Crisis Management – The Idiot’s Guide To Creating A Plan 9

In this post – number 9 of a series, and, dear blog snorkellers, if you’ve missed the rest, you might want to read them just for context – we’re going to have a look at the role of social media in both creating and handling a crisis situation.

Before we go any further, by way of declaring my interests, I must say that I am not a fan of social media. I do not believe it is a valid (or valuable) communications/marketing tool. I believe there are still too many unknowns and thus it remains more of a threat than an opportunity. Those who are rushing headlong to embrace social media appear to have forgotten one key learning from traditional media. It can bite you. There is no reason to suppose that social media is not the same. As of yet, there is very little evidence of any business, brand or organisation actually getting a return on their investment in social media. On the other hand, there are plenty of examples of businesses, brands and organisations getting into trouble because of social media. All this being said, social media exists – no-one can or should ignore it. The best you can do is limit your corporate exposure to it, by controlling the part of it that you can control, which is your interaction with it.

Social media can create a crisis for you, or can propagate one when it happens to you. And it never takes time off – it’s on all the time.

Ill-advised comments or content posted to a social media site by your employees – eg Dominos Pizza in the US and the UK electrical retailer, Dixons Stores Group – can cause you problems, as can commentary from unhappy customers, or trading partners. Decisions you take as a business, marketing material you produce, changes to your product line-up – all these can spark off a backlash via social media. Because of social media – and the wider internet – everyone has a voice, a voice that is instant and has global reach.

And this voice can be equally active in the case of a crisis that’s not driven by social media. In the case of an incident at your premises, or an accident involving staff and/or customers, or a problem with your product, or a gaffe by a senior executive – these things will be posted to social media within minutes. Mobile device penetration by population in the UK is over 100% – some people have two or more, d’you see? – which means that there’s always someone with a camera and internet access.

In terms of dealing with social media in a crisis management plan, you’ll be glad to know it shouldn’t be that difficult. It’s simply a question of incorporating elements of your social media policy into the plan. (And if you haven’t got a social media policy, now is the time to get one.)

Policy – your policy should (amongst other things) outline how your organisation and your employees interact with social media, when you’re using company facilities and are on company time. It should also contain information and guidelines around social media usage ‘best practice’ – both in and out of work – which should be promoted as an employee benefit.(Helping you to protect yourself and not f*ck up!) Most importantly, there should be a clause which specifically deals with crisis situations, where employee posting to social media is expressly forbidden, on pain of dismissal. Some people will say I’m being too draconian – but this is the only way to ensure your employees are not tempted to ‘participate’ – even with the best of intentions.

Monitoring – you could outsource this to an expensive outfit of social/digital media gurus, who will blind you with science and then steal your wallet. On the other hand, you could save your money and – once a day – spend half an hour on Google, searching for a selection of key words pertaining to your business. These could include your brand names, your company name, the names of your external communications staff, and the names of your c-suite. This is, of course, not scientific, and stuff will slip through the net, but if the issue’s big enough, chances are you’ll see a mention of it. Once you’re on to an issue, it becomes easier to track down where its epicentre is.

Reaction – things move fast with social media and in the blogosphere. Your standard, pre-prepared response statements (neatly filed at the back of your crisis management folder) will not suffice here, however. They’re OK and they’ll work with journalists looking for an early response to a crisis situation, but social media is not staffed by journalists – it’s populated by individual members of the public, none of whom want to listen to a corporate message. What you’ll have to do is translate your reserve statements into social media speak – humble, to the point, on a level, using language that everyone will understand (jargon-free). Put your case, and if there’s something your company/organisation needs to do to set things right, then do it. As quickly as you can. On the other hand, if you’re being mistreated, say so, and seed that message as far as you possibly can. You may have to set up your own Facebook group or Twitter feed – make sure you know how to do it, and what the basic rules of engagement are. Make sure that instructions on how to do it, and the rules of engagement are in your crisis management folder for everyone to see. Remember that social media is not a sales tool, does not tolerate corporate bullsh*t and is the soul of brevity. Ensure there is only one message coming out of your camp.

This is only the beginning – you’re going to want to go away and think about this (oh yes you are) – and you’re also going to want to think about how you ensure your people know about what you’re doing in a crisis situation. Your people are your greatest asset and one of your greatest liabilities – I’ll deal with them next time.

