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.

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