We all experience ‘lightbulb’ moments of insight or inspiration that shape how we think and work. Sometimes they are defining moments in our careers. In our ongoing ‘Communication Breakthrough’ series, we share our members’ stories in the hope they will inspire your own professional journey. Welcome to our very first issue!
Introducing … Caroline Sapriel
A specialist in crisis communication, Caroline has been an IABC member since 1987 and has served in leadership positions in both Hong Kong and within IABC EMENA. She is a member of the newly formed IABC Global Ethics Committee and a member of the 2015 World Conference programme committee.
She is a consultant, author, regular contributor to IABC’s Communication World (recent articles here), and is acknowledged as a leader in her field.
In her story, Caroline shares her defining moment in her own speciality: crisis communication. As you may imagine, it is a tough one. Let’s get started!
So, Caroline, what do you do for a living?
I’m based in Belgium and Hong Kong, and I’m the founder and managing director of CS&A: my risk, crisis and business continuity management consultancy, which I established in 1991.
I help clients globally anticipate, detect, prevent, mitigate and recover from crises.
What was the background of your breakthrough moment?
Back in 1987 I was working for the Hill & Knowlton Affiliate in Taiwan, working with a number of clients. I had already been in communications for 4 years — mainly in corporate and marketing communication.
Up until that moment I felt that the success of most of the campaigns I had been involved in was short-lived; somewhat superficial and rather thankless.
Then, one of my airline clients had a crash near Mauritius. Suddenly, I was propelled into helping them, and working with the next of kin and the media at the crash site for over a week.
Bear in mind that we had only just started working with this client and were planning a number of activities including media/crisis communications training. The crash happened before we had a chance to do anything to make them better prepared.
Being in this position was both terribly tragic, and a moment which helped shape the rest of my career as an expert in crisis management.
We can imagine. And then?
My breakthrough moment occurred with the 11 journalists from Taiwan I was escorting. These were the days before digital media — when TV stations had to book time at the local transmission centre to send their stories.
The CEO was due to host a press conference which three of the TV journalists in my group were unable to attend because they had already booked transmission time. They were concerned about missing this key event.
So they asked me to represent them at the press conference, ask the questions they had prepared, and help them write their report. This is unusual. In a crisis, the media does not turn to the client’s communications person to do their job. I explained this to my client — who understood and were fully supportive.
When the request was made for me to stand in for them as journalists, I realised I had succeeded in establishing a great level of trust and credibility.
So indeed, I sat as a journalist during the press conference. I asked all the pertinent and tough questions on their behalf. And I gave the TV reporters my notes and quotes, which were then used during subsequent reports and stories.
What lessons can you share from your experience?
My contribution to this client in this terrible event felt so much more meaningful and substantial than the work I had previously done in marketing and communications. Afterwards, it felt personally like a huge boost to my credibility — and the crisis communication profession as a whole.
Never having actually trained as a journalist, I realised that this particular experience would be invaluable throughout the rest of my career. And it has been.
Thanks to this experience, I am now better able counsel my clients to work with the media and build and sustain trust — even during the toughest of circumstances.
This experience has stood me in good stead throughout my career. Over time, I have built on this moment and refer to it during the many training and coaching programmes I have conducted since.
IABC Podcast: Listen to an overview of CSA’s audiobook, Crisis Management: Tales from the Front Line — including tips on how organisations can prepare themselves for a crisis in today’s globalised world.
Want to share your own story?
Drop us a line on [email protected]
We’d love to hear from you!
— IABC EMENA Board