Archive for the ‘Hints & Tips’ Category

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.

(Sorry) We’re just not that into you today

As if the concurrent enquiries into the Iraq war and financial crisis weren’t enough to keep the world’s media busy last week, we also watched as the Caribbean nation of Haiti was devastated by a massive earthquake.

This has been a massive humanitarian tragedy and our thoughts are with all those affected by the disaster.

Events and news cycles such as this one usually come as a shock purely because they’re unexpected. However, that shouldn’t be taken to mean “uncommon”. The nature of news media is to find the newest, most exciting stories to tell, so there will always be a bias towards covering the unexpected. Particularly in the case of major disasters where every story is a very real human interest story.

From a purely academic perspective the past week also serves as an important reminder for spokespeople (and marketers) that regardless of how important you are, or how interesting you think your story is on a normal day, sometimes…stuff happens.

Across the world last week, dozens of spokespeople who got out of bed early to front up for interviews will have arrived at studios, or sat waiting sleepily by the phone waiting for it to ring, only to have been stood down by broadcasters.

Stories that were “scheduled to run” were been pulled to make room for more pressing news.

This is one of the quirks of the game of media relations. If you want to participate in making or contributing to the news then you have to be prepared for things to not go your way – every time you saddle up. That includes not actually getting the opportunity to get on the horse. You don’t have to like it, you just have to accept it, and that goes for the rest of your campaign as well. It’s literally nothing personal.

That said, there are a few things you can do to mitigate the effects of a hijacked news cycle, some of which you may have heard from Catherine Cross in our media training. But be warned – most of them involve a bit of extra work:

  • Be available generally. The media doesn’t care about your day job, and from a journalist’s perspective if you’re not available then someone else probably will be. If you want that headline, you’ve got to make the time for it. If your job doesn’t allow you the time, maybe you need a different job. Or maybe someone else needs yours.
  • Take your medicine. If you’re an official spokesperson then sometimes you’re just going to have to be the face of a company that has to take some constructive criticism. Like being bumped from your interview, it’s nothing personal. It’s all part of managing your own relationships with the media.
  • Do more media. There’s no value in scarcity for the vast majority of spokespeople and playing hard to get is just annoying. Only the very top people in a company get to play the “I’m important” card, and it’s rarely appreciated by journalists who are covering your business. Far better to be the go-to person not just for your product, but your brand, and if you can swing it, your industry. That’s one of the things that leads to thought leadership, and it’s a powerful tool in strategic issues management (which we’ll deal with another time).
  • Don’t blame your communications team. It’s not their fault that earthquakes, volcanoes, hurricanes or terrorist attacks happen. Of course there’s also something to be said for campaign scheduling, i.e. know what’s going on before you try to pitch an interview in the first place.
  • Don’t put all your eggs in the one basket. A big scrapbook full of splashy media coverage makes everyone feel good, but realistically why do you want everything to appear at once anyway? You don’t have your life savings in one bank account (I hope), so take a balanced approach to your campaign planning as well. Think about how political campaigns, or grassroots movements work – they all start small and build to a crescendo. Ok, we’re not all launching iPhones, but for the right audience, tapping into the right media, the principle still applies.

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.

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.

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.