Posted by Richard ● 13-May-2016 13:03:31
Queen and Cameron say the wrong thing. What should B2B PRs do when spokespeople put their foot in it?
So after a lifetime in the public eye as the highest profile diplomat in the world, HRH has been caught on camera criticising the Chinese: "very rude” apparently… On the same day, Her Majesty was party to a conversation lead by the Prime Minister, who was openly critical of the Nigerian and Afghan governments, calling them “fabulously corrupt."
It is rare to see the Queen let herself get dragged into the gutter in such a way, but if it can happen to someone as experienced as her, it goes to show that it can happen to anyone. And whilst this may seem like a trivial and naughty look behind the scenes and into the Queen’s soul, both of these incidents could damage international trade relations and give fuel to those who seek to remove the Monarchy. So actually quite serious stuff, at least from HRH’s point of view.
So the question is, from a B2B PR perspective, once your spokesperson has said or done something that is likely to cause offence and harm the organisation they represent, what is the best course of action? In effect, whilst it may not be life threatening, what you have on your hands in this context, is a crisis. i.e.: any situation that is threatening or could threaten to harm people or property, seriously interrupt business, significantly damage reputation and/or negatively impact the bottom line.
Every organisation whether it’s the monarchy or a B2B tech vendor, is vulnerable to crises. Preparation is critical in ensuring that damage is limited. It really is a case of fail to plan, plan to fail.
The basic steps of effective crisis communications are not difficult but they can really help prevent something spiralling out of control. Having a plan speeds up the ability of the comms teams to respond effectively. Often the slower the response, the more damage can be incurred. Every B2B PR and Communications team should consider and implement these ten steps of crisis communications, the first seven of which can and should be undertaken before any crisis occurs.
10 Steps of Crisis Communications
1. Anticipate crises - conduct a vulnerability audit
Brainstorm and ask stakeholders from across the business to share their thoughts on what keeps them up at night. This may reveal stations that can be avoided and help prepare you for worst case scenarios. A vulnerability audit and a response plan should follow this process.
2. Identify your crisis communications team
Identify the senior executives that will serve as your organisation’s Crisis Communications Team. Ideally, the organisation’s CEO will lead the team, with the firm’s top public relations executive and legal counsel as his or her chief advisers. Other team members are typically the heads of your major organisational divisions, as any situation that rises to the level of being a crisis will affect your entire organisation. The team also needs to include those with special knowledge related to the current crisis, e.g., subject-specific experts, HR, Operations etc.
3. Identify and train spokespeople
Every organisation should ensure, via an appropriate policy and training, that only authorised spokespersons speak for it. This is particularly important during a crisis. Each crisis communications team should have people who have been pre-screened, and trained, to be the lead and/or backup spokespersons for different channels of communications. Typically, B2B PR for challenger brands involves the services of spokespeople who may not be on the executive leadership team, or on the crisis communications teams. These individuals may have close relationships with the media. So, in addition to training the official crisis communications spokespeople on what to do and say during a crisis, it is also important to identify those that may be approached in a time of crisis, equipping them with skills to help them to identify and direct a media enquiry appropriately.
4. Spokesperson training
All stakeholders, internal and external, are just as capable of misunderstanding or misinterpreting information about your organisation as the media. It’s our responsibility as communications professionals to minimise the chance of that happening. Spokesperson training enables spokespeople to practice, be prepared and to be ready to respond in a way that optimises the response of all stakeholders.
5. Establish notification and monitoring systems
Today, we have to have the means to reach internal and external stakeholders using multiple channels. Many of us have several phone numbers, more than one email address, and can receive SMS (text) messages or faxes. Instant Messenger programs, either public or proprietary, are also very popular for business and personal use. And then, of course, there is social media. This may be the best/fastest way to reach some of our stakeholders, but setting up social media accounts for this purpose and developing a number of followers/friends/contacts on the various social media platforms (e.g., Facebook, LinkedIn, Google+) is not something you can do after a crisis breaks, because nowhere does news of a crisis spread faster and more out of your control than on social media.
It is absolutely essential, pre-crisis, to establish notification systems that will allow you to rapidly reach your stakeholders using multiple modalities. The Virginia Tech campus shooting catastrophe, where email was the sole means of alerting students initially, proves that using any single channel can make a crisis worse. Some of us may be on email constantly, others not so. Some of us receive our cellphone calls or messages quickly, some not. If you use more than one modality to reach your stakeholders, the chances are much greater that the message will go through.
