In Times of Crisis

I recently took on a new client who said they wouldn’t need my crisis management services, yet as soon as the first week of working with them began I got an emergency call from my main contact, one of the company’s directors. A partner in their sister firm was also the head of a big sports body and had to step aside because a complaint had been made about how a sexual assault allegation against a former coach was mishandled 14 years ago in the local arm of this sporting organisation. The partner had been on the local committee and decided it was best to step aside while an independent investigation was implemented.

Despite the sports body having a massive global PR agency working for them, the announcement they issued, with quotes from the sporting body and the stepping aside head was sensationally headlined across the media (BBC and The Times guilty as charged) implying that the sexual allegation was to do with the poor head and not the former coach and that he’d stepped ‘down’ and not ‘aside’..

I had to ensure that local coverage reported the story factually without any hint of misdemeanour by the partner, which had the potential to badly effect business locally. I also told the partner to contact the comms people at the sports body (the global PR agency, undoubtedly paid a fortune) to get those terrible headlines changed immediately. The partner had also been instructed not to talk to the media and of course this riled the local paper which was not looking to stitch him up.

Co-operation with the media in times of crisis is always essential. You just have to be sure that you remain calm, consider the questions and don’t give any more information than the journalist already knows. It’s tricky but it will save you lots of grief if the story gets misreported because you wouldn’t speak to the journalist.

National newspapers and broadcasters tend to be much more aggressive- just listen to BBC’s Today programme trying to distort interviewees’ answers and putting words into their mouths by saying ‘so what you mean is…..” quoting the poisonous angle they are trying to take.

The local paper was fair as I have developed a good relationship with them and eventually the big PR company got the headlines changed, which is what they should have done as soon as the story went live online and not wait until they were told to get them removed. By the time I was contacted the story had been live for 3 hours. It would appear they either hadn’t noticed the toxic coverage or didn’t even think about the absolute necessity to get it changed immediately.

Crisis management is possibly high on the agenda for many charities which will have been shaken up by the Oxfam media onslaught which has also affected many other global NGOs. In my previous blog I explained how badly the offensive and scandalous Oxfam situation had been handled. I was asked by a local charity for whom I have done some fundraising if I could help them on what to do at times of crisis.

I got them to think about worse case scenarios and asked them to come up with a list of questions they’d never want to be asked by the media. As they deal with some vulnerable people, like many charities, they were fearful at the thought of having to answer these kind of questions should a crisis hit.

It’s always best to be prepared for the worst so that if a tsunami is on the horizon you can maintain a degree of calm to the outside world, even if you are feeling quite the opposite. If you show fear or block co-operation, the journalist will assume that a) a bad story must be right b) there is much more to come c) it’s probably even worse than they think

You also have to own your mistakes, or if a situation that has been beyond your control has somehow affected the work of your business or charity. You should never say ‘guilty as charged m’lud’ at the first sign of trouble, quite the opposite. You need to have holding statements, saying that you are aware of the problem and it’s under investigation and as soon as you have more information you’ll get back to them. Make sure you keep them updated even if you have nothing further to report.

Make yourself or your CEO available. Get them media trained by a professional so that they feel prepared. Make sure the spokesperson is fully briefed and do a rehearsal of the worst questions possible.

Nobody wants to face a crisis that the media get hold of, but you are in a much better position to deal with it if you take the time to prepare yourselves. Finally, don’t assume because you are paying big bucks for a PR agency you’ve got the best people.