Crisis communications: A changing landscape

“Crisis management is not about preparing for the imaginable – it’s about preparing yourselves and your people for the unimaginable”: so says Andrew Griffin, CEO of communications specialists Regester Larkin.

On Monday 14 March Andrew delivered a special IABC evening seminar on the subject of crisis management – we’ve spoken to him in advance of this event.

IABC UK: Have we seen a change to crises, and responses, in recent years?

Andrew: Yes – is the short answer. Crisis management used to be synonymous with ‘incident management’, such as responding to fires and floods etc. That’s now shifted to encompass a wider range of issues and crises – in the last few years we’ve had the Barclays Libor scandal, the News International hacking issues and the BBC’s Jimmy Savile crisis. Now companies realise that crises can come from governance and poor performance – and those are as important to manage as crises coming from fire or plane crash.

At the moment we are finding that many organisations are concerned about the possible impact of terrorism, exacerbated by the fact that ‘new terror’ is unpredictable and random. There is also a lot of concern around the potential for cyber attacks on companies.

IABC UK: Can you outline one recent crisis that encapsulates the issues that companies face when dealing with out of the ordinary events?

Andrew: The German wings crash in 2015 is a good example because what you saw in the first 24 hours was a company that had prepared its crisis response very well. The company did everything by the book – it handled the media very well within the first few hours with a press conference, family response centre etc.

As soon as it became apparent that this was not a simple ‘accident’ and that there was involvement of the co-pilot, then their response appeared a little shakier. The lesson from that is that crisis management is not about preparing for the imaginable – it’s about preparing yourselves and your people for the unimaginable or out of the ordinary events. What we always say to our clients is don’t practice for what you know might happen, think of the ‘black Swan ‘ events that you can almost not imagine now. Your preparedness has to be flexible to respond to those things.

IABC UK: How has digital and social media changed the corporate comms landscape in crisis?

Andrew: Over the years there have been lots of changes to how the news happens and how we communicate – my view on this is that it’s sort of changed the playing field and landscape. It hasn’t really changed how we do crisis management. Our advice has not changed. It’s just that the mediums and news outlets have and are constantly shifting. I advise clients against becoming too obsessed with social media in a crisis. It is important, but for most clients we advise that they use social media to amplify a message or get a message out there, but not to have conversations when in the midst of a crisis. Also it’s important to make sure that you are engaging in social media in a way that conforms to your own corporate character. Ie don’t suddenly decide to move onto social media in a crisis if you generally don’t use it. Every exercise we do does have a social media element to it, but it’s just one aspect to a constantly shifting landscape in which you’re managing this crisis.

IABC UK: If you had only one piece of advice for corporations in regard to crisis, what would it be? 

Prepare your people as much as preparing your processes.

Many organisations still rely a lot on the structures they set up, thinking that’s the thing that will solve the crisis – but ultimately it’s the people that manage the crisis.

It’s important to put the emphasis on people-focused interventions as much as structure and process when you’re thinking of preparing your organisation for a crisis.

New Models & Approaches from the UK Govt Comms team

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In the spirit of open and collaborative communications, last week the Government Communication Service launched two new initiatives to support public sector comms teams – both are worthy of the attention of communicators across sectors.

These are internal approaches for government communicators, but anyone can view and download these models/approaches via the beta version of the website, which is itself a model of simple, clean design and straightforward language.

Serving audiences effectively

The Modern Communications Operating Model looks at the principles for improving communications team capability, structures, skills and resources. The aim of the MCOM is to support internal teams – and one would assume broader public sector communication teams – to structure and deliver more effective, efficient communications.

The GCS website says: “Modern teams should be seamlessly integrated, based around audience understanding, be insight and data-driven and be digitally-orientated. To create this consistently the model sets out ways of arranging communications teams for varying sizes of organisations.”

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Evaluating impact

The second initiative – the New Evaluation Framework – lists metrics and approaches to measurement of  media, marketing, digital, stakeholder engagement and internal communications.

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The GCS website notes:

“Good evaluation leads to a better understanding of what works well so we can do more of it, and of what doesn’t so we can stop doing it.”

