Archive for the ‘issues management’ Category

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: #3 A crisis shared is a crisis made a lot more manageable over the holidays

One of the biggest problems crisis managers face is that by definition you’re on call 24/7. Of course, thankfully, that’s not to say most of us actually get the dreaded 2am phone call on a regular basis.

Being on call is a cost of doing business, and if you weren’t prepared to do it you wouldn’t work in crisis management. But, being permanently available is untenable. We talk about the “holiday season” because it’s just that – a time of year where people take scheduled holidays.

So, there are two implications for crisis managers. The first is obvious – make sure you have the people available to manage a crisis if and when one arises, because your usual team will probably be affected by holidays. If you’ve read either of the last two posts on this topic you’ve probably seen quite a lot of reinforcement of that particular message!

But the second implication is easily over-looked by busy crisis managers, and it’s this: take time out for yourself as well. You need to recharge your batteries as much as the next person – probably more, in fact, if you’ve spent most of the last 50 weeks with your phone perpetually on.

You have a crisis management team in place (or should do) specifically designed to take account of scenarios where particular individuals aren’t available. Surely you’ve got a designated alternate for your own position – take advantage of having them there.

Likewise, tap into your agency’s resources. For example, at Hill & Knowlton we have a sufficiently large enough Issues & Crisis team that we rotate availability over the holiday period – specifically so that there’s always someone immediately available in case of a client call.

None of this is to say you should take your hands off the wheel completely and let fate do its worst. Rather, spend an hour mapping out your alternative contact strategy for the next few weeks and ensure that responsibility for managing any crises is suitably delegated. This shouldn’t be an issue – if your crisis management plans are already solid then you’ll have taken into account the possibility that your unavailability is a legitimate issue in its own right.

Likewise, ensure you and your team are clear on how your agency support will be staffed over the period.

(If you’re reading this because you’re looking for immediate crisis support during the holidays, click here to contact us directly or call our switchboard on 020 7413 3000)

Why Message Development is important

From time to time on this blog we talk about the importance of driving communication through organisational behaviour, and how this can be of great help to crisis managers because it gives you a solid base from which to start managing the fallout of a crisis. This is possibly even more integral to strategic issues management, i.e. where we work with a client to turn a potential issue into an area where they can establish a competitive advantage.

However, a recent conversation with a design agency highlighted that the infamous “key message” is something that, while still a fundamental part of any communication strategy, is also increasingly likely to be overlooked.

What brought this home was hearing said design agency recycle a quote we often use ourselves: “If you want someone to think you’re funny, don’t tell them you’re funny. Tell them a joke.”

The issue we need to clear up is as follows. I agree one hundred percent that your behaviour needs to demonstrate the message you’re trying to convey (i.e. display congruence). But that’s kind of the point – you need to work out what your message is first.

The “what” of “what you say” really is more important than how you say it, because it actually is what you’re saying. What you say should be what you want your audience to understand. If you don’t (can’t?) define what that is, how will your audience ever know what it is that you want them to do? Here’s a great presentation by Dr Vincent Covello from the Centre For Risk Communication in the US that explains in great depth a number of tools we regularly use for developing crisis messages. The fact they’re needed at all should say something about their importance.

This is particularly important for issues and crisis managers because invariably we want our audiences to do something, usually within a very short time frame. If it’s a product recall crisis then we want people to return affected products (in the first instance we often want them to stop eating those products). If it’s a gas leak and we want people to evacuate then we need to tell them that – driving up and down their street in a fire truck will not, on its own, convince residents that they need to get out of the area.

Similarly for a consumer PR campaign – if we want an audience to do something (e.g. share this blog with a friend), we actually need to tell our audience that’s what we want them to do (seriously, please share our blog with friends and colleagues).

The point is, until you know what you want your audience to do (your objective), then you can’t know what you need to tell them to get them to do it (your key message). And until you can define your message, you can’t work out how you’re going to deliver it (your strategy) with any real effectiveness. After all, if you don’t want people to think you’re funny, why on Earth would you tell them a joke?

Hence – message development. It’s not sexy, it’s rarely fun and frankly it’s one of the hardest parts of communication planning because every single person in your organisation will have a different view of what it should be. But communication is a process-oriented discipline, and so this is absolutely in the must-have basket.

Think of it from your customer’s perspective. If you as an organisation can’t clearly and simply define what you do, and articulate what you want your customer to do, how will the customer ever know what they’re meant to do (i.e. buy some stuff)? The principle is the same for any audience you care to think of.

