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Tesco’s woes point to even greater need for crisis PR preparation

By Francis Ingham

January 18, 2013 | 4 min read

The senior communications team at Tesco may be interested to hear about the research from Nexus Communications/ CorpComms Magazine which confirms our worst fears - UK corporates are deeply unprepared for major crises.

Francis Ingham

Well, I’m not suggesting that the horsemeat scandal has been handled anywhere near as badly as a number of other recent high profile disasters. In fact, the store’s response has been refreshingly frank, admitting that the management took its eye off its UK stores during its grand plans for overseas expansion.

But the case does show how damaging a crisis can be to a company - £300m was stripped from the supermarket chain’s market value overnight.

Meanwhile, high street brands Jessops, Blockbusters and HMV have fallen into administration, something which they or their administrators are struggling to communicate. Particularly the latter’s thorny issue over what happens to all of those people who received HMV gift tokens for Christmas.

In such a climate, it is rather worrying that a third of communications directors feel that their crisis handling procedures are not up to scratch. 25% have never run a crisis simulation, 65% don’t update their manuals or plans at least annually, and 20% don’t even feel that one single person in their organisation has overall crisis responsibility.

It’s just the kind of preparation that left the BBC open to attack over Savile, and which must be addressed.

Communications directors have got to move on from a mentality of operational matters being ‘above their pay grad’, and be fully involved in their company’s wider resilience planning. If they do, they might even be able to spot the horse-shaped mistakes before they become a front page story.

As Trevor Morris and Simon Goldsworthy point out in their book PR Today: The Authoritative Guide to Public Relations, it is essential that a crisis team is set up in advance of any crisis who can be freed up from their day-to-day work when one arises. There should be a PR person at the heart of this team.

Such a crisis team should approve all the response papers, organise relevant staff training and decide who can talk to the media, while preparing a strategy and producing a crisis manual.

This kind of preparedness means that communications is integral to a company’s crisis handling, not sidelined and consulted further down the line - the death-knell of many a poorly handled crisis.

And another point worth making – do not underestimate the internet, and particularly social media, in its power to destroy a reputation within hours, not days. The internet has leveled the playing field between the lofty powerful organisation and the disillusioned ex-employee, customer or activist.

Just look at how Starbucks’ #spreadthecheer Christmas Twitter campaign was hijacked by protesters complaining about the coffee chain’s tax arrangements with messages such as ‘Hey Starbucks, PAY YOUR ------- TAX’.

A recent survey of 100 businesses undertaken by Good Relations and Watermelon Research discovered that more than two out of three professionals in communications, marketing and social media believe there is a gap in their businesses’ social media planning for responding to crisis situations.

41 per cent said social media were not incorporated within their existing crisis response plans. One in three even admitted they were unsure of how they could use these channels to respond to a crisis!

Why leave yourself open to attack? The internet may be a Wild West, but there’s no reason why you can’t be fully prepared for when the bandits start circling.

Francis Ingham is director general of the Public Relations Consultants Association


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