Author Archive

Five lessons for crisis managers – as taught by faux pas on the Election trail

In case anyone has been hiding behind the sofa in recent days, or indeed is currently residing outside the UK, then you may not be aware that it’s General Election season here. This means the next four weeks will see wall-to-wall media coverage of a small group (mostly men) talking to several other groups (mostly disillusioned voters) about the economy, healthcare, education and the ever unpopular expenses scandal.

This level of media exposure is something that most companies can only dream of. However, this exposure also presents a constant challenge for the political parties and their staff to maintain the 3 As for their key spokespeople: Appearance, Appeal and Ability to communicate.

The 3 As are particularly difficult for politicians on the campaign trail because, unlike the comfort of a broadcast studio, they’re at the mercy of the general public with whom they are interacting. Already in the past week we’ve seen two incidents which highlight the reputational problems this can present.

Firstly, on the day after the Election was announced, Gordon Brown encountered his first ‘heckler’ on the campaign trail. Brown chose to ignore his repeated questioning, instead heading for the sanctity of his ministerial car. Unfortunately the cameras caught the whole episode, and within hours the video was on the net and in the evening news bulletins. Cue the notion that the Prime Minister only listens when he wants to.

Then, it was the turn of the Conservatives to encounter public anger. When their home affairs spokesman, Chris Grayling, made some unfortunate comments about homosexual rights, the party was bound to encounter the wrath of gay and lesbian rights campaigners. What they perhaps didn’t foresee though was a demonstration outside party headquarters, swiftly organised via Facebook. Again, cue the cameras and subsequent reports on the evening news bulletins and next day’s papers.

In this second case though, the Conservatives at least made several of the right moves before and during the protest – they engaged with the protestors during the demonstration and also held meetings away from it with the protest leaders to discuss the issue.

Companies are often left with having to face and contain similar kinds of protests following job losses, poorly received pay negotiations or other unpopular decisions. There are no hard rules on controlling these situations to ensure a successful outcome. Nor are there any quick fixes or guarantees to avoid less than favourable media coverage of the event for your organisation.

What there are though are some good basics that can be done:

1. Dialogue – have meetings been arranged to try to prevent the demonstration or at least resolve the issues behind it? Will any senior company figures be available to listen to the concerns of the protestors on the day?

2. Briefing the staff - does everyone know about the demonstration? Do they know how to respond if/when they’re quizzed by media or protestors? Have you prepared Q&A documents, media statements etc for quick deployment?

3. Security – what measures and procedures do you have in place if things turn ugly?

4. Preparation – above all, have you anticipated and planned for this kind of event happening? If you have, great, but then ask yourself if you’ve tested or simulated such an event to see if you can really pull it off under pressure? If not, it might be time to think about doing this.

5. Future proofing – and finally, what have you done and what still needs doing to prevent the issues that lead to these kind of demonstrations in the first place?

How to avoid a Dappy moment for your organisation

The use of prominent, well-known celebrity figures as spokespeople to front a campaign is a standard tactic amongst comms teams looking to create impact for their campaigns. Not only is it standard, but it’s also usually highly successful in enabling organisations to connect with their target audience and deliver the right message.

However, as last Friday’s incident involving the musician Dappy (from N-Dubz) demonstrates, if a negative issue arises involving your chosen spokesperson, then there’s a fair chance your organisation will be referenced, thus creating a negative impression.

The choice of Dappy by the Deparment for Children, Schools and Families to front their anti-cyber bullying campaign last autumn was certainly bold, but also not without logic or merit given the audience the Deparment was trying to reach. Unfortunately, as this incident demonstrates, with the best will in the world you can’t legislate for what happens once their work with your organisation is complete.

There are however, some good basic tips that you can adhere to when deciding on a potential spokesperson for your campaign:

1. Does your campaign really need a spokesperson? Assess the likely impact that your efforts would have with, and without, a well-known figurehead before you commit to one. Also, seek a third-party opinion on this given that you’ll likely be very close to the project.

2. Assess what you want them to do for you. Will it be a simple photoshoot, a series of interviews, or something more ambitious? This will help determine the type of person that you’ll likely want to employ.

3. Who is your target audience? It can sometimes be easy to get wrapped up in who you think you’d like as your spokesperson, rather than properly considering who your audience will respond to.

4. What have they done over the past couple of years that’s relevant? It goes without saying, but a proper check of any previous activity, soundbites, quotes or anything else that relates (positively or negatively) to your organisation, industry or your customers is essential.

5. Take the time to properly prepare them. Invest the time to meet with your chosen spokesperson and brief them well in advance of the event/activity. Consider media training them as well, especially if they haven’t worked in your product/brand area previously.

What a GCSE in social media means for Crisis management

As of next year, it seems that teenagers are going to be able to turn their Tweets into UCAS points, with The Daily Telegraph reporting today that an exam board is set to launch a GCSE called ‘English Studies: Digital Communication’.

According to the paper, this will require students to be able to “read, analyse, critique and plan…industry made or user generated examples of advertising, audio podcasts, video/moving image, websites, social networks, wikis and blogs”. In other words, social media.

At the same time, The Independent, which has long-targeted a youth audience (in particular students on campus) and always been something of a pioneer with regards new ways for people to read its newspaper, is embroiled in a potential minefield with its readership over the possible appointment of a new editor, Rod Liddle.

Within hours of Media Guardian publishing the story that Liddle was being lined up as a potential recruit, a Facebook group had sprung up opposing the move. At time of writing, that group has 2,732 members, which is nearly 1,000 more than it had this time yesterday. This is only one example of a string of unpopular decisions by prominent organisations that have resulted in a large number of people registering their dissatisfaction within a short space of time in a similar way.

For comms professionals, social media can be a powerful tool provided you can harness it. For crisis practioners however, it presents a different challenge – how do you communicate sensibly, clearly and effectively with this type of audience, who are clearly pushing for change, whilst protecting your company’s reputation?

As my colleague Grant notes in his blog post today, monitoring and listening to social media channels is a great place to start, but it should only be a start. Actually being in a position to effectively engage with this audience requires an understanding of what motivates them, what their goals are, how you can acknowledge these and crucially, how you can best communicate your key message to them in a way that they will listen to, understand and accept.

In other words, before you can apply the basic principles that drive your crisis comms to these groups, you really need to know and understand your audience first. Sounds familiar? It should do, because it’s something that we do with other audiences and channels already. It’s just that new learning is required with regards to these groups and it is this that can appear daunting at first.

Training can help immensely in this regard, but it also still requires a lot of hard groundwork as well in order to succeed.

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