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Crisis communications planning – is it a waste of time?

Approx. reading time: 3 minutes

Heard 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 minutes

So 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?