Crisis Management – The Idiot’s Guide To Creating a Plan – Supplementary

This post – the latest in an occasional series about crisis management, the importance of having a plan and what you should think about when creating a plan – was to have been about social media, its place in the anatomy of a crisis, and how your social media policy (you do have one, don’t you?) should have strong links and cross-reference with your crisis management plan.  I promise faithfully that I will post with my thoughts, but in the meantime, have a look at:


It’s long, but it’s definitely worth the read, and it makes all sorts of interesting points, which anyone thinking about crises should be bearing in mind.


Crisis Management – The Idiot’s Guide To Creating A Plan 8

Last time, I went through a crisis scenario – one that I dealt with myself, involving glamour models, murder and steak and chips (this is what I love about this industry – that fact that you couldn’t dream most of this stuff up if you tried) – on a gene-molecule level.

Well, in fairness, I probably missed loads, but I hope it gave an idea of the questions you need to ask, the things you need to prepare and the actions you need to take in the event of a crisis – involving customers, media, emergency services and staff – happening to you. I hope I also managed to communicate a) just how full-on it all is and b) the fact that loads of people are – and should be – involved. If any of this is news to you – go back and have another look at it.

This time, I want to do a fly-past of three incidents – not all mine and all very different – each of which contains a key learning that might help in the future when you’re in the middle of it. (I can’t reinforce this enough – it’s not a question of ‘if’, dear blog snorkellers, it’s a question of ‘when’. It IS going to happen to you.)

The first one is the Kegworth air disaster. For those who don’t know, Kegworth is a small English village in the county of Leicestershire, not terribly far away from the M1 motorway, a main arterial road link. In January 1989, a British Midland 737-400 passenger aircraft crashed some few hundred yards short of the runway at East Midlands airport, into an embankment of the motorway, killing 47 people. “A remarkable” 79 people survived however and, as you can imagine, the media were all over it like a rash – let’s face it, a passenger plane, in bits, lying on a motorway makes good television.

No doubt about it – this was a disaster both in terms of the incident and for British Midland the company. All sorts of stuff came out – the plane, for example, had recently had some upgrades and the pilots had had something like one half-hour briefing on the changes. The cause of the crash was a problem with one of the engines – the pilots shut the wrong one down, turning the aircraft into a 50-tonne glider. It was messy, and yet the company’s reputation survived – thanks to the actions taken by its chairman. It seemed like minutes, but it must have been hours, when Michael Bishop first appeared on the scene. He went straight up to the media and said (something like) “this is a dreadful incident, and we’ll get to the bottom of it as quickly as we can – in the meantime, I’ve got to go and help those people” and off he went towards the ‘plane. In that moment, he swung public opinion on to his side, on to the side of the company. Sheer brilliance.

Secondly, we have a product recall situation at a brewery. The ‘contamination’ of one particular batch of a very famous beer product was reported by quality control in the brewhouse – because of a worn component in the pipes, bacteria had escaped the regular cleaning process and were present when the beer travelled through the lines. Unfortunately, such was the turnaround time that the batch in question (amounting to as many as 1 million pints) was already in pubs and shops nationwide.

‘Contamination’ is such a strong word, don’t you think? What was really wrong with the beer? Well, actually, as it turns out, nothing, other than it may taste a bit funny – no-one was going to be made ill, no-one would be shouting Ralph in a pub car park, in fact – whisper it – no-one might actually notice.

We were prepared to do the recall and we were ready for all the fall-out. In the end, it was much, much simpler – and much, much cheaper – not to. The point is that one should always think through every situation before taking the obvious course of action. Sometimes you’re better off not doing anything.

Finally, Domino’s Pizza on YouTube. Well, you can read my post on it. Some say they handled their crisis well, others say they didn’t. Certainly, following on from the incident, their UK team has made a little hay while the sun was shining (or otherwise). It’s an ill wind, as they say. The reason I cite this here is because this was one of the first incidents that was created by social media and which – rightly or wrongly, to a greater or lesser extent – was dealt with via social media.

