Archive for the ‘issues management’ Category

Communicating change in a crisis context

In a couple of weeks, our Change & Internal Communication team will host one of their world-famous discussion forums, this time looking at the relationship between change and communication. While a crisis isn’t usually the same thing as a change management programme, often times a change programme can be the trigger for a crisis.

Often we’re asked to define what we mean by “crisis”, and I tend to work on the broad principle that a crisis is anything that prevents you being able to get on with business as usual. By contrast, an issue is something that you’d proably have to deal with as part of your typical day-to-day workload (so in this example a customer complaint is an issue, 200 customers protesting outside your flagship store is a crisis).

By definition then, any kind of organisational change carries with it the potential to spark a crisis of monolithic proportions. Here are a few examples of the kinds of things that can go pear-shaped in a big hurry:

  • Redundancy / restructuring programmes
  • Appointing a high-profile new supplier (or ditching an old one)
  • Pretty much anything involving the implementation of new technology
  • Re-vamping an established and much-loved brand
  • Collective and enterprise bargaining negotiations

If you’re in London on 10 March I’d strongly recommend trying to get along to our event. You can register your interest by clicking through to Scott McKenzie’s blog post announcing the event. Members of Hill & Knowlton’s Issues & Crisis team will also be there (including yours truly if you fancy providing some in-person feedback on the quality of our blog posts!).

For those who can’t make it we’ll revisit this topic after the event to share some of the key points from the discussion.

PS about half an hour after posting this the BBC was sporting enough to post this story on anticipated public sector strike action in reaction to proposed cuts to civil service redundancy terms. You know you really want to come to our event now!

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.

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.

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.

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: #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.