When crisis strikes

A crisis is make or break and many firms have lived or died on the back of their crisis response and communications.

It’s easy in retrospect to see how companies poorly handle media and communications in the face of a safety or environmental crisis and reading these stories is instructive. But when an event or tragedy hits, it’s happening now, to your company – whatever your role, you are in the thick of things and it can be unpleasant, stressful and frightening.

To thrive in a crisis should it hit, a company should think in advance not just what to do in the event of X, Y and Z, but consider what we mean by the word. It is also better to think in terms of the principles of handling and communicating in the aftermath of a crisis, rather than follow an easy ‘how to guide’, as we will see.

Defining crisis

“Crises come in as many varieties as the common cold,” write Michael Regester and Judy Larkin in their book Risk issues and Crisis management in Public Relations. But, while plane crashes, contamination of products, or loss of life or injury are all crises they list, we need to look further. Jonathan Boddy, director at Positive Impact, a media training company, says: “What is a crisis and what isn’t? Crises, like beauty, are very much in the eye of the beholder, and it may not be within the gift of an organisation facing an issue to decide whether something is a crisis or not and public opinion is extremely powerful.”

When a company misjudges the degree of public anger and confusion, it can also be disastrous for its reputation. When the Paddington rail crash happened in 1999, killing 31 people, its spokesperson went on Radio 4 to criticise the national ‘hysteria’ over rail travel. Although he was correct to say that statistically there are fewer train crashes than in other modes of transport, like on the roads, he came across as callous. The firm was declared bankrupt two years later after completely losing stakeholder and passenger confidence.

The Deepwater Horizon disaster, Gulf of Mexico 2010, was one of the worst oil spills in history, yet crisis communications was widely accepted as equally bad. Photograph: Wikimedia Commons

Deciding in a crisis

A crisis is therefore something witnessed and interpreted, but a company is not completely powerless in what makes – or exacerbates – a crisis. In his book, We’re so big nothing can happen to us, business academic Ian Mitroff describes crisis-prone companies in terms worthy of Shakespearean tragedy – they are either ‘destructive’ in that they will ride rough shod over moral values and put profits first at the expense of people’s safety. Or they are ‘tragic’ companies, in that they understand the need for change but lack the skills to make it happen. Jonathan adds: “Crisis is actually a Greek word, it means ‘decision’. That’s really appropriate because when faced with a crisis making decisions is essential. Doing nothing is very rarely an option and in the vast majority of cases an active response is going to create a solution.”

People first

This brings us to the first principle in crisis management, which is that any action or decision must put people first. It may sound obvious to a health and safety professional, but when coming up against pressure from those in a company primarily concerned or even frightened about image damage, this point cannot be stressed enough. An example of how well this principle was followed is in Risk issues and Crisis management’s case study on Johnson & Johnson. It managed to recover its market share for a paracetamol product that was found to be laced with cyanide in a certain batch. This was because it immediately recalled every bottle of the product, not just in the area affected.

The result of its rebound was incidental, rather than down to some savvy PR strategy: “Ironically, the closest thing the company had to a crisis plan was its credo that its first concern must be for the public,” say the authors. Jonathan summarises: “Safety has to be number 1 and the health and safety professional should always put safety first. To think of that the other way around, what kind of organisation will place self-interest ahead of the safety of its people, the wider public or the environment? Any organisation that does that is doomed to fail.”

Richard Branson was praised for his quick action in the aftermath of the Virgin train crash in Cumbria in 2007. Photograph: Flickr / Gulltaggen

Honest communication

The next key principle is to be honest and compassionate in the statement you release to the press following the incident. Health and safety practitioner Michael Anderson was just on a site visit to a construction site in London when a worker fell off a scaffold and died. He ended up taking the lead in the crisis management, after the project manager ‘collapsed in a jibbering heap,’ unable to cope, he explains. He took the witness statements and reassured people.

As an unwitting actor in the crisis management plan, he was also close to the development of the incident and saw how the firm was defensive in its statements. “The communication was that they weren’t responsible, that this person had gone out of their way to cause themselves harm. I thought it was not irresponsible it was just, it lacked honesty.” (In fact the worker was experiencing serious mental ill health problems at the time, according to the Inquest’s report).

