Communication Media – Crisis Communication and Crisis Media Training
We provide crisis communications training to a wide variety of organisations from manufacturers to retailers and law firms to fashion labels. One thing we always advise our clients to do is to act quickly and decisively during a crisis. It’s essential to release a statement across all your media outlets with a clear and concise message which expresses sympathy for anybody who might be suffering because of the situation and demonstrating the action that you are taking to fix the problem. You can see how in this case the BBC has failed badly.
Unfortunately for the Corporation, this situation has all the makings of a great media story – a fact that the BBC’s many journalists are, ironically, very much aware of. In our media training courses we explore what makes a media story and human interest is pretty high on that list, as is trouble and scandal. Fairness is another key issue. In this case the idea – although nothing is, as yet, proven, it must be said – of a wealthy and influential man, exploiting a teenager looks pretty unfair in anyone’s book. Another tick in the newsworthiness box is that there is something of a trend here. The story comes just months after the Philip Schofield scandal at ITV and just over a decade since the BBC was badly damaged by its handling of the Jimmy Savile case.
How has the BBC managed the presenter scandal so far?
One of the results of the apparent inability of the BBC to grab and maintain control of the story right from the start is that media outlets have been obliged to speculate and interview experts and commentators about it. In our crisis communications training courses, we advise organisations to ensure that they are the single source of truth during a crisis. This means that by issuing that all-important initial statement and then being open to enquiries from the media and other interested parties, even if there is nothing new to add, the organisation at the heart of the incident can take control of the narrative and ensure that it is the provider of information.
Again, the BBC has, unfortunately, failed here. Big names such as Gary Lineker and Rylan have felt the need to deny that they are the subject of the story while another presenter wrongly named on social media, told C4 News that he had been “hung out to dry.” Nazir Afzal, the former Chief Crown Prosecutor for North West England told BBC Breakfast this morning that “You need to say stuff before it comes out – that’s the way to build trust,” and we’d agree with that.
One difficulty here is that it appears that those making the claims against the BBC presenter seem to have been difficult to contact and might have changed their story. As we explain to participants on our crisis media training courses, when a crisis explodes things will move quickly and there will be much that is uncertain. Claims and counterclaims will be made. One version of events will be challenged or amended. Social media will be full of speculation and theories. This is why it’s particularly important for the organisation affected by the crisis to make that initial statement early and to respond to the latest events while still appearing to be in control.
There’s a difference between responding when required to do so in accordance with your strategy and simply reacting to every new twist and turn. You also need to be consistent in your messaging and to appear open and transparent. The BBC’s statement was long-winded, too detailed and posed as many questions as it answered. As Stewart Purvis, the former editor in chief at ITN, pointed out to BBC Breakfast and Sky News, the Corporation almost seemed to be blaming the mother of the young person for not communicating with it properly.
The BBC was right to bring in the police. During our crisis communications courses, we advise organisations to emphasise that they are collaborating with the emergency services (if relevant) and other independent organisations and regulators. Your audiences might not trust you or even have heard of you before this story broke, but the chances are they will know about these independent organisations and their involvement will inspire confidence.
Although providing a written statement is essential in a crisis, there are pros and cons of doing live interviews. It can be risky to put a spokesperson up for comment, but there again not doing, so, can appear cowardly and secretive. Transparency, authenticity and honesty are all essential in these situations. The BBC might think about arranging tightly negotiated and focused interviews for Tim Davey or another senior leader at some point. The challenge, as always, is to identify and prepare a spokesperson who is both sufficiently senior but who also comes across as sympathetic and human. We recommend in our crisis communications training that organisations have a number of people trained and ready to field interviews during a crisis if necessary.
Events are moving very quickly in the situation – as they frequently do in a crisis. It may well be the case that by the time you are reading this, the alleged wrongdoer has been named, and the BBC has taken action. However, the way the Corporation has handled this issue and the mistakes they have made should provide lessons for any organisation facing a crisis. It’s certainly something we will be discussing over the coming weeks and months in our crisis communications training courses.