This is why we spend proper, quality time developing our clients’ messages at Hill & Knowlton. That’s not to say every campaign, project or issue requires a dedicated messaging workshop – in fact, most don’t. But if you can’t write your key message on the back of your business card inside of 30 seconds, you probably need to spend some time working on it.

In the first place, it ensures everyone involved in your project is talking about the same thing in the same way – which is essential for building any kind of consistency or momentum. And in doing this, it focuses communication efforts on the thing that’s really important – meeting your objectives. Not until your message is right should you be worrying about big events and column inches.

Getting this right can be a real challenge, but the investment pays for itself in spades because good message development saves you time and money for months (sometimes years) to come.

If it’s done well.

Strong messages will stick around for the long term and can be incorporated into any relevant campaign activity – regardless of medium or channel. They should form the basis for every single piece of communication you deliver for that campaign or crisis or organisation, and they should be reinforced by corporate behaviour that is congruent with what the message actually says.

Only then will people think you’re really funny.

Twelve tips of Christmas: #2 Be prepared

It sounds like a no-brainer, but a trip to Swindon this morning reinforced the importance of being prepared to work around your technological limitations. For example, making the very wrong assumption that one can get a decent wi-fi signal on a train network.

This becomes even more critical during the holiday season because in addition to having to contend with the vagaries of technology, we face numerous compounding problems.

Inconveniences such as support personnel being away on holidays en masse, suppliers not necessarily being available, and the occassional snowfall can all conspire against crisis managers at the most inopportune time.

For this reason, it’s essential that crisis managers, your organisations, and your support network (yes, including your PR account team) are all prepared well in advance for the possibility of a Christmas crisis.

Here are five things you can do this week to improve your organisation’s ability to handle a crisis that springs up over the holiday break:

  1. Ensure your escalation procedure stacks up for the holiday period. Your day-today crisis management is (usually) predicated on a best-case scenario, i.e. you have access to the people and resources you need, or their alternatives. However, it’s not practical to work under that assumption at this time of year – check with whoever manages holidays for your crisis team and see if you’re actually going to be covered for “business as usual”.
  2. Provide every member of your crisis management team/network with the must-have materials they’ll need if a crisis happens over the holidays. In most cases this will simply be a copy of your escalation or call-out process and relevant contact details. While it’s really simple, it’s also important because most of us rely on having these things available electronically, and that’s not such a good thing if the crisis is a technical one that means you can’t access this kind of information. Print off a few hard copies and run them through the laminator just to be on the safe side.
  3. Consider whether you need a Virtual Control Room. Most on-the-day crisis management takes place in a central meeting facility, but if your team’s spread across the country then that’s no good to you. Streaming video is great technology, but an old fashioned conference call facility is better – more accessible and more reliable. Include the dial-in details in your printed information pack.
  4. Get your crisis management team to identify their own back-up facilities (and test them on it if you need to). For example, if I’m at home and lose my internet connection, I can connect to a local unsecured network, I can walk 10 minutes to an internet cafe, or at a stretch I can hole up in the hotel that’s two miles up the road and use the hotel business centre (or check into a room if I need to – whatever it takes to get plugged in).
  5. Check whether your team is actually equipped to manage a crisis remotely. The recession has seen many companies cut back on what look like perks, but in actual fact are business-critical insurances. Things like corporate credit cards, travel restrictions, or providing new employees with wi-fi enabled laptops, for example (connection issues notwithstanding). It only takes an event like last winter’s infamous “snow day” to let you know your technical capabilities aren’t what they should be – save yourself the headache and fill the gaps before it becomes a problem.

There’s a bonus tip for this last point – make sure your team is competent in the use of anything remotely technical. Wireless internet is brilliant, but if your team don’t know how to connect to a wi-fi network then it’s going to make life increasingly difficult.

Social media: friend or foe?

As I mentioned earlier this week, last night I attended the Social Media: Friend or Foe? event hosted by our Change & Internal Communications team here at Hill & Knowlton. This event represented a bit of a break in format for our recent events. Rather than the traditional expert presentation followed by a Q&A, our host and Head of Internal Communication, Scott McKenzie, challenged the audience to field two debate teams from amongst their number.

This was a great approach for a number of reasons, not least because it highlighted that there’s not really such a thing as a “social media expert” (one of the problems of a medium that changes exponentially while you’re asleep). In this context then, the challenge for our guests and attending H&K-ers was to coordinate either a Friend or Foe argument, and the results were particularly interesting given our debate teams.

