Archive for the ‘crisis communication’ Category

Are you getting the most out of the Hill & Knowlton crisis network?

One of the great things about having a blog is the ability to analyse in minute detail the behaviour of your visitors. When we kicked this one off back in October we had hoped that we’d be able to connect our UK-based readers with some of the best crisis management and media training thinking in the global Hill & Knowlton network. But while some of our readers have explored Collective Conversations, many have not.

So, here some of my favourite blogs from around the Hill & Knowlton world. This is one of the great benefits of being part of a big, global company, so take a spin around the network and check out:

  • Crisis Musings. Insights into current issues and crises from the US.
  • Brendan Hodgson. The platform for one of Hill & Knowlton’s leading lights in digital crisis management. We were fortunate enough to have Brendan in our offices last week and will be sharing some of his latest insights with clients and on this blog over the coming weeks.
  • Shaping Conversations. Hill & Knowlton London’s new community blog has a lot more scope for conversations about communication and PR in general, as well as being a great place to put faces to some of the agency’s names.
  • Bandwidth. Our Canadian social media gurus share their thoughts here.
  • Influencing the Influencers. Courtesy of our Australian Public Affairs team, some great insights into the workings of the people in government (rather than just the big machine itself).

Got a Hill & Knowlton favourite that’s not on here? Leave a comment and we’ll add a link for everyone else to enjoy.

Sponsors should be there for a good time, not for a long time

As if celebrity sports stars haven’t had enough bad publicity in the last few months, last week’s news regarding John Terry’s extra-marital activities have given the football-mad English media even more fodder for their ongoing moral crusade.

Interestingly though, England team management showed that they’ve learnt some lessons from other recent scandals, acting quickly and decisively to strip Terry of the England captaincy, a decision Hill & Knowlton’s Head of Sports & Partnership Marketing, Andy Sutherden, was asked to comment on for Sky News.

This isn’t going to be a post about whether or not sponsors should stand by their talent in times of duress, but rather a look at how the logistics and terms of a sponsorship can be used to provide sponsors with additional layers of protection.

What I like most about Andy’s piece is his observation that sponsors need to start thinking in a shorter-term mindset. Rather than locking in a 2-3 year deal, looking instead for 6-12 month contracts instead.

Those sponsors locked into long term contracts may find themselves dependent on reactive measures, such as sponsorship bodyguarding, to safeguard their reputation if and when their association comes under fire.

However by having the foresight to negotiate shorter-term, possibly rolling contracts, sponsors can more easily distance themselves from a disgraced fallen idol (if that’s deemed the right thing to do). It’s a great example of thinking laterally about an issue to find a solution that mitigates risk, rather than trying to manage impact, and points back to previous posts we’ve written on the importance of behavioural change as a solution to an issue or crisis.

Eurostar’s snow crisis report released

Further to our previous post on Eurostar’s pre-Christmas snow crisis, today has seen the release of an independent report into the crisis, commissioned by the company.

This BBC story is among the most balanced pieces covering the release of the report (I haven’t been able to find a copy of the report itself, so if any of our intrepid readers want to forward a copy we’d love to receive it).

What’s to be expected is that across the board, media coverage focuses on the specific problems and who’s to blame, and in this respect it doesn’t disappoint. What I would have liked to see is a bit more prominent reference to the solutions. We’ll just have to be happy with Eurostar’s commitment to invest £30-plus million in implementing all of the review’s recommendations. It’s encouraging to see that communication featured prominently in the three core recommendations handed down by the reviewers:

  • Train reliability – engineering improvements to enhance the reliability of its trains
  • Evacuation and rescue – improvements should be made to tunnel evacuation and rescue procedures, to ensure passengers can be transported from the tunnel quickly and effectively
  • Managing disruption and improving communication – improvements to assist passengers better and provide more effective communication in times of disruption.

The key word here is “effective”. Communication for its own sake is pointless at the best of times, and a downright detriment during a crisis.

There have been a number of references over the past weeks about the importance of learning from previous experience and today’s report reinforces that message.

