have a different view of what it should be. But communication is a process-oriented discipline, and so this is absolutely in the must-have basket.

Think of it from your customer’s perspective. If you as an organisation can’t clearly and simply define what you do, and articulate what you want your customer to do, how will the customer ever know what they’re meant to do (i.e. buy some stuff)? The principle is the same for any audience you care to think of.

This is why we spend proper, quality time developing our clients’ messages at Hill & Knowlton. That’s not to say every campaign, project or issue requires a dedicated messaging workshop – in fact, most don’t. But if you can’t write your key message on the back of your business card inside of 30 seconds, you probably need to spend some time working on it.

In the first place, it ensures everyone involved in your project is talking about the same thing in the same way – which is essential for building any kind of consistency or momentum. And in doing this, it focuses communication efforts on the thing that’s really important – meeting your objectives. Not until your message is right should you be worrying about big events and column inches.

Getting this right can be a real challenge, but the investment pays for itself in spades because good message development saves you time and money for months (sometimes years) to come.

If it’s done well.

Strong messages will stick around for the long term and can be incorporated into any relevant campaign activity – regardless of medium or channel. They should form the basis for every single piece of communication you deliver for that campaign or crisis or organisation, and they should be reinforced by corporate behaviour that is congruent with what the message actually says.

Only then will people think you’re really funny.

Twelve tips of Christmas: #2 Be prepared

It sounds like a no-brainer, but a trip to Swindon this morning reinforced the importance of being prepared to work around your technological limitations. For example, making the very wrong assumption that one can get a decent wi-fi signal on a train network.

This becomes even more critical during the holiday season because in addition to having to contend with the vagaries of technology, we face numerous compounding problems.

Inconveniences such as support personnel being away on holidays en masse, suppliers not necessarily being available, and the occassional snowfall can all conspire against crisis managers at the most inopportune time.

For this reason, it’s essential that crisis managers, your organisations, and your support network (yes, including your PR account team) are all prepared well in advance for the possibility of a Christmas crisis.

Here are five things you can do this week to improve your organisation’s ability to handle a crisis that springs up over the holiday break:

  1. Ensure your escalation procedure stacks up for the holiday period. Your day-today crisis management is (usually) predicated on a best-case scenario, i.e. you have access to the people and resources you need, or their alternatives. However, it’s not practical to work under that assumption at this time of year – check with whoever manages holidays for your crisis team and see if you’re actually going to be covered for “business as usual”.
  2. Provide every member of your crisis management team/network with the must-have materials they’ll need if a crisis happens over the holidays. In most cases this will simply be a copy of your escalation or call-out process and relevant contact details. While it’s really simple, it’s also important because most of us rely on having these things available electronically, and that’s not such a good thing if the crisis is a technical one that means you can’t access this kind of information. Print off a few hard copies and run them through the laminator just to be on the safe side.
  3. Consider whether you need a Virtual Control Room. Most on-the-day crisis management takes place in a central meeting facility, but if your team’s spread across the country then that’s no good to you. Streaming video is great technology, but an old fashioned conference call facility is better – more accessible and more reliable. Include the dial-in details in your printed information pack.
  4. Get your crisis management team to identify their own back-up facilities (and test them on it if you need to). For example, if I’m at home and lose my internet connection, I can connect to a local unsecured network, I can walk 10 minutes to an internet cafe, or at a stretch I can hole up in the hotel that’s two miles up the road and use the hotel business centre (or check into a room if I need to – whatever it takes to get plugged in).
  5. Check whether your team is actually equipped to manage a crisis remotely. The recession has seen many companies cut back on what look like perks, but in actual fact are business-critical insurances. Things like corporate credit cards, travel restrictions, or providing new employees with wi-fi enabled laptops, for example (connection issues notwithstanding). It only takes an event like last winter’s infamous “snow day” to let you know your technical capabilities aren’t what they should be – save yourself the headache and fill the gaps before it becomes a problem.

