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………..

Crisis Management – The Idiot’s Guide To Creating A Plan 3

Preparing to Deal With a Crisis

Today, dear and faithful blog snorkellers, we’re going to look at the homework you need to do in preparation for dealing with a crisis, whenever it happens.

First, however, some home truths. You, the corporate communicator, do not own a crisis. Communication is key to the crisis management process – but so is the safety of your employees, customers and the community, operating within the law, making sure your business still does business, guaranteeing your suppliers and staff are paid and ensuring your records and data are safe.

The comms team protects corporate reputation and maintains stakeholder confidence, and is central to all aspects of the crisis management process – but we do not lead it, we do not own it and we are not the single most important thing.

Not so long ago, in a crisis simulation exercise, I felt that an operations person had been slow in providing my team with information fundamental to the external comms strategy.

In the heat of the moment, and in front of his colleagues, I said I didn’t care how busy he was maintaining his part of the business and that it was none of my concern. I was solely interested in the reputation and trust that would allow the business to function in the future, and that his duty was to help me achieve my goals. Needless to say, backs went up, and the situation has a couple of ugly moments.

I still believe I was right – but I had made the mistake of forgetting that comms works in tandem with all the other strands of crisis management. I’ll come back to the issue of who owns the crisis and how it might work in another post, but in the meantime, remember that, in all your preparation (as outlined below) you should involve others. It’ll make it easier later.

In preparation, these are the things you should consider:

Scenario planning – what are the issues that could affect your company, and how would your company be affected if one (or more) of them became reality? Make a bullet-point list of all of them.

Reserve statements and Q&A – bear in mind that when a crisis strikes, you will not have all the facts and you will not have had time to assess the situation. You may, however (dependent on the nature of the crisis), be expected to communicate immediately, without access to a spokesperson, or any form of approval process. Create a holding statement, or statements, if necessary leaving gaps for names and places, and get approval in advance. All the holding statement needs to do is acknowledge that something is happening, accept that information needs to be gathered and promise to issue further details within a specified timeframe. Looking at your scenario list, you should also be able to make a start on a generic Q&A document, which can be approved in advance. This will need updating on a regular basis.

Equipment and location – what will you need to run a communications centre? Computers, telephones, fax machines, whiteboards, headed paper, plain paper, envelopes, plastic folders, pens, staplers, desks, chairs – make a list. Bear in mind that your office may not be accessible – where would you go, and does that location have all the things you need?

Spokespeople and contact details – if you’re unlucky enough to face a crisis with immediate media interest, your reserve statements will only hold for so long – probably about half an hour – before you need to give a more detailed briefing. At this point, the media will want to hear from someone who isn’t part of the comms team – preferably a senior executive. You should create a bank of senior spokespeople, media trained and familiar with the crisis comms plan, on a rota and ready to be contacted at any time during their ‘on-call’ period. The comms team, the spokespeople and all those involved in the crisis management process should have a copy of the rota and a full contact list, containing the entire team’s contact details.

Holding and waiting areas – in that case of a full-blown crisis (especially one involving destruction of property or loss of life) the media are likely to be there before the emergency services, closely followed by the general public. You cannot afford to have either group simply milling around – they will inevitably stray into areas that may be unsafe, or restricted and they will ask questions that people may not be able to answer. You will need to provide areas where both groups can wait – if possible separately. Again, remember that your buildings may not be accessible – is there an alternative?

This is simply a starter. You will probably think of other things that you need to have, or need to do. Also bear in mind that, in the case of crisis involving death and/or destruction, you’ll be working with the emergency services, who have a tendency to take over. Be prepared, but also be flexible.

Next time, we’ll look at who owns the crisis in more detail, and who should be involved.

Crisis Management – The Idiot’s Guide To Creating A Plan 2

What’s a Crisis, Then?

Here’s a definition, that’s as good as any for our purposes – crisis (n.) an unstable period, esp one of extreme trouble or danger in politics, economics, etc.  As far as business is concerned, the effects of a good crisis on a business can include (but are not limited to) collapse of share price, destruction of reputation, loss of stakeholder confidence, legal action, job losses and possible custodial sentences for ‘responsible’ executives. Scary shit, as I’m sure you’d agree.

In answer to the inevitable question (et tu, dear blog snorkeller?) ‘who the living hell is this guy and what gives him the right to get all preachy on my arse?’, I’ll give you a few examples of crises that I, personally, have dealt with. It’s not a comprehensive list, and it doesn’t contain an example of every type of crisis, but it’s a nice lead in to what comes next.

  • The recall of a batch of product (food and drink category) that was shipped to retail outlets before the contamination was discovered
  • The employee who drank himself to death at a company ‘fun day’
  • The employee who fried himself in an electricity sub-station
  • The employee who stood where he shouldn’t and fell fifteen feet on to the concrete floor below
  • An unexpected and vitriolic local resident and media reaction to a casino planning application
  • The frightening tabloid media homophobic reaction to an (inadvertent) gay advertisement
  • The understandable tabloid media reaction to an iconoclastic (anti-religious?) advertisement
  • The media furore over a glamour model stabbing her boyfriend (to death) in a restaurant
  • The House of Commons early-day motion against the re-naming of a pub in Newcastle
  • The banning of the St George’s cross in a chain of British pubs during the Euro 2004 football tournament
  • The 12-month pay-freeze imposed on a company because the chairman misheard a journalist’s question
  • The failure of a £2.8bn bid for one company by another company

The point, which I hope has been suitably made, is that crises come at you from any angle. You will never be able to anticipate everything, no matter how hard you try, but some simple thought processes can help you prepare.

