Posts Tagged ‘crisis communication’

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.

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)

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

Climate change: highlighting the importance of behaviour as communication

Last night I attended the launch of the Advance Green Network at Australia House in London. This network seeks to bring together ex-pat Australians, and their colleagues, to help get people involved in the quest for a more sustainable future.

Keynote speaker, Howard Bamsey, Australia’s Special Envoy on Climate Change, made the point that in the lead-up to the UN Conference on Climate Change, COP15, what governments around the world are looking for are commitments. And this is the basis for this post – on an issue such as climate change, the public requires not a communication solution (ugh), but a behavioural one. What is it that I/you/we/they can do that actually makes a difference? And…will you do it?

This differentiation can be a difficult one for issues and crisis management. If your crisis is an oil spill, a plant explosion, a tsunami or any one of a hundred other things that visibly change the world, then your response involves actually fixing something – either patching it up, or eliminating the source of the problem. Clearly that’s behavioural.

The challenge comes with reputation-based issues where there’s a desire to deal with the symptom rather than the cause. Anything that falls under the general heading of “complaints” is usually a good example, i.e. product faults, customer service incidents, automated “help” lines and the like.

In these instances our first reaction is usually to deal with the complaint, and if that’s successful then that’s usually the end of the issue (in our eyes). The problem with this approach though is that it never deals with the cause of the complaint – we just slot into a pattern of complaint, fix, complaint, fix, wash, rinse repeat. Until one day we realise we’ve accrued dozens of complaints, made hundreds of refunds or lost thousands of pounds worth of sales.

For crisis managers then, it’s important when these niggling issues arise to take five minutes out from the problem, and really consider if fixing it requires us to say something, or do something. Think about the message you send by acting, rather than placating. Actions speak louder than words, and for good reason.