How good crisis management can protect shareholder value

Measuring the impact of PR is the bane of Marketing Directors the world over. On a personal level, I’d argue that measuring the marketing effect of PR is the problem, rather than measuring the impact of PR as a management function.

To support this heresy, I point to a study conducted a number of years ago by the researchers Rory Knight and Deborah Pretty. Their study, The Impact of Catastrophes on Shareholder Value, highlights two groups of factors that help companies to retain (or grow) shareholder value in the days, weeks and months following a crisis.

Direct factors largely consist of financial safety-nets, like the company’s insurance policy and cash reserves.

Indirect factors are largely attributed to the perception of competence displayed by the company’s management during and immediately after the crisis. And here’s where communication (crisis PR if you like) plays a massive role.

If you really think about it for a second, communication is the only way information ever gets out of the room and into the world – whether that’s into the brains of the company’s workforce, the pages of its annual report, or the copy of The Huffington Post. It’s all public relations because it’s all about relating the company to…the public.

As we often say on this blog, we can’t judge the performance of the people in the room by what we read in the media, simply because we don’t have the same information as the people in the room. However, when it comes to instilling confidence in an audience, that usually requires sharing some of that information, in a way that’s easily accessible to that audience.

That’s largely the point of the crisis management function. We help convey that information more effectively during times of distress. And because we can see what happens when that’s not done well, researchers like Knight & Pretty are able to demonstrate the impact of a job well done.

I’d strongly recommend downloading the full paper – it’s only 20-odd pages and makes a compelling argument for your communication investment.

Internal communication insight: Handling redundancy communications

As the Issues & Crisis team we work with a lot of organisations going through the difficult task of communicating company restructurings, employee consultations and redundancies. Typically, this is with a view to managing the external communication of such announcements, and as we always advise clients, whatever is said outside of the company must reflect the more important communication that’s going on inside.

Here’s a post by fellow H&K blogger and our Lead Counsel for Change & Internal Communication, Scott McKenzie, with a few guidelines on how to appropriately manage redundancy communication on the inside. Well worth a read.

Eurostar was not a social media crisis

Back in December when this was still a gaping wound we promised to take a look at the Eurostar rail crisis in detail, to identify some lessons that could help us and our readers learn from this high profile crisis. As we said then, we’re not going to pass judgement on the situation because we weren’t in the room, and frankly there are a lot of Monday morning quarterbacks already on that case. Instead, let’s look at a few key areas that we can all put to some constructive use.

After watching the story unfold, quiet down and revive itself over the past month, we thought it was time to make good on that promise. Unfortunately, there were so many things we wanted to look at we’ve had to stagger our analysis over a few posts, so if you’re not completely alienated by what’s about to follow then you’ll have to come back again.

Here’s the first thing we learned. What transpired was not a social media crisis. What actually happened was this: a few trains broke down. In no way was that caused by the internet, nor was it caused by a sweeping movement of social change that brings unprecedented power to the voice of the individual. It was caused by snow (in response to feedback received in our Comments, I’m updating the “cause” of the train breakdown to “caused by condensation shorting out electrical systems as the trains moved from extremely cold conditions outside the tunnel to warmer temperatures inside.” However, according to this AFP story that states: “the company blamed the ‘wrong kind of snow’ for causing problems with its trains’ electrics”, I think it was a fair error to make – GS.). The second thing we learned was this: business operations and communication functions must be intrinsically linked in order to provide any semblence of good communication in a crisis.

Now before you start sharpening your pitch forks, let me give you a bit of perspective.

If you’re on fire (yes, physically alight), then you have a crisis on your hands – it’s stopping you going about your day to day life. What you want in this case is an operational solution to your problem. You want the fire put out. Ideally, fairly soon. A communication solution requires you to find someone to ask to put it out. An operational solution involves…putting it out yourself, however you need to.

If you’re stuck on a train in a tunnel, where in the best of my experience you can’t get mobile reception or a decent wifi signal, then what you don’t want is to read on Twitter that your train is stuck in a tunnel. In face, you probably already have a hunch that this is the case. What you want…is someone to get you out of the tunnel.