Whether you are in public sector comms, or in the private sector, these are really useful, simple tools to use with your teams and assess your own approaches. Hats off to the Government’s comms teams for a) developing them, and b) making them broadly available.

The International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) is a global  membership association with a network of 12,000 members in more than 80  countries. We deliver on the ​Global Standard in communication through educational offerings, certification, awards programs and our annual ​World Conference.​ Follow  us on Twitter ​@iabcuk.

Gay Flashman is a former Managing Editor of Channel 4 News and an experienced communications consultant.  Gay is CEO of ​Formative Content​, a UK based agency providing high quality blog  content, live event coverage ​and social media content ​for clients around the world.

Social media tools for big business

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Case studies and real-life insights, as well as new approaches to internal comms dominated the agenda at the seventh SMiLE London last week, attended by several IABC UK board members

SMiLE is a hugely popular event run by Simply Communicate twice a year to discuss issues, trends and challenges in the implementation and execution of social media in large organisations.

Companies represented at the event this year included Philips, the Football Association, British Gas, EY and Virgin Trains.

Industry speaker highlights

Paddy Power: Rosie Boylan, head of internal communication at the online betting service talked about the direction in which internal comms is heading, saying that companies are moving away from “posters and email”. Rosie’s view is that comms teams should aim for one primary message per month to staff; it’s vital that, rather than just pushing out a message, comms teams focus on defining and measuring the impact of the messaging. Briefing templates can help with this process.

The Football Association: Jamie Crigg of the Football Association outlined the FA’s use of Telligent app to link its 1,800 staff. The FA creates a range of topic and department groups for focused, targeted coms; governance ensures that the number of groups is limited, and that multiple groups that deal with the same matters are not created. To make Telligent work effectively and to manage and archive groups, internal community owners are needed. In addition to the general internal comms material being created and shared via Telligent, senior managers are blogging to provide updates and progress, rather than sending multiple corporate emails.

Philips: Dennis Agusi , head of global internal comms at Philips, mapped out the organisation’s range of tools. The company is using IBM Connections, as well as SocialCast plus SharePoint. Mr Agusi’s view is that these tools support managers to communicate directly with staff, rather than tactically ‘sending’ comms messages out to all. As well as the social and integrated social software, the company is also using Kaltura for centralised video hosting to save time and money with video hosting and sharing. Philips has also ‘reimagined’ its intranet, moving away from a straightforward navigation-based intranet to a task-based, topic-based intranet.

Casilda Malagon, IABC-UK Chapter President, attended the conference and reflected:

“Integration seemed to be the name of the game. Whether we are looking at adopting new tools or platforms, or raising engagement in existing ones, the discussion is now focussing on how we use everything we have in hand for the purpose of our businesses.”

“The way forward will be to start with the needs and desires of our audiences – in this case employees – and map out how social can support them. SMiLE brought the human back into social, again!”

Other IABC attendees at SMiLE included Lesley Crook IABC-UK Chapter board member, and newly appointed consultant at Enterprise Strategies. Lesley ran a table discussion on Working out Loud in a Network. Coincidentally its International Working Out Loud this week, 16-23 November 2015.

Liam Fitzpatrick IABC Certification Council and Partner at Working Strategies also ran a table discussion “What’s On Your Dashboard?”.

For more stories and information from SMiLE London see the event conversations on Storify

The next IABC event will be our IABC Meaningful Measurement workshop on 25 November, 6pm at Anglo American, 20 Carlton House Terrace, London, SW1Y 5AN.

How is TalkTalk responding to its hacking crisis?

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News headlines in the UK have this morning been dominated by a story of mass hacking of TalkTalk website. Between 08:00 and 09:00 this morning the company’s share price fell from 263.7 top 239.3, a precipitous 9% drop.

How has TalkTalk’s communications team responded to the crisis?

Proactive Engagement

TalkTalk has been on the front foot with statements and communications around the issue. It’s created a clear website for customers within the TalkTalk Help section of the website .

