When the Heat is On

The CorpComms ‘Managing Corporate Reputation’ conference earlier this month was both informative and insightful, but best of all refreshingly honest.  We’ve featured insights on the best way to handle a crisis in KC before – highlighting the importance of preparation and putting together the best team, but here are some practical tips from my experience with an emphasis on strategic media and messaging I hope are useful.  Remember, when a crisis hits act as a leader before others step in and do so for you.  Control the chaos and demonstrate action and leadership.  People can deal with bad news – but not no news. Keep a constant drip feed of information out there for your audiences and ask yourself the following:

1. Who do I ultimately want to reach? – sometimes in a crisis when the heat is well and truly on there isn’t sufficient time to speak to all media or stakeholders. Although pooled media and stakeholder interviews can be effective, I’d recommend that when you want to get a message out quickly to a wide audience, step back and think who am I really trying to reach and what is really important and prioritise that way.  Also it might be a hard professional decision to make, but don’t be afraid to say no sometimes if it isn’t a priority for you.

2. Less is more – avoid the temptation to create a 60-page Q&A document.  It’s essential to be prepared but no-one is ever going to read it! Keep your messages simple and to the point.  What are your three overall key messages and points you want people to remember.  This will also help ensure if there are multiple spokespeople they are all on message and telling the same story –that’s absolutely vital and I’ve learned that this works best when you keep things simple.

3. Consider your best spokesperson – consider who is best placed to deliver your message and response in the event of a crisis.  Vickie Sheriff, director of group communications at the Department of Transport gave a good analogy for picking the right spokesperson   – “they are like a bag of golf clubs – each has a distinct role”.  For example:

  • Press spokesperson: use to engage early on and acknowledge that there is a problem.  This can also help buy you time and allow senior figures within the business to deal with the incident or issue at hand
  • Authority figures: this type of spokesperson helps provide reassurance, reduce anxiety and demonstrate control to the public
  • Subject matter experts: these spokespeople can be extremely useful in providing facts, adding credibility and with myth busting but might be best used for background briefings rather exposing them to more pressured top tier live broadcast or print media
  • Senior executives: help carry the load in a crisis and in some instances might be better placed to comment over the CEO due to their subject matter and areas of expertise
  • Chief Executive Officers: use sparingly but in the event of a serious crisis be sure to use them.  Go big and go early in these instances – using a CEO shows you care, adds gravitas, and demonstrates you are taking claims extremely seriously

4. Got to be as good on social media as in print – we know this but do we really do this in practice?  When a crisis breaks Twitter and Facebook are essential channels to communicate and monitor what your audiences are saying about you.  Management blogs can also be an extremely effective way of getting your message out there quickly and are a great source which many media use when a crisis hits. Tesco’s corporate affairs director, Rebecca Shelley explained this was a vital channel for them during the Horsemeat scandal earlier this year.

5. Never waste a crisis – a well-known saying by Winston Churchill – and extremely true. Well-handled issues and even crises are an opportunity to achieve your communications objectives. How often is the spotlight on you?  For example, learn from a crisis and turn things around by addressing how as a result you will do things differently in future – be honest, transparent and humble in your learnings.

Sara is an Associate Director in Ketchum’s London Office. A corporate storyteller, working with clients to shape strategic media relations programs, manage issues and crisis situations, and build their corporate reputations. Loves exploring the world in her spare time, including regular trips back to her homeland and favourite country – Wales. Follow me @STURNERS