There seems to be no shortfall of crises, tragedies and debacles these days.
From British Airways’ computer system taking a dive to the horrid tragedy at Grenfell, senior representatives were consistently unable to answer questions and came across as unsympathetic.
It’s easy to look at these people and criticise them, but what makes it easier is that they seem to want to push the blame away rather than take responsibility and communicate a clear plan of action
However, this must be difficult, right? Not really. At the GC Leadership Summit last week, I attended a session titled, “Practical Media Trading for GCs” with Jon Hammond and Dom Burch.
Photographic proof of my attendance:
Through role play and a few PR disaster videos, they showed us how to handle a crisis.
So, let’s imagine a scenario.
You work at a local government authority.
There has been a large fire in a park surrounded by council housing. Emergency services haven’t ruled out foul play but there is far more to be investigated. Apartments filled with smoke and some people had to be rescued because of carbon monoxide poisoning. Luckily no one is seriously injured but there are still a few people in hospital and many with smoke damaged homes.
You get a text in the early hours of the morning. Obviously, you’re not in the office, because it’s Sunday, but less obvious to the people relying on you get the contingency plan rolling is that you are out at your parent’s home, far away from any local governing authority.
Either one of two things can happen now.
- You have your emergency cascade sheet with the contact numbers of the other people who you have to call in this kind of situation and the procedures you have to follow, printed and left at home in your work bag. So you scramble to either get back to your office or call someone who has the same list. Hours later, you are confronted with the media circus as you are rushing into the office.
- You log into your digital meeting platform on your Mum’s desktop. You access the emergency folder in your document library. You collate the necessary documents that will help your team navigate the crisis and help the victims. You send out a notification to the relevant group about your emergency meeting. As you review the documents, your Dad brews some coffee. You meet with your crisis management group online. Everyone is up to speed and the task of taking action falls to those who can be on site. You find the quickest way back and leave. Later when you arrive at the office, you find yourself in the middle of a media circus.
Whether you got in front of a media circus by the first or second route, you need to remember a few things.
- Be sympathetic.
Admit that something went wrong. Sympathise with the victims and those affected. Remember how a CEO of a certain airline reacted initially to a passenger being dragged off a plane? If you say, "this was a tragic incident" or "a serious incident" and don’t follow with ‘but’, there is nothing to argue about. Most PR disasters start when someone tries to shift blame or not acknowledge the crisis itself.
- Tell them how you are taking action, not that you are taking action.
Don’t tell people that you are taking action, it’s your job to so. It’s all right to even say that you haven’t fully grasped the extent of the situation, you are heading back to the office to meet with other colleagues and your first priority of business will be to make sure that you help the people effected first.
- Be people first.
Most companies and authorities claim to be people first in their brand values. Say it again in front of the press. Your priority is to take care of the victims. You second priority is to make sure that this never happens again. Again, simple and true.
- Say something, but not anything.
There is nothing worse than ‘no comment’. It is as good as admitting incompetence or worse, that you don’t care. However, keep it short and don't go on the defensive.
For more insights into how to handle public relations or the media, I can highly recommend Jon Hammond, not of Jurassic Park, although I'm sure he would've handled that really well.