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Crisis Management Overview
July 19, 2023

Crisis management has never been so important. Companies, professional services firms, charities, and other organisations are increasingly at risk of hostile media coverage and negative social media sentiment. It’s hardly surprising, therefore, that at Communicate Media, we’re providing more and more crisis management and crisis communications courses for a wide variety of clients

What is crisis management?

Essentially, crisis management involves handling and minimising the negative impact of a potentially damaging event. This could be a data breach when large amounts of information from your IT systems are released into the public arena, or you’re subject to a ransom attack. This increasingly common incident can have a detrimental impact on your customers, employees, supporters, and suppliers – or any of these groups – as well as having an even more damaging effect on your brand image.

How can Communicate Media help with crisis management?

We provide crisis management communications for companies who are aware that there is a risk that their clients might be subject to a major incident, such as an explosion or an accident, resulting in injury or death. We’re also finding that a growing number of law firms and professional services companies are interested in crisis communications training because they are aware of issues such as bullying or allegations of sexual harassment.

The truth is that, with the explosion of social media, increased hacking activity, more vocal and demanding customers, as well as the 24-hour news cycle, organisations are subject to more risks than ever before, and therefore, their crisis management should be comprehensive, effective and ready to roll out at a moment’s notice.

What does good crisis management look like?

Acting quickly, expressing sympathy for those affected by the incident, showing that you’re in control, and doing whatever you can under the circumstances are all essential for good crisis management. Organisations that close down their communications – tempting, though, it might be – and reply to any media and cry with a simple ‘no comment’ will soon find their reputation severely damaged and their brand image tarnished.

But it can be worse than this. A poorly managed crisis can result in a company’s share price falling, customers deserting it, and staff morale collapsing. It can also make borrowing money for investment more difficult. Other non-commercial organisations can find that people are less willing to work with them and are struggling to attract talent.

Effective crisis management can’t undo a crisis, but it can mitigate the damage. If you handle a crisis or even a problematic issue well, you can protect your brand image and the organisation’s reputation. If your target audiences take the view that sometimes bad things happen to good people, and you behaved as well as anybody could under the circumstances, then you can regard this as a pretty good result.

Media Training in Crisis Management

Media interview training is an essential part of any crisis management program. As we’ve mentioned, attempting to close down communications with the media is not a sensible option if a crisis strikes or if your organisation suddenly finds itself under attack for whatever reason.

We work with various in-house communications teams and public relations companies to help them prepare for managing a crisis that might hit themselves or their clients. Because all of our media trainers are working journalists operating under strict nondisclosure agreements, they have practical experience in reporting on crises and giving press officers and public relations consultants a hard time when something has gone wrong.

Our crisis communications and crisis media training courses put these spokespeople through their paces – helping them to practice answering journalist questions in the fraught atmosphere of the crisis while remaining calm and ensuring that it’s they rather than the journalist is on the front foot when it comes to managing the message. Very importantly, we help our clients draft and disseminate crisis situation statements, advising on what to include and the tone of voice.

We also work with in-house communications teams and public relations consultants to help their clients who might have to speak to journalists or do broadcast interviews following a serious incident. Again, getting the tone right and communicating appropriate messages while staying calm is essential for good crisis communications. We also advise interviewees on maintaining control of the interview and ensuring they don’t get pushed into saying something they will later regret.

Managing Media Interactions During Crisis

Because all of our journalists/trainers have spent many years reporting on crises, they know precisely how the media reacts when something goes wrong or a controversy erupts. That’s why we can advise on managing the media in a crisis.

Our trainers know that, in many ways, journalists are under as much pressure as the organisation when a crisis erupts. They’re in furious competition with each other, and the last thing any reporter in the field wants to hear is the news editor shouting at them because the competition has got an interview or some information that they haven’t. “You’re speaking to a desperate person,” we point out to the participants in our crisis communications and media training courses.