Intelligence gathering is an essential component of both crisis prevention and crisis response. Knowing what’s being said about you on social media, in traditional media, by your employees, customers, and other stakeholders often allows you to catch a negative “trend” that, if unchecked, turns into a crisis.
Likewise, monitoring feedback from all stakeholders during a crisis situation allows you to accurately adapt your strategy and tactics. Both require monitoring systems be established in advance. For traditional and social media, Google Alerts are a no cost option. There a variety of paid monitoring services that provide not only monitoring, but also the ability to report results in a number of formats useful to planners. Monitoring other stakeholders means training personnel who have front-line contact with stakeholders (e.g. Customer Service) to report what they’re hearing or seeing to decision makers on your Crisis Communications Team. HubSpot also has social monitoring tools built into the platform which allow you to publish and monitor the twitter sphere.
6. Identify and know your stakeholders
Who are the internal and external stakeholders that matter to your organisation? Employees are often the most important audience, because every employee is a PR representative and crisis manager for your organisation whether you want them to be or not! But, ultimately, all stakeholders will be talking about you to others not on your contact list, so it’s up to you to ensure that they receive the messages you would like them to repeat elsewhere.
7. Develop holding statements
While full message development must await the outbreak of an actual crisis, “holding statements”, messages designed for use immediately after a crisis breaks, can be developed in advance to be used for a wide variety of scenarios in which the organization is perceived to be vulnerable, based on the assessment you conducted in Step 1 of this process. An example of holding statements by a hotel chain with properties hit by a natural disaster, before the organisation headquarters has any hard factual information, might be:
“We have implemented our crisis response plan, which places the highest priority on the health and safety of our guests and staff. We will be supplying additional information when it is available and posting it on our website.”
The Crisis Communications Team should regularly review holding statements to determine if they require revision and/or whether statements for other scenarios should be developed.
8. Assess the crisis situation
It is essential that you have all the necessary, available information before responding to a crisis.
If you’ve done all of the above first, then when the crisis happens, the first thing to do is get the Crisis Communications Team together. This can be virtually or physically. This team needs to be on the receiving end of information about the issue. Collectively this team is responsible for agreeing the appropriate response.
If you haven’t prepared for the specific scenario in advance, which is more than likely, your reaction will be delayed by the time it takes you to run through steps 1-7. Having said that, whilst specific details may be different, if the preparation has been comprehensive enough, it is likely that one of the scenarios anticipated in the vulnerability audit will have led to a response plan that can be adapted to suit the real life situation you find yourself in.
9. Finalise and adapt key messages
With holding statements available as a starting point, the Crisis Communications Team must continue developing the crisis-specific messages required for any given situation. The team already knows, categorically, what type of information its stakeholders are looking for. What should those stakeholders know about this crisis? Keep it simple. Have no more than three main messages that go to all stakeholders and, as necessary, some audience-specific messages for individual groups of stakeholders. Care, Commitment and Control are the three main points to consider. A crisis is not a time for promotion.
10. Post-crisis analysis
Once everything has passed, and it will, the question needs to be asked: “what can we learn from this?"
Audit what worked, what didn’t, what could be done better next time and how would you like to improve the crisis plan. Consider people beyond the crisis communications team. What did customers, partners and employees think and experience?
"It can't happen to us"
Crisis management planning requires resources. Time and effort needs to be put into it. Whilst the British Monarch may have adopted a position of not having to respond to most issues and crisis that arise, with perhaps the exception of the death of Princess Diana, which lead to public outcry and a statement from The Queen herself, most B2B businesses do not have the luxury of being able to do and say nothing. When something goes wrong, and it will, the best course of action is to take responsibility, fully and fast. Holding back a story from the press gives them something to go after and uncover. Uncomfortable truths and revelations make much better headlines then open acknowledgement of responsibility and a carefully worded and precisely delivered statement that explains why it happened and what steps are being taken to remedy the situation.
Effective crisis management is high on the CMO's list of priorities but it can be difficult to create and implement a plan across, and in accordance with, different departments. A similar challenge is establishing and coordinating a global PR operation. They both take time, resources and planning to make sure that everything runs smoothly. For a good starting point which might help global brands with managing their PR, why not take a look at our ebook below, which features key industry advice from experts at MobileIron, Klout and Lithium.