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.

Buncefield: Ten Years’ On

buncefield fire













This month sees the 10th anniversary of the fire at the Buncefield Oil Terminal near London. The explosion that started the fire was the largest in peacetime Europe, measured 2.4 on the Richter scale and could be heard as far away as The Netherlands. Thankfully, no-one was killed as the incident took place early on a Sunday morning and so the busy industrial estate opposite the site was almost deserted.

The terminal was majority-owned and operated by Total, with Chevron owning a minority stake. I was part of the Chevron in-house team that managed the communications in the immediate aftermath of the incident, and helped to protect the company’s reputation during the official investigation and legal cases that followed.

Widespread media interest

In the first three days after the incident, we had 350 media enquiries and a considerable volume of calls from people and businesses in the local community that had been affected.

Understandably, the local press was mainly interested in the impact on the surrounding community whilst the national press focussed on the M1 being closed and potential supply shortages. The forecourt, commercial fuels and aviation trade press covered the short and long-term supply implications, insurance journalists wanted to know who we were insured with, the legal publications asked us who was providing litigation support, and the business pages and newswires looked at the financial costs of the incident.

We also had media enquiries from around the world where Chevron had other facilities, asking what we were doing to make sure that this didn’t happen in their community.

Recognising that key to managing the incident well would be timely, aligned and accurate responses, within hours of the explosion, the two in-house communications teams at Total and Chevron took a number of joint steps. Firstly, we enlisted staff from a PR agency to provide additional support for the joint venture to deal with the volume of calls. Secondly, we established a short sign-off procedure involving a UK business leader, lawyer and communicator for each company. This meant we were able to deal with enquiries quickly – which would have been difficult if we had needed approval from our US head office eight time zones away. We also appointed a knowledgeable site manager as media spokesperson as we recognised the importance of a having a real person representing the joint venture at the terminal during the incident.

Whilst the lawyers made sure that any official communications were appropriate from a legal perspective, as communications practitioners, we ensured that how the companies responded considered the needs of the people who were asking or were affected i.e. making sure that what we said was reasonable.

Vital role of communications

For example, it took a number of years before the official investigation determined who was responsible for the incident. However, the two companies that owned the terminal made a decision, without admitting liability, to support the local community financially, both in the immediate aftermath of the incident and in the rebuilding process, rather than wait for the investigation to be completed. I think this was the reasonable thing to do.

Providing the information, access and support that the official investigators needed to do their jobs certainly helped to demonstrate that we also wanted to find out what had happened and to try and learn from it. I think this was one of the reasons why the official investigators sent us their findings prior to them being released to the public and this meant that we were able to have our spokesperson, agreed response and updated reactive Q&As in place by the time the media started to call.

I’m proud of the fact that although Chevron and Total were in dispute about responsibility for the incident, the communications teams continued to maintain a good working relationship throughout.

One thing that I learned from Buncefield was the importance of building long-term relationships with key stakeholders at a time when you don’t need them. As Chevron was only a minority shareholder in the facility, we left our joint venture partner to build and manage the site community relations. As such, Chevron didn’t have the relationships with the local community or MP before the incident and it was much harder to build these after the incident took place. The learning is – if you have some responsibility for an asset, time invested in local stakeholder management is always worthwhile and can pay real dividends if something goes wrong.

Daniel Schraibman was a Senior Communications Adviser at Chevron and is now a director of communications, coaching and business consultancy firm, Serekinti 

The Power of Global Communication


The Power of Global Communication plenary at #EuroComm Conference, explored the need for greater awareness of cultural difference in international business.

The panel was chaired by Anisha Jhina, Director of Internal Communications at Mars Global Petcare and a self-confessed ‘transculturalist’. Having lived in three continents from a young age, Ms Jhina launched proceedings by speaking of her awareness of a Western-centric mindset in European and North American business environments that can thwart or limit successful intercultural relationships.

Dr Barbara Gibson has undertaken qualitative research with CEOs from 12 different firms that suggested that nearly all business cultures – not just Western ones – suffer to some extent from what she called an “ethnocentric arrogance”. Such imbalances frequently lead intercultural business relationships to fail or work at sub-optimal efficiency.

By identifying trends in her research, Dr Gibson outlined five “intercultural competencies” that successful intercultural communicators possessed:

  1. Adaptability: The ability to change one’s behaviour, communication style or business strategy as needed to fit the circumstances.
  2. Cultural self-awareness: An awareness of one’s own cultural influences, tendencies and biases, and awareness of how one’s own culture may be perceived by members of a different culture.
  3. Cultural sensory perception: The ability to recognize when cultural differences are in play, utilizing a range of senses to spot verbal and non-verbal cues which may differ greatly from those of one’s own culture.
  4. Open-mindedness: The ability to suspend judgement based on one’s own cultural biases and accept that other ways of thinking and behaving may be just as valid.
  5. Global perspective: Viewing the business from a transnational perspective, rather than as “domestic first, rest-of-world second.”

