Panic Stations

A crisis, by its nature, develops out of a problem or situation that cannot be contained or removed. However, while the exact situation cannot be predicted, this is no excuse for a company to bury its head in the sand and hope that it will never be affected by the unforeseen.

Paul Noble, a public relations lecturer and training consultant, says: “Being able to manage a crisis effectively is vital. A badly-handled crisis can actually threaten a company. Look at the Zeebrugge disaster which essentially destroyed P&O’s Townsend Thorensen brand. If you can identify issues likely to become crises then you will be able to manage them better when they happen.”

Barry Monk, a partner at Oast Communications, adds: “Having a strategy for dealing with a crisis means a company needs to be aware of what might happen and to have prepared a point-by-point reaction.”

Preparation could have averted the looming millennium bug crisis. Says Monk: “The Government is now getting involved, but the Year 2000 crisis should have been dealt with two to three years ago. If the Government had cranked up its PR activity to educate people in what problems were likely and how to solve them, we probably wouldn’t have to have a task force. There is too severe a shortage of manpower to recode the software and sort things out now.”

CitigateDeweRogerson chairwoman Suzy Frith adds: “We started talking about the millennium bug about four years ago. I rang the DTI in October 1995 asking what they were doing about the problem. They said there was no problem and that they had no advice to give industry.”

Planning the communication side of your crisis strategy is also vital. Noble explains: “You need to think through how to handle communications in the event of a disaster. Without this foresight, even a small problem can quickly become a crisis.

“Ultimately, what’s important is not whether you make a mistake, but how you handle it. Compare the Zeebrugge disaster and the way British Midland handled the

Kegworth air crash. In both cases the company was at fault – Townsend Thorensen because of the bow doors on the ferry and pilot error in the case of British Midland. But the latter came out with its reputation intact. I think this was largely because within hours the chief executive was at the crash site expressing concern and condolences to the families involved and was being seen to do everything possible to help the victims – while also promising to find out how the incident happened.”

A prompt reaction is of the essence. Says Monk: “Journalists can now get hold of news from around the world in an instant thanks to the Internet. This means multinational companies have to have a global PR awareness. They should also pre-empt journalists’ questions by planning replies, and even calling particular contacts to calm the situation before the pressure starts to build.”

Using the telephone system effectively is also essential. Roger Gilbert, a consultant at Telecom Potential Group, says: “In an emergency, calls can increase by 20 to 100 per cent. Companies need to have plans to cope with this, maybe by outsourcing calls to an external facility, or diverting overflow calls to another centre.

“Companies think their IT infrastructure is critical to their business, however the telephone system is also critical – if people can’t get through, then a slick system for processing data will not be much use.”

A prompt apology can go a long way to solving a problem. Says Frith: “Outside life-and-death situations, it is the refusal to take responsibility for a problem that riles people most.

“This corporate arrogance is the company equivalent of the individual who always thinks he is right. And we are all suspicious of secrecy. The more you batten down the hatches, the more it looks like you have something to hide.

“It is a truism that if a problem with a supplier is solved satisfactorily, then people are more likely to continue doing business with the company than if there had never been a problem.”

Many public relations companies offer a checklist of steps to improve crisis management. In September, Hill & Knowlton took the process online with the development of prompt rps (reputation protection system), a software-based crisis planning system.

An electronic manual, prompt rps guides organisations through a seven-step procedure to assess the risks they face, how to build a crisis management team and test their crisis procedures. The system, available on CD-Rom, also benchmarks each company’s performance against that of others.

Whether clients would rather operate on the basis of a few simple principles or through a highly sophisticated software programme, they need to be prepared to listen to public relations advice.

Frith says: “Companies can easily get carried away with themselves and not see how they look to the outside world. Our best clients want us to challenge them to help them see things from an outsider’s perspective.”

And they should never rest on their laurels. Paul Noble emphasises both the danger of feeling too secure and the importance of remembering to update details, such as the chief executive’s home telephone number.

“Safety had been an issue with Piper Alpha and procedures had been reviewed. But you have to implement strategy and keep monitoring and testing it. You should never assume you’re automatically covered,” he says.

CASE STUDY

Crisis: Over a period of two years, the BBC television programme Watchdog had been broadcasting anecdotal reports of side effects of the anti-malarial drug Lariam, produced by pharmaceutical company Roche. Roche had left the scientific debate to the health professionals. However, with the publication of a case study in The Lancet of a ten-year-old girl who had suffered a severe skin reaction and died, Watchdog was set to call for a ban, and Roche decided to get involved in the programme.

Objectives: Roche’s objectives were damage limitation for itself and the product. The company wanted to ensure that the risk of contracting malaria was communicated to travellers and that the risk of side effects of anti-malarials was put in perspective.

Existing structures: A task force already existed – with members from the worlds of medicine, law, marketing and public relations – and a meeting was called to prepare for an interview with Watchdog.

Tactics: The medical director was picked as the most appropriate person for the interview. Grayling negotiated with Watchdog that questions would be provided in advance, that the piece would be no less than three minutes, that there would be no editing of the piece and that the client could take a copy of the interview. All this was put in writing before Grayling would provide final commitment to the interview.

The next step was to ensure the medical director had all the relevant background materials. A half-day media training session took place the day before the interview, followed by a refresher on the morning itself. During the training, a studio environment was established to mimic the one at Watchdog. While this preparation was under way, Roche contacted the Medicines Control Agency (MCA), which provided a supporting statement.

After the interview, the tape was reviewed and the questions and answers and holding statements were checked to ensure all issues had been covered accurately. The holding statement was then issued to the sales team, so it was prepared for the coverage and subsequent enquiries from doctors and hospitals.

Client: Roche; Consultancy: Grayling

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