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The communications team has framed its copy carefully and tactfully; it’s also written as though it’s a personal statement from the Consumer MD Tristia Harrison, rather than as an anonymous announcement. The headline is about a ‘website attack’ (someone else is responsible) not a security/confidentiality breach.

The tone is apologetic and direct with some key words & phrases cropping up repeatedly – “very sorry”, “there is a chance that…”, “we would like to reassure you”…

Note that the statement leads on the launch of the criminal investigation, rather than being structured to say that TalkTalk has been hacked.

Following tried & tested crisis comms response guidelines, the website goes on to reassure consumers that the TalkTalk staff are working with the Met to sort the situation out. There’s also a detailed FAQ outlining what’s happened and what’s being done by TalkTalk.

The statement reinforces the corporate message that TalkTalk is taking the matter seriously – trying to mitigate the damage this hack will undoubtedly do to its reputation:

“We constantly review and update our systems to make sure they are as secure as possible and we’re taking all the necessary steps to understand this incident and to protect as best we can against similar attacks in future.”


Consistent messaging straight from the top

TalkTalk CEO Dido Harding made herself available to the BBC – heading to TV centre for one interview late last night in which she reinforced all those key messages on the website. That interview has been sliced and diced across all BBC outlets.

Ms Harding spoke of the decision by the company to make a statement as soon as possible: “hence why I’m appearing on your channel tonight”. She also appeared remotely on Sky News to reinforce that message of how sorry she was.


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Crisis consultant, Kitty Hamilton of KHA Ltd, says:

“It’s important that the CEO is speaking to customers through all media, especially as many will be extra cautious about any electronic information purporting to be from TalkTalk. Going forward the company should not only warn people but also provide helpful advice on how to limit any damage. They have done this, but they need to keep doing it.”

Ms Harding is a confident media performer, with some clear communications lines delivered live:- “I’m very sorry about the disruption that’s been caused to our customers” and “we’re working very hard to…”

She also reinforced that message of “we’re victims of a crime” rather than we have had our security breached.

Did she overstep the line by talking about her own personal liability?

“I’ve been a victim of this attack myself”, she told the BBC. This almost crosses the line – Ms Harding is paid handsomely to run her company efficiently and is wrong to align herself to her customers in this way.

It smacks of an overly defensive response, although she’s no doubt decided (or her comms team has) that this is a way of reinforcing the empathy she has for what TalkTalk customers are going through.

Consistency of message across platforms

Content on the company’s Facebook page mirrors that on the statement and from Ms Harding.

The banner header is still the ‘bopheads’ one, but the top (pinned) post is one line about the attack with a link to the statement. The TalkTalk FB team is trying to respond to as many posts/complaints as it can, but no doubt the customer service staff will struggle to respond to the current flow of irritation.

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Some companies might have suspended their comments, or hidden behind a corporate statement, but the Facebook posts are authored by individuals who are trying to keep up with a massive flow of negative sentiment and questions. The frustration felt by customers is obvious – currently (at 10:27 on Friday 23rd October) there are 710 comments on the statement post.

Meanwhile over on Twitter, Abbie and Debbie are working hard to keep up with the tidal wave of negative sentiment in a stream of pretty standard (but still human) responses. They’re cutting and pasting a link to the TalkTalk response page given the volume of complaints they’re having to deal with. “Please see this help page for further information”.

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Long term impact

TalkTalk’s comms team are managing this situation in text book style. But this crisis will surely run and run for TalkTalk, no matter what comms it leverages to mitigate the impact.

Casilda Malagon, strategic communicator and President of the UK Chapter of the International Association of Business Communicators, reflects:

“The comms team response suggests TalkTalk invested in crisis communication planning and training with the company’s leadership. The speed of their response and the consistency of their message shows that when a crisis hits the investment pays off. It will be interesting to see how the story unfolds.”

Ms Malagon adds: “Cyber security is now a top business risk for all industries and communicators should understand the implications this has for our profession.”

Rory Cellan-Jones writes on the BBC’s News site this morning:

“For TalkTalk, the cost to its reputation is likely to be very serious. Not it is going to have to reassure its customers that its security practices are robust enough to regain their trust.”

