There is No Such Thing as a Public Relations Crisis

Read the paper, go on Facebook, listen to the radio, or watch the telly, and you will witness organisations, companies, and people in crisis. The Government over Brexit, water companies over financial behaviour, and CO2 plants over poorly timed closures, resulting in a CO2 shortage across the food and drink industry. None of these are the result of communication. They are a result of organisational or personal failures.

And that is why I believe that there is no such thing as a public relations crisis.

This view was reinforced at our latest ‘Creating the Difference’ panel discussion, which focused on crisis communications and was held at our London offices on 27th June. Attendees heard communications leaders from renowned brands and organisations including Hewlett Packard Enterprise; Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC), International Air Transport Association (IATA), International Rescue Committee (IRC), multinational enterprise software company Sage UK and global beauty company Coty, as well as some our own Ketchum experts, John Bradbury, Director of our New York Corporate Practice and Global Issues & Crisis Management; Stephen Waddington, Partner and Chief Engagement Officer; Erin Salisbury, Senior Account Director – Research and Analytics; and Jamie Robertson, Managing Director, Corporate and Public Affairs at Ketchum London, share their insights and experiences on identifying and tackling an issue before it becomes a crisis.


(L-R) Anna Lucuk, Vice President, Corporate Responsibility, Coty; Mark Mann, Head of Communications for the Customer Compliance Group, HMRC; Anthony Concil, Vice President, Corporate Communications, IATA; Laura Kyrke-Smith, Director of Communications, International Rescue Committee; Emmanuel Fyle, Director or Global Crisis Communications, Hewlett Packard Enterprise; and Sally Moore, Communications Director, Sage UK.

Based on key soundbites from the speakers, here are some considerations to bear in mind when thinking about crisis communications:

  1. “The golden hour in crisis communications does not exist anymore.”
    Time is of the essence like never before. Thanks to social media, it’s usually a matter of seconds before information is spread and opinions are formed and shared. As such, John Bradbury was on point in saying that, “the speed of response that is required today does not lend itself to overly prescriptive plans.” So, think simple, think authentic, think quick.
  2. “Your biggest point of vulnerability could be just one person.”
    The crisis is almost always a result of company culture, the failure to act, acting irresponsibly, not doing the right thing, human error. Ultimately, more than often a crisis is rooted in putting making money before the people you employ, the people you serve and the environment you operate in.
  3. “An issue must be dealt with the same rigour as a crisis.”
    If you were expecting it, and did nothing about it, then that is reckless and you will almost certainly be on the back foot. That’s why you need to have done your due diligence. Crisis processes and protocols put in place, crisis team identified and trained, expert counsel identified and ready to support.
  4. “Crisis management is not a one-person job.”
    Communicators in this situation need to keep calm, counsel and act with speed and accuracy. Your role is to mitigate the impact of the crisis and bring the external attention / interest to an end as quickly as possible, and you cannot do this alone. During a time of organisational crisis, it is absolutely critical that operations, communications and the senior executives with decision making power work absolutely hand in hand. In addition, anybody on the front line must understand organisational values and level of service that is supposed to be provided.
  5. “Make sure you understand the full picture.”
    Before you declare a situation a crisis, it’s important to really understand what has happened and how it really impacts your business. Ensuring you have experienced advisors with a calm and can-do demeanour is essential. But they should also be supported with the right tools and data that help them make good decisions quickly, based on facts, as well as instincts and experience. That is why at Ketchum, we put data and analytics at the heart of our communications process all the way through a crisis. Analysing volume, tone, influence and impact is core to the advisory and decision-making process.

As Jamie Robertson aptly stated during the panel, “doing the right thing for your stakeholder group is the key to good crisis management and communications.” The communications function does not have a magic wand. Our role is to advise what impact the external noise and interest is having on your organisation, communicate the decisions and actions that are being taken to rectify the situation to the right stakeholders and audiences and convey a sense of control and leadership on behalf of our senior leaders. And this is what will ultimately determine whether crisis management and communications have been successful.