Archive for January, 2010

The £14bn question

A fantastic use of hype today by the Daily Mail, with their headline on page 8 which proclaimed “Cold snap to cost business £14bn”. What the article then went on to say was that in fact estimates have placed the actual cost to business at about £690m to date. The £14bn figure was simply a worst case scenario of what could happen if the snow and ice remains as is for the next three weeks. A perfect illustration of how a soundbyte can be (and usually is) twisted for maximum impact.

Regardless of the hype, the fact is that the extended cold weather is making life exceptionally difficult for many organisations and their comms staff at present.

The first to take a reputational hit were local councils, back in December, who were accused of having learnt nothing from the last bout of snow in February 2009. Unsurprisingly fed up of being accused of incompetence, councils went on the offensive and to some extent redeemed themselves by demonstrating that they had learnt their lesson and stockpiled extra reserves of grit.

What they couldn’t have predicted though, was the sheer longevity and intensity of the cold snap, and it’s telling that cracks have started to appear over the last day in their previously united, unified statements – witness the complaints by some council spokespersons about supply deliveries and preferential treatment that have started to appear.

Eurostar has also had a particularly bad time of it, suffering a first wave of negative publicity just before Christmas when their trains failed and then again today with a similar problem – cue the resultant “wrong type of snow” headlines.

And next in line to face problems could be manufacturers, with one newspaper reporting today that companies are being asked to voluntarily switch off production in order to preserve gas supplies for domestic households.

Finally, retailers have had to shut stores early, or in some cases altogether, as staff have been unable to reach work. This has been a problem in itself, but the real reputational damage has come from the disclosure that many of these staff won’t be paid – something Sainsbury’s Justin King was grilled on this morning.

As these examples show, the snow has presented difficult and varied challenges for comms teams this week, not least because the demand for snow stories has been phenomenal. Despite this though, the principals of successfully dealing with these scenarios remains the same, despite the exceptional circumstances:

1. Clear, concise messaging
2. Confident, well-trained spokespeople
3. Sound preparation and detailed planning before the event

Twelve Tips of Christmas: #12 Everything in moderation

We can’t actually take credit for thinking this one up as it was passed on to us by a former client several years ago.

The expertise to make good decisions under pressure is developed over years of experience, but at the end of the day you’re only ever as good as your last judgement call. Unfortunately, alcohol can have a remarkably deleterious effect on our ability to make sound judgements.

This obviously isn’t such a problem if your crisis hits at 11:00 AM on a Wednesday (we hope), but it’s an unpleasant consideration when it comes to weekends and holiday periods.

One way of handling this that we’ve seen used to great effect in the past is to have a 12-month calendar of crisis ownership in your organisation. This model maps out who’s going to be responsible for managing a crisis on a month-by-month basis; the designated crisis owner for each month is then required to “stay dry” for the period. It’s not a bad approach, so long as you have the resources to manage the rotation. There’s also a large element of organisational culture at play here.

Ultimately though, there are two considerations that need to be addressed. Firstly, if you’re on call then you really should be in suitable shape to be ready to work at a moment’s notice (as you would be at any other time of year). Secondly, if you’re likely to be letting your hair down, consider whether it’s appropriate for you to be the go-to person in the event of a crisis. If you can be unavailable while you’re on a holiday, you can be unavailable for a weekend. Just make sure you’ve got the fort covered.

Twelve Tips of Christmas: #11 Take a walk down the hall of mirrors…

…and have a good, hard look at yourself.

The Christmas / New Year period is a time for personal reflection – after all, we have to get New Year’s resolutions from somewhere. But that’s not to say we can’t turn the microscope on our organisations as well. How did you perform in 2009? What should you be aiming for in 2010?

Just mentioning mission and vision statements is usually enough to start eyes rolling, but for crisis managers in particular they serve an invaluable function. A written mission statement is the ultimate fall-back position in a crisis because it’s the standard against which the organisation’s leadership has stated it wants to be measured.

The 1986 Tylenol tampering crisis is as classic an example of this as you’re likely to find (click here for a brief analysis by the US Department of Defence). On learning of the tampering the J&J strategy team started from the position of “How do we protect the people?”.

Having such a simple, black and white position to work from makes managing a crisis that much easier, and most crisis management teams faced with a similar problem would (hopefully) start from a similar position. But what helps even more is having an already established corporate identity against which you can measure your decision-making.

By evaluating your crisis management decisions against the identity of your organisation, you can quickly determine how your actions are likely to be regarded in the court of public opinion. Even better, if your company mission is widely known by your audiences, then by demonstrating you’re living it during a crisis you’ll more than likely enhance your reputation with those stakeholders. They won’t love that you’re having a crisis, but being true to your identity throughout will show them that you’re a worthwhile organisation (or investment).

So while you’re trying to uphold those personal resolutions, spare a few minutes to pull out your company’s mission statement and see if it tells your stakeholders what kind of organisation they’re really engaged with.

Twelve tips of Christmas: #10 Catch up on your reading

Even though many of us are back from the break, the first few days are usually spent trundling along in first gear, so there’s still an opportunity for catching up on all of those things you meant to read last year but just never got around to.

While it’s important for crisis managers (and anyone else in business really) to stay current, that’s not to say that if you didn’t read it first then you’re too late. The “latest thinking” isn’t necessarily the best – sometimes giving your content some breathing space helps you consider it more critically.

Here are some sources that we’d recommend for any crisis managers to take a few minutes reading (and adding to your Favourites list if you’re old fashioned enough to still use one). Some of this will be pretty straightforward but may be useful as a reference for sharing with internal stakeholders:

And if you have any other sites that you regularly refer to for crisis management or communication insights, please feel free to share them here as well.

Twelve tips of Christmas: #9 Get your team structure right

Yes, we’re a little late in getting to our last four tips in this series – some urgent changes to our priorities over the break being the culprit.

However, we’re back with a vengeance, with today’s post looking specifically at the structure of your crisis management team.

Ideally, your crisis management team structure should reflect the needs of your organisation in its make-up. For example, if you’re in the food manufacturing business then your most frequent issues are likely to be product-related, so having someone from your Quality or Production teams is essential. If you’re in pharmaceuticals then there’s a good chance again that you’ll have product issues, but your Medical Director may be just as important to have on board as your head of production.

A great model to follow is that of the Incident Command System, or ICS. This is an internationally-recognised emergency management models, with a couple of key points that we really like. Probably the most important of this is the concept of Unity of Command, whereby each person in your crisis management team reports to only one person.

This ensures a flat hierarchy amongst team members, with a designated Team Leader taking responsibility for coordinating the team’s activity.

The above link to the Wikipedia explanation of the ICS provides a thorough description of how the ICS can work, with examples of a number of different variations from around the world, so it’s well worth clicking-through to if you’re looking at your crisis management team structure for the new year.

Thanks for coming back to us in 2010. We’ll aim to get the rest of our tips by week’s end…