From a crisis management perspective the outcome of the debate isn’t nearly as important as some of the observations the debate itself triggered. Some of the more poignant among these were:

  • As social media becomes more pervasive it also becomes less social. (this is similar to the old “alternative” music debate – if everyone’s playing “alternative”, doesn’t that just make it mainstream?)
  • As mobile technology continues its upward evolution it becomes a social media lifeline. How then does a company possibly enforce a social media ban amongst its workforce if they have their own mobile phones in the workplace?
  • When it comes to engaging with audiences via social media, you have to be brave because you cannot be selective. This was from our very own global Director of Marketing Technology, Niall Cook (or follow him on Twitter here).

For crisis managers then, the key take-away from the night was this: social media is here to stay. So deal with it.

This cold, hard truth has several important ramifications, which are not exactly new, but are definitely more pronounced with the rise of online networks. Here are three of the more confronting ones:

  • The “how” of a story supercedes the “what”. Relatively simple issues, the kind that used to be classed as “just the cost of doing business”, now take on a life of their own. All it takes is one connected individual to decide they don’t like the way your organisation has behaved, and it’s enough to start a landslide. Snowflakes and skiers have known this for years.
  • The relevance of social media to your primary target audience is irrelevant to your actual crisis. It used to be that if a special interest group took offence, you could rationalise your level of engagement on the basis of whether or not that special interest group had any bearing on your ability to continue doing business. Now, though, if that otherwise irrelevant interest group can stimulate significant attention in their own right, then to the world’s media that actually is a story. It may still have no bearing on what your original problem was…but by now, that no longer matters.
  • Yes, engaging with a social media-based crisis does reinforce a positive feedback loop. So, think carefully before you do it. This is a real sticking point in the crisis vs. digital communication debate because the pro-social media camp is very much singing the “two-way communication promotes transparency” hymn. Fact: that statement was just as true before the internet was invented. It was just harder to tell if you weren’t holding up your side of the deal.

The point then is that you don’t have to get on facebook/Twitter/foursquare/insert-your-preferred-platform-here in order to engage with your audience. So have a good, hard think about whether you even should. Absolutely, the odds are you should engage with your audience. But if they’ve created a space on a social network that’s akin to an old-fashioned lynch mob, why on Earth would you do it there? Be creative and find a better solution (do something completely out of the box – actually meet the leaders of the mob one-on-one, for a coffee and a chat).

It’s all pretty daunting stuff, and depending on which school of thought you subscribe to it will make the lives of crisis managers either infinitely more difficult, or somewhat less painful. And the reason for that is a simple one: how people respond to your corporate behaviour is well and truly beyond your control. So instead, we need to take a leaf out of our Internal Communications colleagues’ handbook, and focus our efforts instead on what our corporate behaviour actually is in the first instance.

In other words, do the right thing by people and chances are, they’ll do the right thing by you.

(For any readers who haven’t yet, you can also check out Scott’s Collective Conversation blog here)

Twelve tips of Christmas: #1 Protect your customers

In the lead up to the holiday season we’re rolling out the tried-and-tested “12 days of…” formula for our Hints & Tips posts. As today’s the first of December, it seems like a good time to start, and this story from Australia has provided the inspiration for this morning’s post.

JB Hi-Fi, one of the country’s most popular music and entertainment retailers, was the victim of a server hack. The result: users were reportedly re-directed from the company’s website to Chinese websites loaded with malware (for those non-techies who’ve never been infected, malware is malicious software – it does pretty much what it says on the tin). For this reason we’ve broken with convention and not linked to the site, as we’d hate to be responsible for exacerbating the problem.

In fact, most of the websites mentioned in the article on The Sydney Morning Herald website have experienced malware problems recently, including Whirlpool (a broadband discussion forum), Overclockers Australia (an online community for computer enthusiasts), and OzBargain.com.au (a discount online retailer). Each of these sites is frequented by tech-savvy visitors and in that respect the users are probably lucky in that they’re inherently better prepared for the trauma of a malware attack.

However here in the UK, online shopping is far more prevalent, and far less the domain of technophiles. Online commerce is easier and more pragmatic – products shipping from Birmingham to London arrive more quickly than they do in Sydney, for example, so the lesson for local retailers is clear. Protect your customers.

The holiday season increases the risk of infection many times over for three key reasons. Firstly, more trades will be conducted, so the law of averages says sooner or later someone’s going to get infected. Secondly, occasional users trade more during holidays, so you have a larger population of inexperienced users throwing themselves into the mix. Thirdly, with more trades, and easier victims, it’s a great time for hackers test their skills – it’s an opportunity for big, quick gains.