The point is that whether we like social media or not – and I don’t – it has changed the landscape of communications and the way that information gets around. It is a threat and (apparently) an opportunity – what’s certain is that social media needs to be dealt with in your crisis management plan – and I’ll get to this next time

Crisis Management – The Idiot’s Guide To Creating A Plan 7

If you’ve followed this series through parts one to six, then you’ll know that I’ve promised some examples of real scenarios which (I hope) will illustrate the points I’ve tried to make. At the very least, you’ll be able to decide whether you would have done it better, which may get you thinking. As I’ve said before – this isn’t meant to be the definitive, one-size-fits-all solution to the problem of formulating a crisis management plan – this is the seed and it needs the fertilizer of your thoughts. So here you are – the following example is real, and one I dealt with personally:

2130, Friday night. Call comes in via the company’s main switchboard from one of its restaurants, at which a fatal stabbing has just taken place. The restaurant is in the Liverpool area, the police are on site, a media enquiry has been received and it’s believed a journalist and photographer are en route. The suspected attacker is female, the victim male. The restaurant was roughly a quarter full when the incident occurred, and the manager evacuated those present immediately. Some have left, others remain outside. Six staff are on duty, one was serving the attacker and victim.

Questions? Has the area manager been notified and when will he arrive? Is there any further information available about the incident, the victim or the attacker that might help in formulating a corporate response? How are the emergency services dealing with the incident – they will have closed the restaurant – can they give us any idea of how long it may be closed for? How are the staff members reacting? Have they been reassured and offered support and/or counseling through the company’s HR resource? Was there any apparent trauma or upset amongst other guests – will we have to offer compensation in one form or another? Have the emergency services spoken with the guests who remain? When are the media expected, if they’re not there already?

Actions? Event is in Liverpool, HQ is in London – no member of the corporate communications team can be there within thirty minutes. Call area manager, ensure that a call has been put into the Ops Director, who can escalate upwards to the executive committee or board, as deemed appropriate. Area manager, already media trained, is briefed to handle media enquiries, using text of reserve statement – also liaises with emergency services.

Restaurant manager is briefed that neither he, nor his staff, are to talk to the media. Even if ‘doorstepped’ they are to say nothing more than ‘sorry, I’ve nothing to add’. Name and telephone number of on-call communicator to be supplied to all staff members, for giving to media if necessary. Restaurant manager (alone, not staff) briefed to deal with enquiries from public. Authorised to respond to guest complaints/issue with offer of refunds or discounted meals at other restaurants, plus provide central contact number for owning company, for further issues/complaints. As media will be prevented from accessing restaurant by emergency services, area manager authorised to supply ‘stock’ external restaurant shot – thus presenting premises in best light. Notify HR – HR to speak to individual staff members to offer support/counsel. Notify media monitoring agency to cut for media mentions of incident. Use holding statement, tailored to specific incident, to answer media enquiries. Assure media that, if there is anything further to say, that they will be contacted. Prepare incident report for circulation.

Outcome? Transpired that the attacker was a glamour model, out for dinner with her boyfriend. Following a minor argument, she picked up a steak knife and stabbed him – her aim was quite good, and he died from a single stab wound. Media coverage majored on the incident and the characters involved – no staff were interviewed, no statement was made other than the reserve statement, no spokespeople or employees were named. No other guests were involved, while one or two were interviewed by the media, they had nothing to add and thus did not contribute to the coverage. Staff members were all contacted and offered counselling, none took it up, but all were reassured of the company’s ‘duty of care’. A small minority of guests took the company up on its offer of refunds or discounted meals – this built customer relations. Media coverage limited to local press and brief mention on local radio. Restaurant re-opened after three weeks, with little fanfare – its business was undamaged.

OK – yes this is an isolated incident. Yes – it’s very out of the ordinary. Yes – it might be seen as reasonably straightforward and easy-to-handle. But it might have gone so very horribly wrong – and it didn’t. That’s a result, as far as I’m concerned.

I’ll do another example next time.

Crisis Management – The Idiot’s Guide To Creating A Plan 6

So there you are, sat in front of the TV of an evening, having just enjoyed your dinner, swirling the last dregs of your fine burgundy ‘round the bottom of the glass when your eye is taken by something on the news. It’s your factory on fire. Or your plane nose down in a field. Or your guests being stretchered out of one of your hotels/restaurants/health clubs. Or a special report from the City. Or any one of the potential nightmares that you’ve spent hours imagining and planning for. And you didn’t know it was happening.

