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Preparing for a crisis situation

Donald Steel: “Lying is a very bad strategy in a crisis, if it’s discovered.”

Donald Steel: “Lying is a very bad strategy in a crisis, if it’s discovered.”

The Global PR Summit, one of the world’s leading events in PR and communications, will be held in Malta from April 12 to 13. Donald Steel, one of the world’s leading experts on crisis communications and one of the keynote speakers at the summit, discusses the crisis management process with The Sunday Times of Malta.

Drawing back from your 20 years of experience in crisis communications, what do you think are the biggest mistakes that companies make when it comes to crisis management?

Firstly, a failure to respond quickly enough. This is even more true in the instant social media age, where a crisis can be played out live on applications like Periscope. It allows others to seize the agenda. Once you lose your control, it’s hard to get it back.

Secondly, a failure to tell the truth. Lying is a very bad strategy in a crisis, if it’s discovered.

All communicators claim that preparing for crisis situations is key to effective crisis management but it seems that when the crisis actually happens many companies still seem unprepared. What is key when it comes to preparing for crisis situations? What scenarios should companies look into?

Without rehearsal and training, a crisis plan is worthless. In a crisis, people will not be familiar with their roles as your plan is untested. A good crisis plan will focus on what’s known as consequence management. The range of actions it describes should cover the wide range of things that can happen in your company, from loss of life to an inability to trade. Most crises are predictable. If they are predictable, then they can be planned for.

One of the things that is widely misunderstood about crisis management and communications is how it should be evaluated. Too much weight is placed on the howl round of comment and criticism on social media and the mainstream media in the midst of a crisis, much of which is time-filling until something more interesting happens.

The real test for a business is whether (a) that crisis could have been avoided; (b) if that crisis was not avoidable, whether the company has taken measures showing concern for loss of life/lives; and whether the actions taken were successful in protecting the company’s value and ability to make profit in the future in order to secure the future employment and wellbeing of its employees.

What are the most important things that every company should consider when doing media interviews during crisis situations?

It is too late to undertake crisis media training when the journalists are outside your door. Invest in it now. Where people are affected in a crisis, your interview responses should be focused on them, and with them in mind. I still find myself occasionally shouting at the television “It’s not about you!” when I see someone talking about the impact of a crisis on their well-remunerated existence, when people have been killed or injured or consumers affected. You may be faced with an aggressive interview, and you need to be prepared and trained for it.

Social media has changed the game for many companies and has made them more prone to crisis than ever before. What is the key to effective crisis management online?

I’m not sure I agree that social media has made companies more prone to crises. In fact, I do not believe there is any such thing as a ‘social media crisis’. The impact of an event determines whether it is a crisis, not where it is being discussed. We’ve seen that social media can draw attention to something that becomes a crisis and can amplify it. Social media also presents companies with a terrific way to reach consumers directly.

What social media has changed is the speed and intensity with which a crisis develops. The ability to send pictures and video is extraordinarily powerful. And now Periscope, and other apps, allow us to view the situation live.

It means that companies must respond very rapidly in an emergency. The so-called ‘Golden Hour’, in which you have time to get your first statement together, is completely finished. We recommend clients respond on social media within 15 minutes of an incident involving death, human injury, or threat to life and safety. That’s very challenging. You can only do that if you plan, prepare and rehearse. And make sure your social media team is in the first wave of call-outs in a crisis.

Donald Steel is a specialist in reputation and issues and crisis management. Mr Steel works with companies in Europe, UK, Middle East and Asia Pacific. He was previously the BBC’s chief communications adviser and was for 11 years the corporation’s chief media spokesman.

He is widely regarded as an expert in the reputation and crisis communications fields, and is a frequent speaker on the topics, including at the London School of Economics.

In addition to his own practice, Mr Steel is associate director of Crisis Communications at Kenyon International Emergency Services, the world’s largest commercial disaster responder, and a director at Johnston Associates, a leading aviation PR company based at London Heathrow.

To meet Mr Steel in Malta, as well as PR and social media experts from You Tube, Virgin, Civil Aviation Authority, TUI Group and Credit-Suisse, make sure to grab a ticket for the Global PR Summit on the company’s official website https://www.thepworld.com .

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