Crisis expert Kitty Hamilton says: “The two key things that may prove difficult for TalkTalk in the medium to long term is that they failed to encrypt critical data despite previous attacks and strict data protection laws. As the drop in share price shows, there is some way to go before TalkTalk is out of the woods.”


The International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) is a global  membership association with a network of 12,000 members in more than 80  countries. We deliver on the ​Global Standard in communication through educational offerings, certification, awards programs and our annual ​World Conference.​ Follow  us on Twitter ​@iabcuk.

Gay Flashman is a former journalist and experienced communications consultant.  Gay is CEO of ​Formative Content​, a UK based agency providing high quality blog  content, live event coverage ​and social media content ​for clients around the world.

I am, literally, begging you: 7 negotiating tips from the Apprentice


Walking out. Irrational behaviour. Cattiness. We saw it all last night in the third episode, focused on negotiation. Which negotiation & communication techniques did the luckless Apprentice candidates put into action in episode 3? IABC UK Board member Gay Flashman continues our light-hearted commentary.

Technique 1: Flutter your eyelashes

In a demonstration of feminine wiles that will surely take gender parity back a step or two, we saw the girls’ team offer to ‘marry’ the man selling crystal glasses; “je t’aime”, they added for good measure. I’m ashamed to say, it worked. They managed to practically steal the seven glasses from the avuncular Frenchman, with the price dropping from €200 to €45 in an instant.

Technique 2: The Charmer

“J’adore un petit prix”. Richard managed to use all of his charm to knock a measly 30p off the price of the cheese he was buying from a long-suffering cheese seller. Charm was in short supply amongst some of the apprentice contestants: “Vana clearly has some sort of issue with me” was just one of the catty comments emanating from the ‘girls’ team’.

Technique 3: The  ‘Nibble’ Technique:

Lawyer and negotiation guru Charles Craver writes that some negotiators can gradually drop the price paid by returning with incremental reductions. In the boat shop we saw Charleine achieve this with her bargaining on the anchor, which she negotiated down impressively from £20 to £12.50. Evidence from Charleine that it can be worth a speculative punt now and again: as she says, “I dropped in a little cheeky one”.

Technique 4: Walking out

In the boat shop again, to where the girls’ team returned a total of 4 times to discuss the inflatable boat on offer at an astronomical £250.  Elle might have walked out of the shop three times, but in the end she was limited by her options and was forced to reluctantly pay the inflated inflatable price of £200. The truth is, you can only use the ‘walking out’ trick if you have the balance of power in the negotiations.

Technique 5: Negotiate with the right person

Jenny gave up too early on her negotiations for mussels in a restaurant – she didn’t go high enough up the chain of command, and was stalled by the gatekeeper, in this case, a very polite waitress. Karren Brady rolled her eyes on camera; Jenny’s lack of gumption proved to be her fatal mistake. Remember to ensure you’re always negotiating with the person who has the power and authority to make a decision and be persistent.

Technique 6: Be ready to do a deal

At the other end of the dinghy spectrum we see Gary visiting a toy shop, pulling off a £10 purchase by having cash to hand, and a clear maximum of what he wanted to pay. It was a win for him, and for the smiling shop owner. But remember, keeping cash in your pocket might work at the market, but may not go down quite so well in the boardroom.

Technique 7: If all else fails… beg

The price for the mussels was £5.80 per kilo. Bergim’s approach:- “£5 and I’ll love you forever”. That didn’t work.

“I’m begging you.” He added.

Done deal; mussels in the bag.

The International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) is a global  membership association with a network of 12,000 members in more than 80  countries. We deliver on the ​Global Standard ​in communication through educational  offerings, certification, awards programs and our annual ​World Conference.​ Follow  us on Twitter ​@iabcuk

Gay Flashman is a former journalist and experienced communications consultant.  Gay is CEO of ​Formative Content​, a UK-based agency providing high quality blog  content, live event coverage ​and social media content ​for clients around the world.