Crisis communications: PR’s role in preparing for the worst-case scenario

 Image credit: PRWeek

Image credit: PRWeek

Having spent seven years as a news reporter before making the leap to PR and joining Rock Kitchen Harris, I’ve seen plenty of emergencies and crises unfold. Covering these breaking stories usually involves trying to get as much information as possible, as quickly as possible, from busy press officers who often seem reluctant to give out even the most basic details.

What I’d rarely stopped to consider was the process that goes into putting out a statement or preparing someone to be interviewed about a crisis. It’s rarely as straightforward as making a single phone call to establish the facts before quickly phoning a journalist back. Particularly when dealing with large organisations, there are often important layers of approval with a number of departments and individuals who all need to give their input before a comment is released. The process can take time, but is essential to give key people the chance to consider and comment while ensuring any information that is released publicly is both correct and answers questions clearly and appropriately.

We see this on a regular basis with our larger clients, so it was fascinating and useful to hear more on how best to deal with these issues from a range of speakers representing global companies and organisations at PRWeek’s recent Crisis Communications conference, held on 13th June at etc.venues in Victoria, London.

 Image credit: PRWeek

Image credit: PRWeek

From breaking emergencies such as the Manchester Arena bombing to reputational damage and recovery via KFC’s chicken shortage, the topics covered were diverse but were all tied together by a similar thread - plan for any eventuality and prepare to deal with it if it happens.

Carol McCall, the head of civil contingency communications in the Cabinet Office, set the tone for the day by explaining how a recent review of Government emergency communications has led to the development of the ‘Primer’ system - Plan, Rehearse, Implement, Maintain, Evaluate and Recover - and this was built upon by most speakers, with an emphasis on planning and preparation.

In a panel discussion on building a crisis team, the role of in-house and agency PR teams was made clear. It is our job to encourage, and sometimes compel, clients to consider the worst scenarios they could face and, more importantly, how they would react. Preparation includes putting together teams of decision-makers who know their roles when crisis strikes, building relationships within and between these teams and ensuring the communications procedure is clear to anyone who might be involved in a crisis. Understanding the needs of the client, the media but also other stakeholders such as customers and regulators is equally important.

 Image credit: PRWeek

Image credit: PRWeek

However, there are some circumstances that not even the most thought-through and rehearsed action plan can predict, as explained by Samsung Electronics UK’s head of PR James Coyle when talking about the lessons learned from the Galaxy Note 7 ‘exploding phone’ crisis. Being calm and informed, releasing information only when there is something new to say and being at the ‘heart of the storm’ at all times were some of the key takeaways - as was the warning that a communications plan may not hold all the answers.

Speakers from Sky, Virgin Trains, KFC and others had further lessons on preparedness and recovery from a crisis, while Hanover Communications corporate and brand managing director Gavin Megaw’s insistence that communications professionals should be the ones to guide crisis operations was a valuable lesson, acting as a reminder that we are relied upon for our experience in this field by others who rely on our help.

But perhaps the most important lesson, and certainly the most poignant, came from Amanda Coleman, head of corporate communications at Greater Manchester Police. Her heartfelt account of how her team worked with the wider force, the media and families of the victims during and following the terrorist attack on fans leaving an Ariana Grande concert at Manchester Arena on 22nd May 2017 again focused on preparation but also covered ‘the one thing we don’t talk about’ - people. Whether you work in corporate, civic or charity communications it’s highly likely that the organisation you represent impacts on people’s lives in one way or another and it’s vital this isn’t forgotten, both when putting together a communications plan and reacting to a crisis.