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I’ve avoided joining in the BP bashing of recent weeks – after all they are British and many pension schemes (my own probably included) depends on their share price. The one area of critical observation open for commentary is just how khak-handed this major corporation’s Crisis PR management has been. BP’s largely self-inflicted PR catastrophe made even the most recent example of using your own PR foot for target practice (the Toyota can’t stop-won’t stop recall debacle) seem small fry.
BP has got it in the neck. The last body subjected this much American hatred was Al Qaeda. When a US President starts comparing your company's protocols, actions and errors with what happened on 9/11, you know things have not quite gone according to plan. Company CEO Tony Hayward must wonder if his career and all the money is worth it after all the flak he has taken. During the first week of June, Hayward was called: “the most hated - and most clueless - man in America” by the New York Daily Post. Even the venerable Washington Post joined in the Brit-bashing by saying: “How can anyone believe a word this man says? If he told me my mother loves me, I'd want a second source."
Crisis PR Management
There are many rules and procedures for Crisis PR – not least have a plan in place! However, one of the most important factors is that your spokespersons and your communications, through whatever channels you choose, appear to be competent, confident and compassionate. Saying that you care, “even about the small people” in an accent that most of your audience wouldn’t understand or seeming not to give what America considers to be "its greatest ever environmental disaster" sufficient focus and weight by swanning off on a yacht is none of the above.
The biggest misjudgement BP made was underestimating just how devastating a corporate crisis like this could be in an era of globalised rolling news and, more importantly, with the addition of new social media communities like Twitter and Facebook into the mix. These communities can spread comments and views on any disaster exponentially, but they can also be used to communicate. Companies no longer have to rely solely on traditional broadcast news or print advertising to properly manage a crisis. They can communicate with customers across the world using community networks, websites, podcasts, internet video and a great deal more.
Crisis PR is Not Just the "Conventional media"
So Crisis PR has to take increasing account of Social Media and the Internet in future, both as a potentially hazardous communications channel to monitor for sentiment but also as a cost-effective and efficient means of getting your side of the story across – provided you’ve got a coherent story to tell and trained, competent spokespeople to tell it in the first place of course!
The most important element of any communications strategy in a crisis, especially as it begins to develop, is to be open with the public by being available to the all the possible news and information channels. In a crisis, the “truth” is often the media’s and the online social communities’ perception of what "the truth" is. So never let the facts get in the way of a good story or your response. In the first few hours and days, pay attention not to what the position actually is, but what is being said in the media and on Facebook, Twitter et al.
For those who are thinking of implementing a "no comment" policy, remember that surveys have found that 65% of the public regards “no comment" as an admission of guilt.
Golden Rules of Crisis PR
1. Have a detailed crisis communications plan that includes dealing with the media, online communities, the immediate local (or global) community and your employees.
2. Make sure the crisis team has been professionally trained in doing hard news interviews and consider establishing a dedicated team or getting a specialist agency on board to deal solely with the online aspects of your communications.
3. Nominate a spokesperson and two back-ups now – be culturally sensitive about the choice. Do not wait for the crisis to occur.
4. Deal with the crisis head-on. Don’t put your corporate head in the sand under the “no comment” cover.
5. Respond to reporters’ questions immediately. They expect a return call or an on-site interview within ten minutes of the request. Respond equally quickly to comments online and in Social Media networks.
6. Never lie. Telling the big lie would obviously be stupid, but many executives think little white lies will ameliorate things a bit. No – it will just come back and bite you very hard on the bum.
7. Never go off the record. In a crisis there is already enough confusion – no need for you to add to it. Keep to the agreed text and approach and issue, distribute or otherwise disseminate only that information you’d be happy seeing on the front page of the local paper or anywhere in the public domain.
9. Practice implementing your crisis plan by going through a mock crisis once a year. Do not forget the Social Media element during the practice.