Michael says honesty is key in the initial press statements: “It’s saying that you are undertaking the investigation, saying essentially ‘I haven’t got a clue as yet, but I will be finding out and we will get back to you’, it’s being sincere. I think people read sincerity quite easily or quickly.”

Regester and Larkin also advise being quick to show you are sorry: “Admitting sorrow does not mean the company is liable. What needs to be said is ‘We deeply regret this has happened and will leave no stone unturned in establishing the cause’, or words to that effect.” Indeed, Thomas Cook has been on the spotlight after its boss, Peter Fankhauser, told an inquest into the deaths of two children from carbon monoxide poisoning at its Corfu hotel that ‘there’s no need to apologise.’ 

After the initial shock of the incident, it’s about actions that show you care and that will reassure the public and those affected. A case study in Regester’s book on the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989, one of the biggest in history, tells the story of a PR disaster, when, one week on, the chairman was still pursuing the line of ‘no comment’ and taking no action, including letting a ship designed to clean up oil lie languishing in its dock. The firm’s shares tumbled.

More recently, in 2010, CEO of foreign oil giant BP, Tony Hayward, remarked how upset he was at the inconvenience caused to him by his company’s devastation of the Gulf of Mexico, the biggest oil spill in history. Commenting after the April 2010 rig explosion that killed 11 workers, he said I want “my life back”. He was also known to have taken a day off sailing during the height of the problem – hardly a strong message of care and support. Jonathan says: “During an incident if you can’t or don’t tell the outside world that you are dealing with it then as far as they are concerned you are still in crisis.”

"If you don’t tell the outside world that you are dealing with it then as far as they are concerned you are still in crisis" Photograph: iStock/kupicoo

Safety’s role in communication

Of course it’s not possible or desirable to communicate everything that’s being done to help in a crisis, or to respond to every media story. But it’s about being proactive and choosing priorities; deciding to respond before the story unravels by itself.

This is where the operations and the communications team’s ability to work together is vital, with the ‘hands on’ operational response team updating the communications teams on developments of the crisis and how they are mitigating risks. “One of the most challenging realities of incident management is to get those involved with operational response, and those often under the most pressure, to take time to keep the communications team informed – that dialogue takes time and effort but is a vital part of reputational management,” says Jonathan.

Michael says that as a safety professional in a crisis, his role is to provide the information and the confidence that the company spokesperson will need when facing the press. “Good communication is ‘beyond being able to speak. It’s understanding the information you’re giving and its purpose,” he says.

We’ve covered what should be said and the importance of honesty in any crisis communication, but who should do the speaking? The visibility of the CEO or leader is vital. Jonathan says: “To be good at incident response and strong on crisis communication is not rocket science. Leadership is vital, someone at the top of an organisation saying we will take this seriously and I support it.”

He and Michael both name Richard Branson as inspirational when it comes to crisis response. After the fatal railway accident in Cumbria involving a Virgin train, Michael says: “He was there promptly, he interviewed promptly and it’s probably the most magnificent, honest statement that anyone could learn from.”

Have a plan

The last principle is also the most important because it sets into motion all of the above principles, and that’s having a workable plan. Michael says it’s vital in a time of high stress and emotion: “A good plan will almost have line by line detail for people who are going off the rails because they can’t cope with what’s happened. It should even start with, ‘breathe, stand up straight’, because it [can be] a very difficult thing for people [who may have witnessed] a colleague’s or friend’s injury or death.”

Jonathan adds that plans should also be tested and warns against ‘box ticking’ or having a crisis communications plan in name and on paper only. He says it is a common mistake he sees: “A plan exists and perhaps parts of it are tested from time to time, however not with any degree of rigour. What takes place does not give a meaningful measure of how people and processes will respond if the worst happens.”

More than a PR exercise

Looking closer at crisis communication, we see that it’s more of an exercise in kindness, empathy and sensitivity than being a brainbox in PR. “Showing a human side is really important. Your actions and communications should clearly demonstrate you care, and that might mean having to admit you have got it wrong,” concludes Jonathan.

Handling a crisis means handling it with care and understanding how it is perceived by others and how your actions affect others. To do otherwise will not only be destructive to people, but to your company’s hopes for a prosperous future. How leaders respond to a crisis also says a lot about the moral values of the organisation, values that should always be present, long before or long after any crisis. In fact, good moral values should be present irrespective of any crisis.