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What #Boris should’ve said

Approx. reading time: 2 minutes

When even the usually pro-Johnson Daily Mail joins the now deafening calls for our wannabe Prime Minister to say something about that row, the MP and his advisors will know that saying nothing is no longer an option. Not that it ever was in my view. Questions, however intrusive, have to be dealt with. Because until they’re dealt with it’s nigh on impossible to move on.

But there’s a world of difference between dealing with questions and answering them. And it’s in this gap that if I was coaching the MP I’d seek to find some wriggle room to do six things:

  1. Say sorry.
  2. Say thank you.
  3. Offer some context.
  4. Concede some ground.
  5. Make a promise.
  6. Sound contrite (but without completely losing the BoJo mojo – whatever that is).

So here’s what Boris should’ve said:

“First of all thank you to our publicly-spirited neighbours for being concerned about our welfare and doing the right thing when they couldn’t raise us by ringing the doorbell. And secondly thank you to the police for responding so swiftly. Better safe than sorry is, very sensibly, their guiding principle. 

What Boris Johnson should’ve said but didn’t

“The police were quickly assured that this was nothing more than a full and frank but otherwise run-of-the-mill exchange of views between two colourful adults. 

And I would like to reassure you in turn that our only sin was to fail to realise that we were discussing matters – yes animatedly and at the end of a stressful week – a little louder than we’d realised and a little louder than is sensible with thin walls and open windows. 

Now I don’t mean to make light of matters but this was nothing more than one of those ding dongs that many, many couples have when they let off steam. To read anything more into this whole affair, to impugn my character and, more importantly, to impugn Carrie’s character is plain wrong. So too is questioning the motives of our neighbours. They did what is right and I commend them for it. To condemn them  is again plain wrong. 

I apologise for having drawn them and you all into this. In most circumstances this kind of lovers tiff would be forgotten with the kiss and make up. But I accept that running for PM is not most circumstances and you have a right – up to a point – to inquire into my private life. That’s why I’ve said what I’ve said today. I shall be saying no more on the matter if for no other reason than to give poor Carrie a break. She and I both agree that there are very many more important matters which we should be discussing and it would be a crying shame if those issues weren’t properly aired because the two of us had aired our difference of opinion so vocally. 

So forgive me if I move on.

I call this my deal with and move on approach. Compare this to the one he tried which might loosely be called the ignore and move on technique. It rarely works except where the questions you’re ignoring are trivial and the audience agrees they’re trivial and sides with you instead of the journalists asking such trivia.


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The #Gatwick #drone part 2 – what the policeman should have said

Approx. reading time: 2 minutes

Hindsight is a wonderful thing. And yes, it’s easy to be wise after the event. But in my previous post on the Gatwick drone incident I promised I’d suggest an alternative – and hopefully better – response to the one that prompted lurid headlines and landed Detective Chief Superintendent Jason Tingley in hot water with his Chief Constable and the Government.

The BBC News presenter asked him, you may remember, what turned out to be a trick question: “Are you even considering the possibility that there may not have been genuine drone sightings in the first place?”

By answering it the way he did – conceding the point – Det Ch Supt Tingley set a proverbial hare running which proved hard to stop. Denying the journalist’s contention outright wouldn’t have been advisable either because (mixing metaphors hopelessly) he’d have boxed himself into a corner if it turned out there wasn’t, in fact, a drone. My version doesn’t ignore the question but lets the facts speak for themselves and, in turn, allows the audience to draw its own conclusions.

Police officer:  “We’re investigating more than a hundred sightings – not just from members of the public but from police officers and airport staff too. Some of those sightings may, of course, be duplicates (several different people reporting the same thing). Some may be genuine mistakes (people seeing what they think is a drone but which turns out to have been something else – a bird of prey for example). Some could be made up for malicious reasons. But all that said we have to act on the information given.

“Aviation is, quite rightly, a risk-averse industry. A collision between an aircraft and a drone could be calamitous. So we have a duty to do all we can to keep people safe. We exercise what we call the precautionary principle – better safe than sorry in other words. Now I understand that the impact of all this is huge and I’d like to add my apologies to those of the airport and airlines for the disruption caused. I’d also like to thank the public for their continued patience and understanding. I’d like to pay tribute to my police colleagues, airport and airline staff, the Civil Aviation Authority and now the Army for their hard work in getting Gatwick back to normal as soon as it’s safe to do so. And I’d like to reiterate my determination to bring those responsible to justice. Let me be absolutely clear. We are investigating a crime.”

Compare this to what Det Ch Supt Tingley actually said.