In addition to these competencies, Dr Gibson believes it is the communicators and CEOs with the greatest capacity to reflect and improve upon their intercultural competencies who perform best over time.

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4 ways Internal Communication can turn change to its advantage


As the global marketplace continues to become faster and more complex, Internal Communication (IC) must evolve to meet it. Thriving, not merely surviving, in the midst of change is what’s needed. Megan Sheerin explores four smart shifts internal communicators must make to keep pace.

If there’s one thing that tires the hardiest of communicators, it’s relentless, unpredictable change. The kind that frustrates Internal Communication’s day-to-day work as much as its long-term planning. The kind that buries us under old strategies, communication plans—and complaints from employees that what we previously communicated to them is no longer relevant.

In today’s complex and fast-paced world, near-constant change is a given. Companies that can adapt—and quickly—have a competitive edge. Managing this change successfully is where Internal Communication can help. Yet knowing where to start can be overwhelming, especially when we’re dealing with deeply entrenched workflows that once worked well.

Letting go of, or adapting, some long-held paradigms is the key to communicators meeting the expectations of an increasingly fast and more complex global marketplace. But you can’t simply drop a new approach on top of an existing one and expect to win. Before you tackle changing processes and structures, it’s critical to first shift attitudes and beliefs. Only then will your Internal Communication function—and organization—reap the benefits.

Melcrum’s research reveals four paradigm shifts IC should consider, to achieve exactly that:

1. Moving from extensive, sequential planning to adaptive, iterative planning.

Rigid sequential planning wrongly assumes change happens only before or after a communications campaign. But in reality, change can occur at any point during a campaign—or even throughout it. This means as internal communicators, we need to revamp our linear planning processes to be more adaptable. It’s about being flexible and learning as change takes place, then revising our next steps to take that new knowledge into account.
EMC is one company that does this well.

The IC function in this leading IT company manages its campaigns in short cycles—working in ‘communication sprints’ to create intermittent deliverables, in turn pulling forward returns on their campaign investments. Internal Communication works alongside its Marketing partner organization to scale these campaigns quickly, pulling in expert resources from across the enterprise and prioritizing important campaigns so that everyone is aligned.

2. Moving from favoring the change curve to employee moments of truth.

The linear change curve assumes employees progress through change in a predictable way. It’s a framework that’s served Internal Communication well in guiding workflows when the business environment was more stable. However employees today are more likely to jump around, skip over and jolt backward as they learn to adapt to change—especially when it keeps occurring and employees have more and better information sources to refer to.

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Tackling a technical programme roll-out as change communicators

As a Change Communicator who has led communications on several technical roll-outs, when I’m reading job specifications, I always see the phrase – “must have the ability to translate complex technical information into easy to understand communication”.

I would expect that any communicator worth their salt would be able to do this – after all, it’s what we do day in, day out. But it got me to thinking about the specific communications challenges of technical programs and the best way to tackle them.

To make things easy, I have put together a few practical suggestions:


  1. Call IT Support. Utilise the technical team, the IT guys are great. They know the changes inside out and they want to communicate but they’re not always brilliant at it. Engage someone from the IT team on your communications team early on. They will be enthusiastic contributors, they’ll facilitate access to technical resources and help you make sense of a complex roll-out.


  1. Build a Champions League. If like me you’re often drafted in mid-rollout when things aren’t going so well and you need to turn things around quickly on your own – then you’re going to need to find support. With multi-site roll-outs you’re going to need people on the ground to host events, print posters and share information. Send out an appeal for volunteers to be champions or mentors of the change. Enlist one or more people per site or function and set up a regular call and cascade process with them. Each of your champions knows the specifics of their market or business and will ensure that your change is embedded properly.


  1. Expel the fear – Get hands on. Technology is one of the most feared types of change. People assume that they’re not going to be able to use it and panic that they won’t be able to do their work in the way that they are used to. Hold open events staffed by IT experts where employees can go and try out the new system before it is installed so their fear is alleviated.


  1. Sell the benefits. If you manage communications over a phased roll out, start to capture key benefits and good news stories early on. Video clips, podcasts and news stories showing practical examples of how others have benefited from the change will build confidence and even excitement around the change.


  1. Train to Gain. Make sure that there is adequate training in place. Often software upgrades are installed without any instructions on how to use the new system. Power users won’t have any trouble, but mere mortals are going to find the process of finding out how to perform their usual tasks frustrating, time-consuming and stressful. Short online modules and quick how-to guides will take most of this pain away as well as reduce helpdesk calls.


  1. Call for back-up. Last but not least , visible back-up is required. Even with the smoothest transition, individual problems during implementation will surface.  Have plenty of floor walkers on site and give everyone a card with the support number, email and website address.


There will always be specific issues with technical roll-outs and you should tailor your strategy to match the audience, but I hope the points above will give you practical ideas about how to make the transition smoother and less stressful for everyone involved.

Theresa Stinson

I’m always happy to discuss communications, so if you have any specific communications challenges, then reach me via LinkedIn

Post written by Theresa Stinson, Senior Change Communications Consultant