Rewind, quick. OK – there’s you, taking a copy of your crisis management plan, with the contact numbers and the rota lists and – with the blessing (and authority) of the plan’s owner – running a training session with whoever your front line people are. Making sure that they know that, in amongst all the chaos that they might be dealing with, they MUST call you (or a member of your team) and they MUST NOT attempt to deal with external comms themselves.

So there you are, sat in front of the TV of an evening etc etc etc having just taken the ‘phone call that lets you know it’s all gone a bit pear-shaped up at t’mill. What to expect, what to do and what decisions to make?

  • Not all crises are the same and not all require an instant response – and not all are crises. Some are just issues. Which is yours and what do you really need to do? Take some time out to think about it and bear in mind that there are always people who like a nice bit of drama and who will happily create a crisis where there wasn’t one before
  • A product recall, for example, may take some evaluation before it’s actioned. The product may not be dangerous or risky in any way – simply faulty. In this case you’ve got time to think, and the knowledge that no-one’s going to hear about it (if you’re lucky) until you decide to make it public
  • On the other hand, a product recall may be occasioned by truly dangerous products, which pose a danger to life and limb – in which case you’ve got no time at all, and it is going to be a big story, very quickly, over which you will have no control
  • Where is your crisis, supposing it’s serious enough to warrant your presence? Can you get there? Can your team get there? Can your spokesperson/people get there? If not – who are you going to use ‘on the ground’ to champion communications?
  • What has actually happened, and what might happen next? What are your audiences going to need to know? Who needs to know within your organisation? Does the whole organisation need to know?
  • Are there factors outside your control – which change your status from ‘driver’ to ‘passenger’ – these might include terrorism, or Act of God. If so, who do you need to deal with to ensure that you are aligned and ‘on-message’?
  • If there’s a crisis ‘scene’ – who’s there? Have the emergency services, or the media, or the public turned up? Who’s dealing with them, or is it a free-for-all?
  • What’s the potential impact of this – short and long-term? What needs to happen to minimise the impact?

By asking these questions (and others like them) and considering these issues (and other like them) – exercise your own judgement here – you’ll begin to get a picture of what you’re facing, and can start to react.

Next time, no waffle, just real examples.

Crisis Management – The Idiot’s Guide To Creating A Plan 5

Here we are – roughly half-way through this rapid and rather random fly-past of the anatomy of a crisis and how one might plan for same. This is part five which means – oh, but yes, dearest blog snorkellers – another five to go! I promise – on all that I hold sacred, on Roget’s Thesaurus – that the next bits (well, the ones after this) will be more exciting. And practical.

Anyway – this is just a summary of where we find ourselves, and how you might consolidate the work that you’ve done. I’m not going to insult you, so I’ll keep it brief. In no particular order:

1)       Write everything you’ve discovered to date down. This may be stating the obvious, but the obvious is what you’re going to want when the merde hits the aircon. Writing things down allows you to demonstrate to others that things have been thought about and – often more importantly – remind them that they were there when the thinking was going on. (Did I mention that crises are noted for their internal political aspect? No? They are.) All that aside, by now you’ve got lists of potential issues and crises, contingency planning for the more likely or the more serious, statements and Q&A, escalation procedures, rotas and contact lists, places to go and schedules of equipment that you’re going to need. Writing it down will explain to others, and you (at 0500 on a Wednesday, when your memory’s not working), how it all links together

2)       Get examples of all the stuff you’ve put together so far. Put each item in a different plastic folder, label it as an appendix and attach it to the beginnings of a plan you’ve just written down (see point 1). I know, I know – I’m insulting your intelligence. Or am I? Don’t hide this stuff away – everyone who might be involved in a crisis situation should have a copy of it. Whether they like it or not

3)       Store all of this electronically. If you can, if your IT department will let you, if your company is technologically literate enough, if there are enough people able to access it from outside the company – get it all on a server somewhere (possibly password protected) so that those that need to access it when the time comes, actually can

4)       Brief your people. You’ve done quite a lot of work at this stage, and the stuff you’ve been working on – although all a bit navelly-gazely at times – is very important. We’ll get on to internal comms later, but now is the time to do some briefing of your staff. Not everyone needs to know everything, but it doesn’t do anyone – especially in an organisation that might not, how shall we say, have the most robust and open and values-led culture – any harm to be splashed with the fear of God every now and then

Now we’re cooking with gas. One thing I completely forgot to mention specifically, but who knows, you may have got there before me, is the list of the emergency services and the local authorities that you would do well to have in your folder when the time comes.

