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Crisis comms and expecting the unexpected – or what to do when a multi-coloured monkey with a fake penis swings by

Approx. reading time: 3 minutes

We advise clients on our emergency planning and crisis communications courses to gaze at the horizon and draw up a list of bad things that could happen. And then, in the name of preparedness, to map against that list the key messages their nominated spokespeople would deliver via the media should those things happen. Saves a lot of time and effort scrabbling around for what to say and who to say it mid-crisis.

Most come up with the obvious: floods; fires; financial irregularities. Many have now added pestilence (aka Covid-19) to their Four Horsemen of the Corporate Apocalypse risk registers. But I’d wager not one organisation anywhere has a plan for what to do when their reputation takes a hit from a six foot rainbow-coloured monkey with bare breasts, buttocks and a clip on willy. I mean why bother? It’s not going to happen is it? Too off the wall…

Except that’s exactly what happened to a local authority. Said primate turned up at a reading event for children. Yes, for children! And I don’t mean randomly or mischievously gate crashing proceedings uninvited, causing red faces out of the blue as it were. I mean actually booked to appear in all its semi-naked glory. So you can imagine it caused quite a heads-must-roll kerfuffle, quickly spilling over from social to print and broadcast media. Politics being what it is the affair even trended on Twitter for a time giving the council’s head of communications pink kittens (if you’ll excuse the mixed animal metaphor).

I won’t add to the council’s embarrassment by naming it here. My purpose is simply to ask: what’s the lesson – beyond the trite expect the unexpected?

Strikes me that although the specifics of the case are so bizarre as to be wholly unpredictable, it does fit into a category that one could loosely call offence caused but not intended. The mayor having a wardrobe malfunction at a civic function might also fit into this category along with a council flyer containing a double entendre that the sub editors missed. The idea is you work out in the planning phase what to say in these kinds of cases. Then at least you have a working set of generic key messages that can be tweaked to fit the specifics. Quicker than starting from scratch.

So here are my generic key messages for OCBNI (horrible acronym alert – offence caused but not intended) situations with suggested quotes for the specific situation in italics:

  1. Say sorry swiftly. Sorry may seem to be the hardest word but it costs nothing and could save a run on your reputational stock later. “It certainly wasn’t our intention to cause offence but clearly we have and for that, of course, we are truly sorry.”
  2. Explain what the intention was. People (and monkeys) often get hold of the wrong end of the stick. Sometimes deliberately so. The story then becomes all about the stick. So remind people what the real story is. In the above case you could say something like: “Our intention was to get young people interested in reading. It didn’t go quite to plan (smile) but reading is such an important life skill and we certainly make no apology for trying really hard to encourage it.”
  3. Concede that something went wrong or, at the very least, didn’t go right. Journalists, interviewers, the baying social media mob love to push back. If you step back voluntarily there’s nothing for them to push against. “This shouldn’t have happened. We need to understand how it happened. And when we understand how it happened – even if it was just basic human error, someone not engaging their brain before booking the monkey act – we need to do our best to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
  4. Steer the interview process so you can re-iterate and, therefore, reinforce the apology but be determined to end on a positive note. “So our apologies for any offence caused but remember reading is a vital skill – quite simply people who learn to read well in childhood tend to earn more, enjoy better health and live longer. (And that definitely isn’t monkey business.)”*

*I’d be inclined to omit the bit in brackets depending on the tone of the interview/interviewer and the nature of the audience.


This article originally appeared on my LinkedIn profile but with the word penis redacted because I didn’t want to cause offence! But, of course, if I have here I am truly sorry…

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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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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?