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Communications Crisis PR

What brands should do in a crisis: 'Go further now than you think you'll eventually be dragged'


By Dom Burch, managing director

March 1, 2016 | 5 min read

At what point does an issue morph into a crisis? And once it's hit you as a brand what on earth do you do about it?

During my stint at Asda I was involved in and handled a number of reputational issues.

They ranged from the regular annoyance of us appearing on Watchdog, a fairly tame consumer affairs entertainment show, to weeks of detailed investigation into false allegations of child labour. Carefully unpicking myth from reality whilst holding off an aggressive investigative, albeit, as it later turned out, dodgy journalist.

Then there was the unexpected snow that ground the country to a halt. The odd fuel crisis here and there. Multiple dairy farmer blockades. Not forgetting the perennial food scares. Sudan 1, contaminated chicken, poisonous farmed salmon and horse meat.

The latter of the food scares stands out, not least because of the almost impossible task of saying anything at all without inadvertently using an equine pun.

Tesco was the run away winner on that front, with a cheeky customer service representative closing down its account for the night by saying they were off to hit the hay. Not ideal.

The horse meat scandal was the PR issue that kept on giving.

Just when you thought you'd reached the final straight, another fence presented itself in front of you, and there was often a big hole to fall into on the other side.

During such events, it's hard to see the wood from the trees.

In the midst of all the chaos, and with a sense of no end in sight, it's easy for brands to forget their reputations are forged at times like this.

The temptation to bunker down and place your head in the sand is hard to resist. You sometimes wish it would all just blow over. It seldom does.

Yet how you behave in times of distress sets in stone how people perceive you when the dust has settled.

You won't be surprised we had a few guiding principles when Asda was handling issues, to help ensure they didn't develop into full blown crises.

The one I stuck to was simple.

Go further now, willingly, than you think you'll eventually be dragged.

Always doing the right thing, even if in the short term that meant taking a sizeable commercial hit on sales or stomaching unexpected costs.

The master at ensuring the business always listened to its own sound advice was the then director of strategic communications, Nick Agarwal.

Advice that he and fellow former Asda colleague and general legal counsel at Ellie Doohan now plan to impart on others through a UCL Laws course entitled Ethics, Crises & The (Un)holy Alliance.

For almost 200 years, UCL Laws has been one of the leading centres of legal education in the world.

UCL recognises that nearly every day, of every year, the media tells the story of a company in, or facing, a crisis – one usually with an ethical question at its heart.

As the notes for the course point out, in the past few months alone, household names that trip off the tongue – TalkTalk, International Athletics, Volkswagen, Fifa, Thomas Cook – have faced make or break moments as they deal with crises that threaten to undermine their hard-won reputations.

Nick explains: "These aren’t just crises that are limited to the ‘chatterati’ – they’ve reached real customers and investors.

"TalkTalk’s data protection issues lost them over 100,000 paying customers; VW has set aside 6.7bn euros to deal with the fall-out of its emissions scandal; Charity Age UK recently pulled the plug on 100 jobs after an outcry it was making millions from selling over-priced energy from E-on; a whole nation Russia – is indefinitely banned from world athletics."

Ellie and Nick believe that internal dysfunction is the root of why many organisations fail to handle the issues they face – and find themselves unable to prevent issues turning into a damaging – sometimes terminal – breakdown in public trust.

Ellie adds: "At the heart of that dysfunction is often the relationship between a company’s legal and communications teams. How do you minimise risk but also communicate with certainty and openness?"

Good question. As ever, strong internal relationships are key, and need to be nurtured well in advance of handling an issue. It's very hard to make friends in a crisis.

In the UCL workshop, Ellie and Nick will describe how they proactively sought to redefine the relationship between the chief communicator and general counsel to ensure issues they faced didn’t turn into crises that broke their business.

They'll also describe some of the crises they faced, their shared objectives, the process they adopted and provide a template for others to follow.

If you work in PR or a legal role and are responsible for protecting a brand, it could be the best £300 you've ever spent.

Follow Dom on Twitter @DomBurch

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