Next time, we’ll explore what to expect when a crisis actually happens, The we’ll get to internal comms, business continuity, social media and running a trial of your plan.

And until then – keeeeeep panicking!

Crisis Management – The Idiot’s Guide To Creating a Plan 4

So, Who Owns the Crisis?

First, an apology for the depths of ennui that I plumbed in yesterday’s post. *rse. I’d forgotten how mind-numbing the whole preparation deal can be – but, just because it’s teeth-grindingly tedious, doesn’t mean it’s not important. Go away and do it. You’ll be happier when you have. Honest. You can make it more interesting by identifying the things that I’ve forgotten, thereby adding to the wow factor of your preparation experience. OK, that’s nonsense. Just get on with it!

I’m going to divide this section into two and, to the undoubted and unbounded relief of those who are sticking with this out of some misguided sense of duty (thank you so much), I’m going to keep it brief.

First, let’s talk about who actually owns the crisis management plan – the preparation of parts of which you are so deeply embroiled in right now. Well, on the one hand, it should be the top bod. Mr Pinnacle. Your MD or CEO. He, or indeed, she, is ultimately responsible for the direction, development and performance of your business and therefore should take responsibility for the business when things get a bit out of shape. On the other hand, as we all know, these people operate on a slightly different plane to the rest of us and simply do not (mostly) have the focus, or the patience to deal with the detail that’s necessary to get this right. And, although they may not seem it, these people are professional optimists – they cannot allow themselves to believe that anything can go wrong with the business that they are stewarding (it would drive them nuts).

So, in brief, you need to find someone senior enough to be able to lead and enrol other senior people in the business and yet paranoid and detail-oriented enough to be concerned about  getting it right. There are normally two candidates – your Head of Legal Affairs, or your Company Secretary. If you’ve got one person doing both roles then, in the vernacular, bingo!

(Apologies to all those of my blog snorkellers who work in companies that have Health and Safety departments or officers. You’ve already got plans, and quite scarily-committed people looking after them. With hi-vis jackets, no doubt.)

Which brings me to the second part of this post – who actually owns the crisis when it’s happening. Clearly – and everything I’m posting here is not meant to be definitive, it requires the fertilizer of your thoughts for it to bloom – it’s going to depend on what sort of crisis you’ve got – whether, in fact, it’s just an issuette, or whether it’s something that is going to have a long-term, company-wide impact. And therefore, in amongst your preparation, you’re going to need an escalation plan – a sort of chart which shows who needs to know what and when.

You see, in this case, the ultimate owner of the crisis IS the MD or CEO – ‘cos he or she is the one who’ll be doing five years in Pentonville if the company’s found to be negligent – but (for all the reasons stated above) she (or he) is not going to want to be bothered by a small glitch on the production line. While it’s not entirely your job to decide how far up the food chain the news of your issue/crisis needs to be escalated, you can be certain that senior people are not going to be terribly forgiving if they read it in the paper before you’ve told them about it. Or worse – if they’ve been stupid enough to give their ‘phone numbers to the media – they get a call about it before you’ve briefed them.

Finally for this post, your escalation plan – which, as I hope I’ve already made clear, will, like the rest of your prep, be formulated with the help of others from around your business who are likely to be involved in the event of a crisis – should show ‘levels of engagement’. Simply put, this describes the teams that come together to co-ordinate the management of the crisis.

Normally called Gold, Silver and Bronze – something to do with the military or the emergency services, I think – they are basically a junior team, dealing with things on the ground, a middle-ranking team, directing things on the ground and making longer-term decisions, and the senior team, formulating strategy, handing down approvals and shaping the future. To be clear – dependent on what your crisis is, you may never need to call your middle and senior teams together – simply keeping them informed may be enough. But you need to be clear on how those decisions are made.

Next time, on ‘I’m an Idiot, Make me a Crisis Management Plan’ – I’ll summarise where we’ve got to. And then it’s on to the fun stuff………..