We’re not technical advisors, so in the first instance, check/flag any issues with your server manager. Send them this link (http://www.smh.com.au/technology/security/jb-hifi-website-served-malware-20091201-k2p3.html) if you need to.

From a crisis management perspective, here are five things you can do this week to help improve your chances of successfully managing a malware attack beyond the technical fix (should you be so unlucky):

Familiarise yourself with the Information Commissioner’s Office. As a regulatory authority it’s there to protect consumers, which means it’s in their best interest to help you do exactly the same. It also means that if you don’t manage a crisis well then you should expect a call, and it’s always better to know who you’ll be dealing with. In the first instance a visit to the Data Protection Act guidelines is a good idea as well. Dry reading, but important.

Increase your online monitoring. The great thing about malware attacks is they spike discussion forum traffic, and this can help you spot a potential issue well before it ever hits your system. So get your digital monitoring team or web agency to work enhancing your monitoring for the next few weeks. Suggested search terms to add (there’ll be plenty of others you can look for, including specific program names): retail, hacking, malware, data theft, data loss, server hack. Please post suggested additions in our Comments section.

Understand what your continuity plan is. In the event that you do experience a malware attack (or any other kind of online crisis really), it’s essential to know if and how this part of your business can continue to function. It’s time to buy your server manager that beer you’ve been meaning to.

Plan your communications in advance. Regardless of the nature of the problem, there aren’t really that many ways it can turn out. Among the most common are likely to be: infecting customers with malware, sharing of customer information, loss of customer information, loss of e-commerce functionality, loss of website. While it’s true that the details may be important on the day, you can save yourself a lot of time by planning in advance how your business is going to respond to each of these scenarios.

Put your crisis team on notice. This includes your agency support if you have it (and if not, now’s a really, really good time to get some). It’s holiday season – chances are half your team will be away. Know in advance who their deputies or alternates are, and make sure everyone’s briefed on management and contingency plans before you break up for the holidays. If you’re in a business that closes down between Christmas and the New Year, or runs a skeleton staff, know who’s going to be available to help fix any problems that arise.

As always, if you have any questions about the tips outlined above, or if you need a hand with preparing your organisation to handle a crisis over the holiday season, please get in touch. And happy holidays!

Social media and internal communication, two things crisis managers need to get

An alternative title for this post was going to be “Do you know what your employees are doing while the world’s falling apart around you?”, but we were a bit concerned that it came across all Big Brother-esque.

However, it’s always worth remembering that effective internal communication is integral to the successful management of many crises – whether that’s by engaging your biggest, most readily available army of ambassadors, or alternatively, ensuring that the right people know the right information to get a problem sorted with a minimum of fuss.

It becomes doubly important when you through the issue of employees’ access to social media into the mix.

Because of this natural affinity, the Issues & Crisis team works closely with our Change & Internal Communications team here at Hill & Knowlton. Fellow H&K Collective Conversation blogger and head of our C&IC team, Scott McKenzie, is hosting the Social Media: Friend or Foe? event next week. Click here for further details and to register – some of the Issues & Crisis team will be there as well, reminding people that not all communication happens on the internet.

One of the issues we’ll be looking for an answer on is that of effective social media monitoring. Knowing what your employees are saying about you in the midst of a scandal-driven media storm is a very good thing, but there are some obvious problems with monitoring them (ethics and privacy come to mind immediately, shortly followed by practicality). Check back next week for an update.

Floods highlight the importance of business continuity planning

In his second post for Media Insights and Crisis Expertise, Senior Associate Director, Peter Roberts, reflects on the impact of floods currently affecting parts of the UK, and the role business continuity planning can play in minimising the impact of such disasters.

The extreme flooding that has struck England’s North West in recent days has underlined the variable nature of crises. The situation is also a sharp reminder to all businesses, wherever they’re located of the importance of business continuity plans.

Quite simply, business continuity is about anticipating the crises that could affect an organisation and then planning for them. It’s also something we spend a lot of our time doing at Hill & Knowlton.

So, how best to develop a robust plan? Fundamentally, any company is only five steps away from ensuring that they’re in a far better position to withstand a critical situation, with appropriate planning.