Now I fully accept I had several hours to carefully consider my response compared to the detective who almost certainly only had several minutes and was also shouldering heavy responsibilities as the SIO (senior investigating officer). That said the purpose of media and crisis communications training it to have the benefit of foresight. Foresight, of course, is not as good and never as accurate as hindsight but it’s certainly better than being blind-sided. Plan for the worst, hope for the best and be flexible.

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Schrödinger’s drone – three crisis comms lessons from the Gatwick closure

Approx. reading time: 2 minutes

Detective Chief Superintendent Jason Tingley probably didn’t have the best of breaks. He’s the Sussex police officer who admitted in an interview just before Christmas that there may not have been a drone at all – despite the numerous reported sightings that brought Gatwick Airport to a standstill over two days, disrupted 1,000 flights and affected 140,000 passengers.

Following a hastily arranged conference call with Government ministers, Tingley’s remark was explained away as “poor communications.” His press office issued a clarification. And then his boss, Sussex Chief Constable Giles York, appeared to contradict him, stating on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I am absolutely certain a drone was flying throughout the period the airport was closed.”

Giles went on to say that his officer “was trying to describe an investigative approach, that asks ‘how can we prove the presence of the drone in the first place?’” But he conceded Tingley’s remark had “amplified the chaos” surrounding the incident.

So what can be learned from the curious incident of the drone which, not unlike Schrödinger’s Cat, appears simultaneously to have been both present and not present? Here’s my analysis of the original exchange on BBC News and three lessons for all of us involved in media, PR and communications. Once you’ve had a look a what I have to say please subscribe to our blog and the ACM Training YouTube channel (if you haven’t already).

So what should the Detective Chief Super have said? I’ll be making a suggestion or two in the next post.


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#O2down – 11 crisis comms lessons from the mobile company’s data outage

Approx. reading time: 3 minutes

I was one of the estimated 32 million customers affected by O2’s data outage. And like many of those customers I took to Twitter under the hash tag #O2down. But in my case not to criticise the company. No, I wanted to thank O2 for providing me with a crisis communications case study. There’s a lot, I believe, other organisations  can learn from its approach – whatever sector they’re in: high tech, low tech; for profit, not-for-profit.

  1. Acknowledge there’s a problem as soon as it’s evident there is a problem. These days there’s nowhere to hide – especially for data companies like O2 whose very business model is information exchange.
  2. Monitor social media. For bigger organisations at least, keeping an eye on social is a great way of staying as close to the proverbial curve as possible (despite what others may tell you keeping ahead of it is nigh on impossible in crisis comms).  In our always-on world (or nearly  always on in O2’s case) the initial indication of trouble often comes from customers rather than from colleagues.
  3. Apologise. Saying sorry costs nothing. Not saying sorry costs a whole heap more in the long run. Saying sorry isn’t an admission of guilt. It’s a strength, not a weakness. And, contrary to popular belief, it won’t make a scrap of difference if or when it comes to litigation. In fact, damages are likely to be lower as a consequence of an early apology. 
  4. Don’t blame. Nobody likes a snitch so blaming somebody else for your travails will only exacerbate the problem. In O2’s case it looks as if the problem was with expired software licences at one of its suppliers, Ericsson. So it might have been tempting for the company to say, in effect, “not our fault guv.” But I heard nobody from O2 say anything of the sort. That said O2 didn’t hide the fact that Ericsson was involved which leads on to my  next point…
  5. Be open and honest. Don’t dissemble. Keep your “customers” (or other stakeholders) in the loop. Let them know what you know as you know it. And also let them know what you don’t know. I know this sounds suspiciously Rumsfeldian but there’s no shame in the  early stages of a crisis not to have the complete picture. It’s the inevitable fog of war. There is shame, however, in holding back important information like the loss of sensitive customer data. You don’t want them to feel as if critical information has been dragged from you. 
  6. Actions speak louder than words. Words are all very well but they can sound rather hollow if they’re not backed up with action. O2 apologised almost immediately (see point 3) but very quickly followed that up with an offer of compensation. Now that doesn’t just sound like sorry if feels like sorry too.
  7. Be generous. Most of O2’s customers lost only a day’s data. But they were offered two days worth of credit as a gesture of goodwill. That’s likely cost the company millions of pounds more than if it only made up for the actual loss. Now, it may yet recover the cost from Ericsson so you could argue it’s being generous with somebody else’s money. But nonetheless this goodwill will almost certainly be worth every penny. And while we’re on the subject, offer compensation (it doesn’t have to be financial) before it’s demanded. 
  8. Get the tone right. It’s not just what you say but how you say it. Saying sorry through gritted teeth grates. So does telling people you’re being open an honest with them but with your arms folded firmly across your chest. Your verbal, para-verbal and non-verbal communication are pulling in different directions.  Have some humility. Don’t be overly apologetic (it can sound insincere). But don’t be flippant either. O2 made sure its communication – digital and analogue – struck the right tone, walking the fine line between light  (on social especially) and heavy. The outage was inconvenient for most, serious for some. But ultimately nobody died and the tone conveyed that.
  9. Don’t overpromise. It’d be crazy for O2 to tell us it won’t happen again. But the company made it clear it had learned from the situation conveying the more realistic and credible message that it’s less likely to happen again.
  10. Don’t under do the thanks. Thank your customers for their patience and understanding. Thank your staff for working hard to resolve the problem. Even thank your suppliers – even if they were to blame (see point 4)!
  11. Turn a negative into a PR positive. The episode will end up costing O2 and Ericsson millions. Giffgaff (one of the smaller providers affected) has made it easy for it’s customers to donate their compensation directly to charity. It won’t change the Giffgaff bill – its financial capital will decrease. But its social capital will increase. Smart move. Cost neutral. PR positive.

