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Crisis Communications 101 – The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

The corporate PR world can be dull - no really. Come ride with me as we take a weekly sideways glance at the world of PR in the lofty world of big business, from someone who has been there, done that, and was mostly fired.

A bit of variety for you lot this week. My editor/handler got in touch and basically said, “give the world a break from your usual nonsense and write something that may actually help someone”, so here I am with a crisis communications special.

How not to do it: former BP boss Tony Hayward

You may be surprised to hear that the co-founder of a consumer agency that once brought you a story about a mobile phone being lost up a cow's bottom has anything to say about crisis communications but let me address this for you.

You see, before moving into agency land I only ever worked in the world of in-house PR. I did this for the likes of a power company where I had to defend some horrible actions, through to the world's largest surface-passenger company (who thinks these descriptions up?) where I was constantly trying to push runny shit up a hill. So crisis communications is something that sits close to my heart.

Credibility now achieved (cough), lets take a mosey through some examples of the Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

The Good

Step forward HSBC. I have been with this bank for over 20 years now and I am not going to lie, they have always been good to me.

I am therefore delighted to hold them up for the Good section of Crisis Comms 101. Last year (or it could have been the year before, don’t hold me on the details), its UK ATM and payment processing whizbits went down.

It was late afternoon on a Friday and as you can imagine, the leftie-cardy dominated platform, Twitter, was immediately agog with rage.

The beardies did not realise that HSBC had actually recently implemented and road-tested a crisis comms plan to deal with such a situation.

Within minutes of the news spreading via social platforms, HSBC’s comms team had got its War Room (my words) set up, rumoured to be from a Starbucks cafe.

They immediately set about briefing journos, in some instances going proactively to them and hand-holding them through the situation. They put out regular updates and made sure everyone knew where they were at.

The net result: HSBC gets global praise for how they handled the situation; I think they may have even won crisis comms awards for this.

The lessons to take away:

1. When in a crisis, try to lead the agenda and don’t just be fighting on a reactive front.

2. Where you can do so without admitting any form of liability that will cost you money in legal costs, apologise straight away.

The Bad

We all know about Eurostar and the trapped passengers thing and it is so long ago that I am convinced the rail company will have got a far better plan in place by now, but it is worth revisiting what happened because of the social media aspect. It is widely credited as being the first real social media-driven crisis comms situation.

Eurostar got two of its trains trapped in a tunnel between the UK and the world of Cheese-Eating-Surrender-Monkeys.

As tweets and phone calls to journalists started leaking into the news, Eurostar was clearly on the back foot and had no real crisis comms plan ready to roll out.

After a bit of a hiding and giving no real comments, a hastily shot video emerged that was meant to show the CEO saying sorry and trying to stop the wave of abuse the company was getting.

Sadly, the video looked like it was shot in a broom cupboard and the CEO himself was a bit disheveled and kinda looked like he had been kidnapped and forced to do the video in said broom cupboard.

Whilst the media carried on its onslaught, the world of social media went into meltdown because it became apparent that, even though they had passengers that were still trapped, the proactive social media accounts were still pumping out sales and marketing messages.

The results not only affected Eurostar but also its poor social media agency, WeAreSocial, who got dragged into the debate about poor use of social media, even though they themselves were nothing to do with it.

The lessons we can take away:

1. React fast, you have minutes to respond to media enquiries nowadays.

2. Have a crisis communications plan ready, regularly test it and also have a Q&A of scenarios and awkward questions you may face so you can be prepared.

3. Shut down your proactive marketing during the eye of the storm and only turn it back on again when things have died down.

The Ugly

BP, where do we start when it comes to THAT oil spill. The fact they used too much jargon, the CEO and chairman both making knuckle-gnawingly stupid comments or the fact it became a political hot potato?

The real truth is that this is a great example of where a disaster becomes so big that no amount of crisis communications planning can prepare you for the onslaught.

To be frank (you can be Andy), the comms team had bullet-proof plans in place and they stuck to them well, but they were just overwhelmed by the scale of the disaster.

In addition, their boss, the CEO, actually made the situation worse and it reached a point where, in my opinion, the British Government had to step in to calm the simmering rage that was bubbling up between the US Government and the UK company.

BPs drowning gives us some notable tips to take away for our own education.

1. When the shit not only hits, but actually overwhelms the fan, you cannot lead the agenda but you can point out media mistakes and ask for corrections.

This is something that the Labour PR machine of the mid 90s/early 2000s did exceptionally well. They had a rebuttal team dedicated to correcting mistakes and fibs peddled by mis-informed journalists.

2. Having a network of supporters in the bank can help. BP had no friends, no one they could convince to step forward and say “actually, they are not that bad”. Good companies are always working to bring on board fans so that should the worst happen, they can fall back on support from a third party.

This is something we did a whole lot of when I worked for a power company and it paid dividends. An example: we worked hard to support and engage with the Women's Institutes.

When we had power cuts in remote areas for long periods of time we could call on the WI to go out and make sure consumers in those communities had food and warmth (if we were unable to get to them).

Yes, we paid for this but we were only able to call on them because we had developed relationships and got them on board beforehand, and as part of our crisis planning.

So, there we have it, the longest post I have ever written for The Drum.

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