I worked for 11 years in an organisation that was often in the spotlight. What we did was of interest to communities, pressure groups and the media, at all levels. I worked for 3 years in the Government department handling the Foot and Mouth Crisis. I’ve worked alongside many organisations that have handled difficult issues, including the Environment Agency, Rotherham Council and businesses that have accidentally caused major pollution incidents and charities that have faced major inquiries. .
I’ve learned that good organisations manage their corporate reputations. Poor organisations don’t. Here are my handful of ideas that I would advise any CEO or Board to consider to equip them for handling problems.
1. Always tell the truth
When you face a difficult decision or a situation is emerging that might be ‘bad news’ ensure that your culture is one of openness, honesty and integrity. Make the right decision based on your normal decision-making arrangements, the information you have available to you and your policies and procedures. Do not muddle the decision with how you will present it, only consider that afterwards. Once you have made the decision work out how best to explain it and consider how best to communicate it. There will be different sides to the story and you should explain the impacts on different groups. Never make a decision in the hope that it will ‘play better’, only ever make the right decision and then decide how to present it to the media.
2. Explain complexity
Recognise that media – especially local media – are busy people and often generalists. They may not understand a technical breach of the law, or a complex chemical pollution matter, or the legal complexities of planning. Create easy-to follow information which makes it easy for the media to understand your decision or situation. Contextual information is often important to a crisis decision, so provide that in an open way. Never speculate. Be the source of reliable information and ensure that you have supplied this to third parties. Copying press releases, phone calls, internal e-mails that explain the situation to third parties can be very useful in stopping rumours. If there is an emotional angle to a story, get the right balance between empathy for someone affected and the technical end of the story.
3. Support your principal spokespeople
Ensure that the main spokespeople are clearly identified. Have a crisis communications plan, have clearly identified spokespeople for key issues and when you make a key decision that is likely to be controversial and of interest to the public, be clear at the point of the decision who will represent this to the media and public meetings. Make sure that your spokespeople are credible – they took the decision, they are the senior most qualified person, they understand the issues. Support the key spokespeople: ensure that they have had good quality media training and ensure this is topped up. Get your communications people to provide feedback on any media performances. If an event or decision is an emotionally-charged one, ensure your people talk and are supported emotionally.
4. Use a variety of techniques for communications
Depending on the time available and the nature of an incident or decision, use a variety of communication techniques and don’t just rely on an ‘end of pipe’ Press Release. Personal letters to people most affected, phone calls and face to face meetings if possible and ‘drop-in’ events (where the public can meet decision-makers) can be useful. Use third party advocates for your position if you can, by inviting them to take part in your communications activities. Letters to newspapers, writing a guest column or conventional media releases, briefings and press conferences are all techniques where you can provide accurate information to the public and the media. Be consistent across your internal communications, social media and conventional media.
5. Professionalise your Communications
Employ a qualified and experienced communications professional, ideally with journalism (newsroom) experience and a relevant journalism qualification (details here: www.nctj.com/journalism-qualifications). Bring your communications advisers into the decision-making process so that they understand the work you do and your decisions. Ensure they have time to cultivate and get to know local and specialist media and ensure they broker meetings and interviews with media and your spokespeople too. Create a working relationship with your communications advisers where they challenge you and your spokespeople, where they support them and they prepare you well for media performances. A good alternative to employing full-time staff is to use expert consultancy and PR advice and you should seek to achieve the same working relationship as you would with full time staff.