This post is also available as a podcast in ACM Training’s Five Minute Masterclass series. You can listen to the original there or below.


If you’d like to join Richard at his next open, public, crisis communications workshop in either London or Manchester he’d love to see you. And as a follower of the ACM Training blog you can book your place for just £99 between now and December 31st – a Christmas saving of £80.

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Crisis communications planning – is it a waste of time?

Approx. reading time: 3 minutesHeard of a chap called Helmuth Karl Bernhard Graf von Moltke the Elder? No, nor had I! But odds are you have heard of one of his quotes…

No plan survives contact with the enemy.

Actually that’s not quite what the Prussian Chief of Staff said (more of which later) but for now I want to ask if the same can be said of communications plans? Are they any more likely to survive contact with a crisis than battle plans with foes? If my recent experience working with a second tier responder to the Grenfell Tower disaster is anything to go by, the short answer is no.

Reviewing their response to the tragedy, I was astounded to be told that they hadn’t, in fact, activated their emergency plan. They’d simply been too busy in the immediate fallout of the fire to even think of it. And by the time they did, several days later, it hardly seemed worth bothering. To this day I’m not sure they’ve looked at the plan.

In effect there was no contact with the enemy, so who knows if it would have survived? Which is a pity because the plan may have worked – at least in part – and led to a better response* than the actual one. And even in failure it might have been instructive by making comms plans for future crises more robust.

What, then, can we learn from this peculiar affair?

Well the first lesson, surely, is that unless crisis comms plans are regularly reviewed and rehearsed, they’ll be forgotten or ignored at the very moment they were designed to help. Risk-averse industries like aviation and nuclear power are required, by law, to practice for emergencies so that if, or when, an actual emergency unfolds everybody is well versed in how to respond – both at an operational level and at a media, PR and communications level. At ACM Training we help a number of clients such as the nuclear decommissioning company, Magnox, achieve the realism necessary to make the rehearsals effective and the learning long lasting. For example, we provide what we call pseudo media news crews to act exactly as the media would in reality, asking awkward questions, sticking cameras and microphones where they’re really not welcome or expected. And now, with social media playing such a significant role in crisis comms, we have the ability to test an organisation’s online response to an event through our socialmediatestbed.com tool.

For the second learning point we need to go back to von Moltke and examine what he actually said:

The tactical result of an engagement forms the base for new strategic decisions because victory or defeat in a battle changes the situation to such a degree that no human acumen is able to see beyond the first battle. In this sense one should understand Napoleon’s saying: ‘I have never had a plan of operations.’ Therefore no plan of operations extends with any certainty beyond the first contact with the main hostile force.

If we swap the word battle for crisis and think of victory and defeat in terms of positive and negative outcomes, what von Moltke is saying, in effect, is that no communications plan can extend with any certainty beyond the first contact with a major crisis. And I’m inclined to agree. In my experience no anticipated, planned and rehearsed version of events has ever been close to the actual version. In most cases the imagined event is a lot worse than the actual event (perhaps that’s because emergency planners have overwrought imaginations or are just plain pessimists). Rarely is the reality worse, although it was undoubtedly so with Grenfell. In all cases the reality is different. But does this mean that crisis communications planning is a waste of time?

Again, let’s turn to von Moltke for some beyond-the-grave advice. Despite what he said he wasn’t an advocate of going into battle without any plan at all. He was an advocate, however, of flexibility. And so it should be in crisis comms. Have a plan. But be prepared to adapt it as circumstances change.

Please don’t leave it in the cupboard.

