Crisis Communications

When asked what was most likely to bring about a government crisis Prime Minister Harold Macmillan is famously reported to have replied ‘Events, dear boy. Events.’

What he meant was that you could never legislate for an unforeseen event just around the corner but you just had to be prepared for the fact that they would happen.

And as BP found out with the Gulf of Mexico oil spill and several supermarkets and food manufacturers have found with the horsemeat scandal it isn’t what happens, it is how you respond to that crisis that determines the impact on your reputation.

In particular it is how the relationship between the media and the brand are managed at these times that is so important. It is not unknown for some brands to still hide behind the ‘no comment’ strategy but most senior comms managers know that offering a statement in the event of a crisis is the very least you need to offer these days. With the vast majority of the public turning to the broadcast mediums of TV, radio and the web when news of a crisis breaks, having a specific broadcast response in times of crisis is a must.

Having worked with us in the autumn of 2012 on a major business announcement that garnered positive high profile international and national broadcast coverage, a leading European manufacturer turned to us again when faced with announcing the lay off a significant percentage of their workforce immediately after Christmas. The comms team looked to us for guidance on minimising negative coverage in the broadcast media around the announcement.

We devised a broadcast strategy that included specific direction on timings and media targeting as well as specifics on the resources to be made available but the strongest recommendation was that the company offered a human face to explain live to the broadcast media – and via them their staff and consumers – why this difficult decision was being taken and what steps were being taken to safeguard the business and the rest of the staff for the future.

We recommended having the European MD in London to cover off national and business interest, and the senior local spokespeople at the manufacturing location to respond to local media. These two senior spokespeople would be made available to the broadcast media simultaneously to comment for a limited period of time.

Once agreed, we then took all media spokespeople through refresher training on dealing with different forms of live and pre-recorded interviews that they could expect on the day. This not only helped hone the messaging but feedback was that it gave the spokespeople confidence in dealing with any broadcast scenario on the day.

On the day, one or two highly trusted but key senior broadcasters were contacted to alert them that a significant story was about to break and that they might want to prepare appropriate resource. Our relationship with these broadcasters meant that they trusted us that without divulging any details they should be prepared for an important story and that we would prioritise them in arranging interviews. This built trust between us and the broadcasters from the outset.

At an agreed time, all broadcasters were contacted with the story and details of how the brand would respond, who would be available and when. We then created a tight 2 hour schedule of broadcast interviews and escorted the European MD as he toured the radio and TV studios of all the main broadcasters explaining the decision.

The announcement did make national headlines across broadcast media but our policy of working with key media, rather than in isolation, to ensure we controlled the messaging as much as feasible meant the negative impact was minimised and the bad news story had moved off the media agenda after a few hours.