What do TSB, Facebook, Cambridge Analytica, United Airlines and Carillion have in common?
They’ve all been judged by the way they’ve handled a corporate communications crisis in recent times.
Some have survived, some haven’t and the very notion of a media ‘trial by Twitter’, is enough bring any communications boss out in cold sweats. Has your firm stress-tested its crisis communications plan this year?
I ask, because many of the corporate crises of recent times have been avoidable. They were magnified, because of a perception of poor transparency, and a failure to deal with matters promptly and communicate them to those affected, when the issues originally came to light.
Whether Facebook data breaches, or TSB accounts migration, there are commonalities in the flawed approaches of each. One of the issues facing staff during a corporate crisis, is how to swiftly gain access to accurate information about an incident and the individuals involved. It can be especially challenging where the ‘gig’ economy permeates organisations; a casualised workforce, less stringent vetting and high turnover.
I work with hundreds of communications and PR professionals in the UK and overseas. There is recognition in the PR industry, that all the while boardrooms don’t recognise communications professionals as being as important, or as relevant as the lawyer or director of operations, corporate communications crises will continue to wreak havoc in the news, as they do now, almost every week.
The boardroom battles between lawyers and PR advisors sometimes feel as though the victories are handed to the ‘legal-eagles’. The last time I looked, they were advisors too, not oracles.
The evidence of this tug-of-war, which can lead to organisational paralysis and executive inertia, is borne out by research from Weber Shandwick, which shows how it takes organisations an average of 21 HOURS to make any meaningful external communications after a crisis breaks.
It is remarkable how crisis communications planning and stress-testing at board level, is way down the list of day-to-day priorities, yet crises go from zero to global in minutes. Consequently, crisis and reputation management, becomes the first thing the board then turns to, (with lawyers). I know, I’ve had those calls.
Culturally, where a CEO has a marketing or communications background, PR and external communications seem generally, to have been better handled. Examples include the BT Global problems of 2017 and the ‘Smiler’ rollercoaster accident at Alton Towers. Just look at the crisis handling of Richard Branson after incidents such as the Cumbria rail crash and the Virgin Galactic pilot death in the Mojave Desert.
CEO’s and leaders who don’t place PR strategy and communications at the heart of their boardroom decision-making process, are effectively treating these departments as an operational after-thought.
Conversely, why do you think that successive Prime Ministers, making decisions affecting millions of people’s lives, keep high-ranking communications experts at their side, almost 24/7. Their gravitas in these situations made them household names;
Sir Bernard Ingham to Mrs Thatcher, Alastair Campbell to Tony Blair and Andy Coulson for David Cameron. Regardless of their degrees of success, the role is key in forecasting the impact of decisions, yet it hasn’t trickled through to the boardroom.
Given that a survey of CEO’s by Mentor Media Training, revealed that, in their view, 40-50% of their time is spent on communication, perhaps if more companies/public sector organisations were run by people with a ‘comms’ background, we’d see fewer corporate media crises. I’ll stick my neck out and say that I’m convinced of this.
One certainty remains, that if an organisation at the centre of a crisis, has itself become the focus of the story because of the way it has handled it – it is in real trouble.
As the saying goes; “By the time you hear the thunder, it’s too late to build the ark.”
Dave is the author of the forthcoming book, ‘Handling The Media In Good Times & Bad’.