Tim Luckett talks crisis management in PR Week

With big brands dominating 2010 headlines for all the wrong reasons, PR Week’s feature on crisis communication is both timely and a good read. Contributions from Hill & Knowlton’s Managing Director of Issues & Crisis, Tim Luckett.

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

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

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

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

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

Protecting your brand on Twitter is just one part of good crisis preparation

We talk about Twitter in the context of crisis management quite a lot on here – mostly because it’s a good way of getting people to visit our blog (fact: posts with “Twitter” in the headline average around three times the readership of our next most popular group as of writing this).

However, when it comes to practical applications, much of the world seems to be still coming to grips with what companies can actually use Twitter for, at least according to the moderator of this week’s Frontline Club meeting (yes, yes, we all know it’s fabulous).

What we do know is that like any other online activity, Twitter isn’t immune to hackers. In his post Is your brand protected on Twitter?, fellow Hill & Knowlton blogger, the irrepressible Dan Leach, gives a number of tips to help you get the basics right for your corporate (and personal) Twitter accounts.

The security of your Twitter account should be as important to your company’s Twitterers as the login details for their computers.

Corporate manslaughter guidance results in bigger risks to reputation

posted by Peter Roberts

The Sentencing Guidelines Council has just announced that companies convicted of corporate manslaughter will face fines upwards of £500,000.

The fines will apply to all companies found guilty in the courts from this week, even if the actual incident happened some years ago. You can read more here.
 
The guidelines recommend fines from £100,000 up to hundreds of thousands of pounds be imposed for offences that cause death.

The move clearly means additional scrutiny of corporate health and safety practices and for individual directors, managers and other employees there is the threat of up two years in prison.

If such penalties are to be avoided, the safety culture within the place of work, quite fundamentally, needs to be deemed as critical as any another aspect of the business. This will be a gargantuan communications task for many organisations, who have not only tended to marginalise this part of the operation, but are often composed of a mixed workforce including contractors and joint venture partners, which makes the process harder.
 
Naturally, organisations can help themselves pre-empt such scenarios and a critical first step is to identify the threats – both inside and outside the business – a company faces. This formal risk audit is something we spend a lot of our time doing at Hill & Knowlton. Corporate threats take on different forms pending on the organisation, from waste disposal practices, to haulage policies; pressure groups to flooding.
 
For help in reviewing any threats that your organisation may face, please get in touch with us by clicking here.

Media training: view from the hot seat

As part of our ongoing internal training, senior Hill & Knowlton consultants participate in (are subjected to) our own media training refresher courses. It’s good for keeping us up to date on what’s being taught, and up to scratch on our own performance.

But even more importantly, it’s a very strong reminder of the experience we happily put our clients’ spokespeople through on a daily basis when we ask them to front up for interviews.

So having just suffered through my first refresher in a while, and my first training session on British soil, I thought it may be useful to share some of the things I just did wrong:

  1. I assumed I knew my material well enough to not rehearse. Despite the fact I’ve done this a dozen times, despite the fact I actually wrote the material three months ago and have been using it every day…I still botched the delivery. Don’t assume. (For our US readers I’m sure you’re familiar with the “if you assume then you make an ass out of U and ME” quote, which unfortunately doesn’t get quite the same the response here).
  2. I got frustrated. This is mostly because I could see the set-up coming, but heard the little voice inside me reminding me I hadn’t rehearsed. Displaying frustration just makes the footage of your burning failure all that more compelling.
  3. I lapsed into corporatese. But more importantly, it finally dawned on me why I did this. The problem with speaking plainly is that it’s clear what you mean, but it’s not very precise. Having studied science for a number of years I have a working understanding of the difference between “accurate” and “precise” – accurate meaning that if you do something a hundred times you’ll probably get a consistent result that could be completely wrong, and precise meaning that you’ll probably get the exact outcome you want, but with a lot of outliers. The problem with plain English is that small words are good for accuracy, big words are good for precision. There has to be a solution to this problem, but until someone posts it on here, let’s continue to aim for simplicity. Because honestly, if you need to make your response so precise that only polysyllabic words will do the job, then you probably should have already stopped speaking.

As a result…here’s one thing you need to do to fix all three of those problems. Know your message. Think it, write it down, say it out loud. Then say it again. Then get someone else to ask you questions (like your account manager, for example) and practice delivering it.

And you should also talk to Catherine Cross.

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.

Media training tips for radio interviews

In her first post for Media Insights and Crisis Expertise, Hill & Knowlton UK Media Training Lead Counsel, Catherine Cross, provides her top 10 tips for participating in radio interviews – Grant.

There is a sense of immediacy to radio news that often makes an interviewer press for an instant response.  But it may be in your best interest to delay the interview a short time, if necessary, to prepare your key points.  If so, offer to call back in a few minutes to be interviewed, and then do so.

In addition, you should ask whether the interview is to be aired live, recorded for use in its entirety or edited to a shorter version, or a news clip.  If it is edited for a news clip, your answers should be kept to less than 15 – 20 seconds.  Get right to the point.  A longer interview to be run in its entirety permits more detailed responses.

Prior to agreeing to the interview, you should establish ground rules with the interviewer.  These include checking whether it is OK to stop and completely re-take an answer if you fumble a word or lose your train of thought, agreement to stop the tape if need be for more time to develop a more concise answer; and agreement to call back with updated information if something changes in your facts before the scheduled air time.

If doing a radio interview over the telephone, ensure a quiet environment by turning off noisy equipment and air conditioners, diverting other phone calls, turning off your mobile phone and closing your office door.

Get your energy level up.  Sit up in the chair or stand for more alertness and vocal animation.  Use gestures to increase vocal emphasis.

Avoid shouting or whispering.  Talk in normal tones across the telephone mouthpiece, not directly into it to eliminate the “popping” or “hissing” sounds on the tape.

Avoid the use of numbers unless they’re absolutely essential to make your point.  If you must use them, round them off and use sparingly.

So remember:

1. Give yourself time to prepare.
2. Find out if the interview is to be used live or pre-recorded.
3. Find out if the interview is for a clip (soundbite) or will be used in its entirety.
4. Get pre-interview agreement on ground rules.
5. Maintain a noise-free environment during the interview if on the telephone.
6. Get your energy level up for the interview.
7. Speak at your normal pace, clearly and with good vocal animation.
8. Make sure you have plenty of “colour”: proof points, word pictures and memorable facts and figures which are visual.
9. Make numbers memorable: round them up or down if essential to your point.
10. Warm up your voice, mouth and throat before an early morning interview.

- Catherine

More labels for EU foodstuffs

News today that the European Commission has announced the winner of its competition to design an “organic logo”. According to the EC press release:

“From 1st July 2010, the organic logo of the EU will be obligatory on all pre-packaged organic products that have been produced in any of the EU Member States and meet the necessary standards.”

The competition was originally announced back in April of last year, and while the EC believes it will raise awareness of organic farming, from a personal perspective I’m not so sure. The standards required in order for a product to be labelled “organic” are already pretty stringent, and there’s no indication that the standards themselves will change.

Additionally, only 130,000 people voted in the competition. When you factor in that there are 27 EU Member States, and this country alone has something in the order of 50 million citizens, 130,000 represents a tiny proportion of the population.

The introduction of a new labelling intiative adds another level of complexity to the increasingly busy real estate that’s wrapped around our groceries. With a 1 July deadline the race will be on for manufacturers to get the new logo onto qualifying products and out into stores ahead of the competition. But beyond creating additional work for marketing departments and pack designers, are any of us really expecting one more logo to make a difference?

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.