Issues and crisis management Public relations capabilities are tested in a crisis - so the rule is to prepare in advance. Skilful handling of a crisis can be rewarding, especially in winning management support. These notes are to help those in PR departments but are equally applicable to those in consultancies who may manage crises for their clients. The public can understand a crisis but will not accept incompetent responses such as insensitivity or poor communications. Mishandling a crisis can result in companies collapsing. The impact of such cases means public relations professionals should work to win support for crisis planning. No PR programme is complete if this is not a key element. The relevance of issues to public relations Crises demand effective communication across all publics, that is everyone that the organisation depends on for success. If the organisation is international, a crisis can create global comment so your colleagues across other regions will need to be involved. They may have existing systems that you can build upon. In preparation, check if there are any codes developed by trade and professional bodies which may help you in these situations. Run a media search for examples in allied areas and build relationships with others in your business, even competitors, to share experiences and help with your own planning. Public relations bodies such as CIPR and PRCA can be a useful source of best practice. Factors in managing crises The key steps in preparing for managing crises might be: 1. Interview department heads for their views/experiences 2. Discuss and identify all potential crises that might arise 3. Consider all communications options to reach your publics 4. Evaluate the support, resources and personnel you will need 5. Set up crisis management rooms and necessary facilities (if applicable to your industry) 6. Agree training and crisis simulations for key personnel 7. Collate corporate data, site plans, pictures in advance 8. Report back to management on your recommendations The plan must involve all organisational disciplines, particularly those with special expertise, such as marketing, personnel and legal.
Create a larger stand-by team. This may need to cover for illness, holidays, maternity leave and so on; remember the crisis may not strike at a convenient time. If you work within an organisation, you may not have the right personnel on the payroll to deal with managing crises. If that’s the case, find a consultancy which can be on permanent stand-by for a crisis. These specialists need to be briefed to undertake all advance groundwork. They must commit to supporting you at short notice with trained professionals to work alongside your team. Setting this up will incur costs for which the consultancy can quote before you go ahead. Using this resource to deal with a crisis will be charged on a time basis; however, management will appreciate that the value of your reputation, far exceeds these charges. If you are in a consultancy, this is a new business opportunity to present to your boss! Aspects to consider when all is calm include liaison with emergency services. Consider dummy crises inviting police, ambulance and fire services to join in the planning and rehearsal. This is particularly important if your organisation is in a sensitive sector. If a crisis strikes, your senior management will see just how professional your team can be handling every eventuality. Run regular tests, checking media handling, spokespeople’s performance, perhaps using other staff as 'hostile journalists'. After every run through, debrief all involved to improve procedures. Everyone in the team will need regular crisis training. Each person must understand what their role is within a crisis and must always have a clear idea of the bigger picture. Organise refresher media training courses for all personnel involved. All publics will need to be kept to date; have a live online system that carries all news and statements. Set up an incident suite, plus a spare one on a different part of each site; these must be equipped with all emergency needs. These can be meeting rooms that already exist. Have an inner quiet room for the senior personnel to handle strategic issues, with an outer room for the tactical aspects - monitoring news reports, issuing statements and so on. Issues should come before strategies An issues audit helps an organisation to minimise risks and to manage such crises that might arise. However, public relations will need to have credibility at board levels to win backing and the investment necessary for an issues audit. Issues are often thought to be potential problems. However, 70% of issues are positive or neutral. A positive issue works to the advantage of the organisation, whereas a ‘neutral’ issue that becomes positive or negative according to how the organisation tackles it. A big factor is recognising these coming over the horizon. Checklist on issues management 1. Before planning any contingency plan, analyse the issues that could affect reputation. 3
2. Start with interviews internally: specialists within the company know all potential issues. 3. Interview experts in your sector in research, trade bodies, universities and government 4. Evaluate the likelihood of occurrence and impact of each issue on your organisation. 5. Identify which are to your advantage (positive), disadvantage (negative), or neutral. 6. Your crisis plan should spring out of the issues audit, reflecting the corporate objectives. By Roger Haywood FCIPR Roger Haywood is a leading UK corporate strategist and commentator on business issues. He developed the innovative business process of issues analysis and management: he ran the world's first issues audits for organisations including Amnesty International, Compaq Computers, the European Commission, General Electric, ICI and retailers Sainsbury's. Roger is a Fellow of both the Chartered Institute of Marketing and the Chartered Institute of Public Relations – and is the only person to have chaired both industry bodies. Roger was deputy chairman of the UK’s Public Relations Consultants Association, and also the founder and chairman of the Worldcom Public Relations Group, the world’s largest partnership of independent public relations consultancies. He was chief examiner of CAM for which he wrote the diploma syllabus for public relations. To provide the essential education base for students, he wrote All about public relations, published by McGraw-Hill, which became the best selling text on the subject; he has written six books on marketing and public relations. In 2006, Haywood was awarded an honorary doctorate of letters by University College, London, for his work in corporate social responsibility.