  • Step 1: Analyse your business and get an understanding of the processes involved.
  • Step 2: Assess the risks to your business. Threats come in different forms, from power cuts, to staff absenteeism.
  • Step 3: Develop how you’ll combat such risks. Principally, what needs to be done and who will carry out the actions.
  • Step 4: Develop your business continuity plan (BCP). This can be as simple as you want and will contain all relevant contact numbers, resources and procedures.
  • Step 5: Test and update the plan. It’s vital that your plan is tested and that staff are familiar with their roles.

It’s a common misunderstanding that business continuity is only a big organisation issue; this is, quite simply, not the case. The size of any plan will depend on the risks facing a business – it will be as large or small as needed.

Ultimately, experience demonstrates that organisations are more likely to survive a crisis if they have planned for one in advance. – Peter

For help in reviewing or developing your organisation’s business continuity or crisis communication plan, please get in touch with us by clicking here. – Grant

An extra cheeseburger a day? It could be ok…

The Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) is calling for comments on its draft report into the UK population’s energy requirements.

Fundamental to this draft report is a recommendation to re-calculate Estimated Average Requirements for different genders and age groups.

Some media coverage, such as this BBC piece, report that average daily calorie intakes could increase by up to 16% – the equivalent of an “average size” cheeseburger (that may or may not be appealing, depending on where you get your cheeseburgers).

This is a major issue for food manufacturers, supermarkets, celebrity dietitians and nutritionists, consumer advocates and anyone who actually eats food – so from an issues management perspective it’s one that Hill & Knowlton will be following very closely throughout the 14-week consultation period. We work closely with a number of clients in the food and beverage sectors, and with many products on supermarket shelves already including some kind of guideline daily intake label, it’s an issue that will reach into the larders and fridges of every British home.

As this story on thegrocer.co.uk highlights, the issue could very well create doubt as to whether consumers retain any trust in scientific advice.

Leave a comment and let us know your thoughts on this issue.

What a teenage vampire love story can teach crisis managers about Twitter

At a recent event I was challenged over my views on Twitter – specifically as to whether or not it’s really all that big of an issue in the context of your average crisis manager’s day in the office.

Before we get too carried away with this (perceived) blasphemy, in principle I agree with the challenge on the following points:

  • Not everyone’s on Twitter
  • If you’re not following a particular Twitterer (e.g. Ashton Kutcher) then you’re not really all that likely to see their tweets (leaving aside for the minute the phenomenon of re-tweeting)
  • The “push” mentality of most Twitterers (yours truly included) means many tweets are practically spam, although working this out for yourself means the quality of your tweets should improve over time
  • With some notable exceptions such as the Iranian elections (or here for The Washington Post’s coverage of the Twitter phenomenon), most trending topics lack apparent relevance for big corporations (the number of companies selling tickets to see New Moon, for example, is far lower than the audience interest in buying them)

However, on reflection, the phenomenon that is Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight saga actually makes the opposite point. Like Harry Potter and The Davinci Code before it, copies of Twilight and its sequels can be seen on trains, planes and around the Hill & Knowlton offices, on our colleagues’ desks. And that’s largely the point.

As the Current Twitter trends column from independent.co.uk highlights, the topics that trend on Twitter are in fact the things that a critical mass of people actually care about. In real life.

And this is where I think many of us have, until recently, missed the point with Twitter and other social media.

There’s something of a bias towards believing that if something’s covered in the news media then it’s objectively important. It must be, because it’s “the news”, as opposed to a published stream of consciousness, right? So it then begs the question as to why a respected newspaper would go to the trouble of republishing a list of things that people are tweeting about.

It’s all about dealing with real people, whose actual lives exist offline. No-one lives on the internet. You can’t eat it, you can’t breathe it, it doesn’t keep you warm. Social media is populated by real people, with concerns that are as real to them as the need to eat and breathe.

The role then for crisis managers, is to recognise that grievances, complaints, valid concerns and, dare I say it, helpful tip-offs, are all getting aired in pubic, around the clock, around the world, and on the internet. Good crisis management requires us to be alert to that scenario, and do something about it (which is why the Issues & Crisis team here at Hill & Knowlton works closely with our counterparts in the Digital team to make sure we’re continually learning about how to do this better).

As I’ve said in a previous post, social media should be considered on its merits for every individual case. However, understanding the premise of the beast is no longer optional for any crisis manager.

As an aside (although somewhat related from the perspective of corporations using social media as a communication channel), check out this post from the Brand Twist blog on why you don’t need a social media strategy…

Also, follow Hill & Knowlton UK’s Twitter feed here.

Disclosure: this is an edited version of a post I made last week. While some of the examples have been updated, the basic thrust of the post hasn’t.