Archive for the ‘crisis management’ Category

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.

Are you really using Twitter for crisis management? Really?

Here’s a really interesting post on the Marketing Pilgrim blog, looking at a recent eMarketer report on the uses that companies are putting social media to.

Of immediate interest was the finding that more than forty percent (40% ?!?) of respondents claim to “Monitor Twitter for PR problems in real time”.

While it’s encouraging to see so many organisations recognising the benefit a platform like Twitter can provide from a monitoring and issues management perspective, I’m not sure I believe the 300-odd respondents who said they’re actually doing it. It’s always easy to answer a survey question in the affirmative if you think that’s what you should really be doing – case in point, *of course* I get my five-a-day every day.

I think what I find more believable is that only around half of the respondents that claim to monitor Twitter as an issues management tool actually respond to the tweets they’re picking up on. This is a worry in itself.

If you’re not going to do something about the problems your stakeholders have with you, then all monitoring does is take away the element of surprise when one of those niggles becomes an actual issue or crisis. And it gives you some time to start updating your CV.

As our Digital team constantly reminds us, monitoring and listening are great places to start, but the important bit is actually doing something to fix the underlying problem.

This is one of the topics that Gaylene Ravenscroft and Candace Kuss cover in our Social Media Workshops, which we’ve been running with numerous clients to great effect (having sat through one of these myself I can vouch for the quality of the content – it’s actually part of the reason we started this blog).

And for those readers who are on Twitter, you can follow Hill & Knowlton London. Relevant crisis-related posts have a #HK_crisisUK hashtag for easy reference.

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.

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…

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.