There’s a bonus tip for this last point – make sure your team is competent in the use of anything remotely technical. Wireless internet is brilliant, but if your team don’t know how to connect to a wi-fi network then it’s going to make life increasingly difficult.

Social media: friend or foe?

As I mentioned earlier this week, last night I attended the Social Media: Friend or Foe? event hosted by our Change & Internal Communications team here at Hill & Knowlton. This event represented a bit of a break in format for our recent events. Rather than the traditional expert presentation followed by a Q&A, our host and Head of Internal Communication, Scott McKenzie, challenged the audience to field two debate teams from amongst their number.

This was a great approach for a number of reasons, not least because it highlighted that there’s not really such a thing as a “social media expert” (one of the problems of a medium that changes exponentially while you’re asleep). In this context then, the challenge for our guests and attending H&K-ers was to coordinate either a Friend or Foe argument, and the results were particularly interesting given our debate teams.

From a crisis management perspective the outcome of the debate isn’t nearly as important as some of the observations the debate itself triggered. Some of the more poignant among these were:

  • As social media becomes more pervasive it also becomes less social. (this is similar to the old “alternative” music debate – if everyone’s playing “alternative”, doesn’t that just make it mainstream?)
  • As mobile technology continues its upward evolution it becomes a social media lifeline. How then does a company possibly enforce a social media ban amongst its workforce if they have their own mobile phones in the workplace?
  • When it comes to engaging with audiences via social media, you have to be brave because you cannot be selective. This was from our very own global Director of Marketing Technology, Niall Cook (or follow him on Twitter here).

For crisis managers then, the key take-away from the night was this: social media is here to stay. So deal with it.

This cold, hard truth has several important ramifications, which are not exactly new, but are definitely more pronounced with the rise of online networks. Here are three of the more confronting ones:

  • The “how” of a story supercedes the “what”. Relatively simple issues, the kind that used to be classed as “just the cost of doing business”, now take on a life of their own. All it takes is one connected individual to decide they don’t like the way your organisation has behaved, and it’s enough to start a landslide. Snowflakes and skiers have known this for years.
  • The relevance of social media to your primary target audience is irrelevant to your actual crisis. It used to be that if a special interest group took offence, you could rationalise your level of engagement on the basis of whether or not that special interest group had any bearing on your ability to continue doing business. Now, though, if that otherwise irrelevant interest group can stimulate significant attention in their own right, then to the world’s media that actually is a story. It may still have no bearing on what your original problem was…but by now, that no longer matters.
  • Yes, engaging with a social media-based crisis does reinforce a positive feedback loop. So, think carefully before you do it. This is a real sticking point in the crisis vs. digital communication debate because the pro-social media camp is very much singing the “two-way communication promotes transparency” hymn. Fact: that statement was just as true before the internet was invented. It was just harder to tell if you weren’t holding up your side of the deal.

The point then is that you don’t have to get on facebook/Twitter/foursquare/insert-your-preferred-platform-here in order to engage with your audience. So have a good, hard think about whether you even should. Absolutely, the odds are you should engage with your audience. But if they’ve created a space on a social network that’s akin to an old-fashioned lynch mob, why on Earth would you do it there? Be creative and find a better solution (do something completely out of the box – actually meet the leaders of the mob one-on-one, for a coffee and a chat).

It’s all pretty daunting stuff, and depending on which school of thought you subscribe to it will make the lives of crisis managers either infinitely more difficult, or somewhat less painful. And the reason for that is a simple one: how people respond to your corporate behaviour is well and truly beyond your control. So instead, we need to take a leaf out of our Internal Communications colleagues’ handbook, and focus our efforts instead on what our corporate behaviour actually is in the first instance.

In other words, do the right thing by people and chances are, they’ll do the right thing by you.

(For any readers who haven’t yet, you can also check out Scott’s Collective Conversation blog here)