When it comes to the message, how you disseminate it is almost as important as what you say. Choosing the proper channels and managing interactions with journalists and members of the public over social media is essential. It is essential to identify spokespeople who are appropriate in terms of their job descriptions and seniority but who can also show an essential mix of sympathy and effectiveness when dealing with a crisis. The only way to do this is to carry out authentic role-play crisis communications interviews and review them with the client. We can advise on who should speak and when they should do so, as well as provide recommendations for messages they should put across and the tone of voice they should use. In these critical situations, your facial expressions, body language, and even your clothing can affect how your audience regards you and, therefore, must be carefully considered and managed.

Crisis communications folklore is full of examples of people who have done interviews at the wrong time or in the wrong place as well as people who have been pushed into saying the wrong thing or who have got the tone of their communication wrong.

Case Studies of Media Training in Crisis Management

How not do it:

United Airlines

On 9th April 2017, because of a problem with overbooking, security staff dragged a passenger, Dr. David Dao, off United Express Flight 3411 from Chicago to Louisville, Kentucky. Unfortunately for the airline, several passengers filmed the incident, and the video went viral – a very common phenomenon these days. It was later revealed that, as a result of his rough treatment, Dr Dao had had to go to hospital.

It was a global PR disaster for United Airlines, especially since the company initially appeared to blame Dr. Dao rather than apologising to him before changing its story a number of times. #NewUnitedAirlinesMottos began trending with users Tweeting offerings such as “not enough seating, prepare for a beating”. It’s worth noting, by the way, that just a month earlier, Oscar Munoz, the United Airlines CEO, was named US Communicator of the Year by the magazine PR Week.

The lesson: apologise or at least express sympathy and stick to your line.

BP

In 2010, BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil-drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico exploded, killing 11 employees and causing an oil leak that lasted for three months and is still the largest in US history. The spill killed eleven people, devastated local wildlife, and severely damaged the area’s economy. The company was forced to pay out around $ 70 billion in clean-up costs, legal settlements, and fines. In the two months following the incident, its shareholders lost $105 billion as its share price plummeted.

Part of the problem was that BP seemed to be uncaring. It didn’t help that the then CEO, Tony Hayward, told a local TV reporter: “There’s no one who wants this thing over more than I do. I’d like my life back.”

The lesson: sound sympathetic, take action quickly, and be very wary of that little throwaway comment to a reporter.

How to do it well:

In 2015, four people were seriously hurt in a crash between two carriages on a rollercoaster ride at the Alton Towers amusement park in the UK. Sixteen people were in one carriage of “the Smiler” ride while the other was empty. Two men and two women suffered “significant lower limb injuries”. A total of 16 people were injured. Passengers were left trapped more than 20 feet from the ground at an angle of about 45 degrees before they were eventually freed by emergency workers and stretchered away. Some of the passengers sustained life-changing injuries.

Following the incident, spokesperson Nick Varney gave an interview to the BBC. He expressed concern for those who had been injured and sounded genuinely upset. He spoke at the right pace and used natural language. He managed to avoid getting drawn into any speculation at this early stage of the investigation and stayed focused on his key message. The company also used its webpage and social media presence to address the issue.

The lesson: provide a spokesperson early, express sympathy, and don’t get drawn into speculation.

KFC chicken shortage

This isn’t exactly a crisis, but it’s the kind of tricky, embarrassing situation that many large corporates find themselves in – and that prompts them to ask us for advice on media training and issue management.

In 2018, due to a problem with their suppliers, KFC ran out of chicken – quite an important ingredient for this particular fast food chain, of course. As a result, the company had to close more than half of its outlets across the UK.

As part of its crisis management strategy, KFC made effective use of social media to keep its customers informed about the situation as it evolved. Even though a supplier was the cause of the shortage, the company ownership of the issue. It explained what had happened, apologised, and quickly answered questions from customers. The language that KFC used was natural and conversational. “We get it…you couldn’t make it up,” the company Tweeted, adding, “We’ve got the chicken, we’ve got the restaurants, but we’ve just had issues getting them together. We’re working flat out to get it fixed.” The company managed to turn what could have been a negative story into a positive one that drove its own PR campaign.

The lesson:

  1. Take ownership of the situation and make sure you’re on the front foot.
  2. Keep your customers and other audiences informed about what’s going on.
  3. Use natural, conversational language, not corporate-speak.

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