Often, real crises start from small niggly issues. As a corporate communications professional, it’s your job to be aware of the small niggly issues and, if you cannot see any immediately, then go out and find some. Every company – or client – has small niggly issues. You will not win any friends this way – trust me – and you will be seen as, variously, negative, cynical, and ‘not a team player’. The trick is to maintain your joie de vivre and your place at the heart of corporate culture while still being on the lookout for the small niggly issues.

A great example is Starbucks. Up until earlier this year (2009) Starbucks stores had a tap running into their sinks 24/7. It was to wash glasses and cups. It was to save time.

It was wasting water – at a time when the Green lobby was at its height. When questioned on it, however, Starbucks had no real answer – which translated into acres of negative media coverage. Simply put, no-one had looked out for the niggly issues, no-one was viewing the business from a slightly negative, ‘what-if’ perspective and – even if they were – no-one had the power or influence to tell the ops guys to turn the taps off. And they got busted.

No matter what your business is, it has potential to go wrong. And even if you think it doesn’t, then do not discount the influence of external factors and their ability to make your business go wrong – economic factors, medical factors, geographical factors, human/employee factors (think recession, pandemic, earthquake, terrorism) – anything that can affect your business probably will, sooner or later.

Here I’m going to name-check social media – this is a new danger. Social media allows for the proliferation of rumour, scuttlebutt and (ooooooh) employee dissatisfaction almost instantaneously and totally globally. Obviously, bigger and more established companies and brands are more at risk – because they’re more visible – but all companies, organisations and newsworthy individuals should have some form of monitoring process in place.

In summary, here’s the key points:

  • A crisis can come from anywhere
  • Look at your business – where could a crisis come from
  • Don’t stint yourself – it’s your job to be paranoid
  • You are the guardian of corporate reputation, and that’s what’s at stake
  • Don’t take ‘no’ for an answer – questioning practice is also avoidance of issues
  • Bring people on board – heads of department, key players – instil paranoia in them too
  • Monitor all channels for the beginnings of issues
  • Make a list of all the things that could happen – no matter how outrageous
  • Prepare yourself mentally for what might happen if things go wrong

Next time, we’ll talk about being prepared for the worst to happen.

Crisis Management – The Idiot’s Guide To Creating A Plan 1

2009 Research by Burson Marsteller (a PR company) into European companies’ level of crisis-preparedness revealed that while 60% of companies polled had encountered some sort of crisis, 53% didn’t have a plan in place to deal with a crisis when it happens to them. Just so the full horror of this has time to sink in – I’ll repeat it in slightly different terms.

Over half of European companies, it would seem, are wholly unprepared for the ‘phone call at 3.00am that tells you your factory’s on fire, or one of your planes just came down. The Monday morning call from the Department of Health to say that hospitals up and down the country are stuffed to the gunwales with patients, poisoned by your range of ready meals. The sight of two of your workforce plummeting past the window, having been issued with badly-maintained harnesses. Your CEO shooting himself in the foot, describing your product range as ‘off the record, real shit, know what I mean’, or your CEO simply shooting himself, having realised that the whole fraud game is up.

Do I need to go on? Everyone knows that a good crisis – or sometimes just a minor issue – can destroy a company, brand, organisation, or person’s reputation overnight if it’s not handled in the right way. Think of the examples. Hoover and the flights debacle, Ratners, Nestle and the baby milk, Coke and Dasani, Thierry Henry, Goldman Sachs, Britney Spears, Enron, Exxon Mobil – the list is, quite literally, endless.

And still, over half of European companies do not have a crisis plan in place. Without labouring the point, a crisis can happen at any time, and it’s one of those strange serendipity things that at any time is exactly when crises do happen. There’s no warning and it will be the middle of the night – that much is guaranteed. It is tantamount to malpractice for any communicator daring to describe himself or herself as professional to ply their trade in, or on behalf of, a company that doesn’t have a plan in place. Think about that for a moment.

Of course, it’s easier said than done. If you’ve not created a plan before it might, understandably, seem a bit daunting – and it’s not made any easier by the fact that there are a million conflicting opinions on what a plan should look like and what it should contain.

It’s also all to easy to put off, or ignore. Hey – your company, or your client’s company has never had a crisis – why’s it going to start now? Anyway, how difficult can it be? And just think of the cost, time and effort involved in putting a plan together! All perfectly good arguments – until such time as you are bitch-slapped by the big, wet, metaphorical haddock of crisis. At which point you are going to be really, really, abjectly sorry. Trust me.

In a perfect world, one would expect the industry bodies, or the industry’s ‘bible’ (copyright PRWeek 2009), to provide a handy cut-and-out-keep guide for the benefit of their members and readers – something to get you started. But it’s not a perfect world, and they don’t. In fact, as far as I can see, during the lazy and brief trawl of t’internet I conducted earlier today, there’s not much out there that doesn’t have a price attached to it.

So, for the good of mankind, I’m going to do a partwork here, just for you, my faithful blog snorkellers. Over the next few days – could be weeks, depends how deeply I dive into my subject – I shall, I hope, give you enough information on the key aspects of crisis management for you to develop your own skeleton plan. I shall deal with what constitutes a crisis, when issues become crises, who is responsible for the various facets of a crisis, preparing for a crisis, communicating during a crisis, business continuity and getting back to normal after a crisis. And, most likely, one or two spin-off topics.

So – tomorrow, in Creating A Plan 2, I’ll deal with What Is A Crisis.