Revolutionary Measures

Communicating in a state of permanent crisis

Français : Bradley Wiggins, vainqueur du Crité...

It used to be that a company suffered a PR/communication crisis once in a blue moon. The response was simple – well-prepared organisations dusted off their crisis plan, put it into action and, dependent on their execution and the scale of the problem, they either succeeded in safeguarding their reputation or not.

Things have now changed. Organisations can be hit by a crisis that is impossible to predict, strikes suddenly and/or simply will not go away. Restaurant chain Chipotle, already suffering after multiple food safety incidents, saw its share price plummet by $300m when author Eric Van Lustbader tweeted that his editor had been taken to hospital after eating at a New York branch of the business. Closer to home the Sky cycling team, and rider Sir Bradley Wiggins, are caught up in an ongoing crisis about the use of therapeutic use exemptions that let Wiggins take otherwise prohibited substances in the run up to three major races. Sky obeyed the rules at all times but a combination of suspicions caused by cycling’s doping past, the team’s stated commitment to anti-doping, and ham-fisted attempts to manage the crisis have seen it run and run.

What this tells everyone is that today you cannot either rely on a crisis plan or get away with not taking any allegations seriously. We live in a digital world, where any information can be shared/hacked, whether by private individuals or state-sponsored organisations. Social media works alongside the traditional press to broadcast material, enabling wide-ranging discussions of, and even the creation of, conspiracies at an accelerated pace.

Bearing this in mind, business leaders and communication professionals need to change how they operate in five key ways:

1. Keep building your brand
Any business can be hit by a crisis, even if it is not directly linked to their operations. For example, a supplier could be hacked, releasing your customers’ credit cards details onto the web, or a contractor could break bribery laws without your knowledge. In all of these cases, the source doesn’t matter – you’ll be held responsible. This means you need to have already built a strong brand that means something to people – that way you may take a hit from an incident, but it will be less of a blow. Poor brands suffer more – take the backlash against TalkTalk (already pilloried for poor customer service) when it was hacked.

2. Be proactive
The digital world has ushered in a new era of transparency. So any secrets will come out at some point. It is therefore better to control the dialogue – be honest and open if a crisis happens, and explain the full circumstances up front, including any other problems that haven’t been immediately highlighted. That might mean an initial hit to the share price, but it should recover quicker if everything is known from the beginning.

3. Everything can be a crisis
The smallest incident has the potential to spark a major crisis, so take everything seriously. Be prepared to step in quickly and deal with a problem rather than making the mistake of thinking it will go away. It is more work, but it is better to solve something early instead of waiting and facing an unstoppable juggernaut of a story.

4. Keep monitoring
You don’t want the first you know about a crisis to be when your share price tanks or you get a call from the BBC. Make sure you have monitoring in place across the internet and social media to keep a track of any potential issues, so that you can act swiftly, and brief frontline staff to flag problems and involve the communications team early.

5. Show you are taking action
Given shrinking attention spans people are bored of pre-prepared statements that don’t actually mean anything. What they want is action, and they want it immediately. This isn’t always possible, but showing that you have weighed up the facts and are being decisive is the best way to take control of the story. It doesn’t always work – shutting the News of the World didn’t end the phone hacking story for News International, but it reassures stakeholders that you are taking things seriously and have a plan.

Overall, businesses need to replace their crisis management plans with something more flexible and adaptable, based less on what can go wrong and more on how you react to changing events. Only then will they be able to avoid a drama turning into a full-blown crisis.

October 19, 2016 Posted by | Creative, PR, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

There’s no such thing as privacy

We’ve now had the first three weeks of the Leveson enquiry into journalistic ethics. Created after the scale of phone hacking at the News of the World was uncovered, we’ve seen a steady stream of both celebrities and those caught up in news stories appear to give their testimony. And in many cases the level of press intrusion has been horrifying – for example the News of the World sent a reporter posing as a doctor to the hospital where Anne Diamondgave birth and offered her nanny £30,000 for a story.

A full-page apology ad published in British ne...

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I’ve talked about the PR implications of phone hacking for the Murdoch empire in the past. In fact the enquiry so far is actually helping the rehabilitation process for both James and Rupert. All of the perpetrators of phone hacking and dubious ethical behaviour who were at News International at an operational level have now left, the News of the World itself has been shut down and the spotlight is widening onto other news organisations and if they used similar tactics. So whatever your views on the Murdochs the short term pain, grovelling apologies and low profile are actually delivering the results.

Another point that struck me about some of the witnesses, such as Paul McMullan, former News of the World features editor, was their similarities in outlook to many involved in social media when it came to the question of privacy. I’ve heard internet entrepreneurs such as Ted Shelton state that there is no gap between public and private life anymore, which he sees as a force for good that makes people more reflective about their actions. McMullan put it much more baldly and crudely – “Privacy is for paedos, fundamentally. No-one else needs it. Privacy is evil. It brings out the worse qualities in people. It brings out hypocrisy.”

I’d disagree – everyone is entitled to a private life on or off-line but it is vital to balance this with the public interest. There are plenty of politicians who would like to muzzle investigative journalism – forgetting how it has uncovered genuine scandals, including, for those with short memories, the hacking of Milly Dowler’s phone that led directly to this enquiry. In an era where more and more of our lives are carried out in the public eye all of us need protection – but we need to take responsibility over our own actions on the web rather than simply criticising journalists.

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December 5, 2011 Posted by | PR, Social Media | , , , , , , , | 2 Comments