In the meantime, you’re probably going to settle for a) knowing what’s going on, b) knowing how long it’s likely to go for, c) knowing how that’s going to affect your life in the foreseeable future, and d) knowing how the people responsible for your wellbeing are going to make the experience as painless as possible.

At this point, communication starts to have a role to play. Communication in a crisis is all about facilitating the flow of information, and the very human thing to do is to focus firstly on the people who are immediately affected by the crisis. In this instance they are the passengers stuck on a train, closely followed by the people waiting for them at their destination, who are probably on par with people waiting to get on a train themselves. Frankly, everyone else is a spectator.

The priority should be (should always be) to communicate first to the people most directly affected by the crisis, in this case the passengers on the trains, followed by the people waiting for them at the other end.

This information will always “leak” anyway, so if you’re responsible for communication you need to get this bit right first. The best social media strategy in the world would still be useless in this case when you’ve got actual passengers tweeting about pools of vomit, starving babies and over-flowing toilets.

When it comes to actually getting information to our previously identified audiences there are so many other channels that would make for a more targeted (effective) communication of the breakdown information – arguably more appropriate as well. Here are a few:

  • PA system on trains
  • Actual train staff
  • Arrival boards at stations
  • PA systems at stations
  • Information desks at stations

For passengers or greeters who haven’t left home yet to catch their train:

  • A company website interstitial page that re-directs people away from the corporate site for information about the delay (helps stop servers crashing and is just as transparent if you badge it properly)
  • Direct to customer emails/sms to advise of the issue

Not until all of the above channels have already been tapped would something like Twitter become a relevant consideration. Although at this point all of your connected audiences who got their information from one of the above channels will already have tweeted about it, and you’re probably already getting media enquiries…so what really are you going to say that’s any different? And isn’t that up on your crisis website anyway? Where people can already get all the information?

Yes, you should absolutely be providing information to external sources, and if you get out there early enough then the world’s news media will happily go and write their stories and then tweet about them – leaving you to get on with fixing the crisis. And if your company has an existing social media strategy that is actually appropriate for communicating crisis information, then sure, go for it. But don’t be fooled for a second that a #hashtag with your brand attached to it is going to make life any better for a three-year-old sitting in a tunnel.

From a crisis management perspective I’d venture that Eurostar not using its (unbranded, push-marketing focused) Twitter account @little_break to provide updates was the right thing to do in this case. As so many of the social media commentators have noted, this is a marketing account with no link to customer services. Why then should it be a considered channel in the first hour of the crisis?

A bigger problem according to many of the eyewitness accounts was the flow of information at all. Had the company got Twitter right, they just would have alerted a bigger audience to the fact there was a problem at all. You know what – that’s why the media exists. To report news. Let professionals deal with that – company focus should be on fixing the problem.

And fixing the problem comes back to our earlier point – business operations and communications need to be intrinsically linked. The communication team can now describe in vivid detail how the outside world perceived this crisis, and hopefully the operations team will take a good look at how passenger comfort might be maintained in the event of a future scenario, followed by communicating to passengers and greeters appropriately.

I don’t believe any agency, be that PR, social media or anyone else should get to take credit for either of those. They should be business-critical activities, not crisis PR.

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.

National Grid wins CorpComms magazine award for crisis management

Congratulations to the in-house PR team at National Grid (UK) for their recent win in the CorpComms magazine awards (grab a copy of the magazine for the full round-up).

I’d like to point out that we don’t work with National Grid, but felt it important to acknowledge the team’s success. The nature of crisis management is such that often some of the best crisis work is done behind the scenes – a day at the office where no-one heard about what you did is actually a pretty good day in our book.

Like trade negotiations, or the recent climate change summit, the details that get hammered out behind closed doors frequently make all the difference in a crisis. Sometimes the fact it didn’t make the front page is all the testament you need to know your crisis team did a great job.

However, sometimes you just don’t get that break and your crisis captures the public’s (read: media’s) attention. These are the crises against which organisations are most frequently judged by their stakeholders, and it’s only because of these very public events that the practice of crisis management, and by extension the public relations industry, has the opportunity to evolve.

So congratulations to the National Grid team, who will doubtless continue to be kept busy as this ridiculous cold snap continues.

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.