* In fairness perhaps I should have said an even better response, because unlike, say, the council, my client’s response to the Grenfell Tower fire is considered to have been good including by those directly affected by the disaster.


 

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Sorry seems to be the hardest word

Approx. reading time: 2 minutesForgive the crass comparison but not since Neville Chamberlain shook hands with Adolf Hitler has a handshake (or rather a non-handshake) been so forensically dissected. Of course the rivalry between Liverpool and Manchester United in 2012 may not match that of Britain and Nazi Germany in 1938 but there doesn’t seem to be much prospect of “peace in our time” between Louis Suarez and Patrice Evra. And the tardy apology issued by the Uruguayan and his boss Kenny Dalglish has been about as passifying as the piece of paper the Prime Minister famously waved on his return from Godesberg.

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So what went wrong? The problem can’t have been quantitative – these days the public relations squad at major football clubs is almost as big as the playing squad. Perhaps, then, it was qualitative – poor advice. I suspect it was neither; that the guidance given was both abundant and accurate but simply ignored.

Players and managers paid £100k plus per week are unlikely to value the wisdom of those lucky to see half that much in a year. The solution? Either put PR staff on the same salary as footballers (owners like John Henry and the Glazer family please note) or make following professional advice a contractual obligation.

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Rule number one in crisis communications: apologise immediately.

Rule number two: make sure the images the public see convey the same, contrite message.

Liverpool and Suarez broke both.


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POURING TROUBLE ON OILED WATER – part two

Approx. reading time: 2 minutesSo at last Tony Hayward has admitted BP was ‘not prepared’ for the Gulf oil spill. In an interview for the BBC’s Money programme – his first since the disaster – the former oil company boss said BP wasn’t ready to deal with the fallout of the Deepwater Horizon explosion and the media “feeding frenzy” that followed it. Hayward said as the face of BP he had been “demonised and vilified”, but he understood why.

“If I had done a degree at Rada [The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art] rather than a degree in geology, I may have done better, but I’m not certain it would’ve changed the outcome,” he said before adding “But certainly the perception of myself may have been different.”

Tony you could have saved yourself the time and expense of a degree in dramatic art and simply booked a couple of ACM Training’s media, crisis communications and emergency planning courses. They’d have set you back £99 per person or £999 per workshop but think how much you might have saved? The debacle is estimated to have cost BP £30 billion – of which a significant chunk was knocked off the company’s share price simply because of the spectacularly bad PR.

In just one day we could have helped you gaze at the “disaster horizon” and see (without yet another degree – this one in clairvoyance) which direction the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse might be coming from. Then armed with the certain knowledge that if you drill for oil one day that oil is going to get spilt we’d have helped you draw up a very simple media plan complete with a number of straightforward, credible and punchy key messages that even a geologist could deliver.

Sorry for the sarcastic tone Tone but I still cannot quite grasp the fact that a company the size of BP should have been so useless in PR and media terms. There are small business across Britain bp than BP (better prepared than BP).

So if you’re reading this Tony give me a call or drop me a line and avoid another costly mistake in future. And if you’re not Tony Hayward but would like to know how we can help you and your organisation deal with the media in a crisis then why not come along to one of our public crisis communications workshops or book us to deliver crisis comms training in-house? 

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(MC)CHRYSTAL CLEAR – pouring trouble on oiled waters

Approx. reading time: < 1 minuteGeneral Stanley McChrystal may be a brilliant military strategist but he ain’t gonna win any media campaign medals. His sacking as the commander of US-led forces in Afghanistan by American President Barack Obama for telling a reporter from Rolling Stone magazine there were “wimps in the White House” demonstrates that the ill-chosen word is mightier than the sword.

Eating one meal, running seven miles and sleeping for only four hours every 24 has clearly softened the hard man’s mind. Why else would he forget one of the rules of engagement with enemy media forces: don’t say what you think unless you’re happy to be quoted on it and can live with the consequences?

Another man to shoot himself in the foot is BP boss Tony Hayward. Telling the media he “wanted his life back” was an insensitive choice of words so soon after the loss of nine lives in the rig explosion that led to the Gulf oil spill. A PR gaffe compounded by the suggestion (true but unpalatable) that, relatively speaking, the leak was a drop in the ocean. He’s guilty of pouring trouble on oiled waters.

Frankly they’re both paid enough to do better and, money aside, are surrounded by advisors who are either useless or unheeded. Let me make myself McChrystal clear: think before you speak; ask yourself what the television-viewing, radio-listening, newspaper-reading, web-surfing public will make of what you’re about to say; and if you’re still happy then go ahead punk make my day – pull the trigger and let those words come firing out.