Wednesday, 10 February 2010

When Silence Ain't Golden

How My Hot Dog Stays CoolImage by keira-anne ♥ via Flickr

Well, I was having a nice quiet start to the day when I got a call from La Swann wanting to talk on air about the Burj Khalifa elevator incident and how the communications aspect had played out.

Crisis management takes many shapes and forms, but generally is called for when something happens that is deeply regrettable in some way. Managing a crisis these days is about getting as much dependable information out as you can - fast. By being communicative, you earn the right to get your story out in full - to mitigate the hard facts with some explanations.

I've seen my fair share of these, from explosions and deaths through to recalled products and political screw-ups. Everyone's first reaction is to stick their fingers in their ears and shout lalala until all the nasty people go away. When you've endangered lives, when you've attracted the attention of the world's media, sadly, that's simply not an option - and no professional PR practitioner would consider it as an option for one picosecond.

So what do you do?

In minor and/or simple issues, you'd tend to be 'reactive' - you'd answer questions when they're asked, typically with a prepared statement. Where you've got a major problem on your hands (any issue involving danger to human life being a Great Big Red Flag), you get out there and communicate.

Typically, you'd want to say what happened, how and why it happened, what you've done to ameliorate the effects and how you're working to ensure it won't happen again. Critically, if there has been danger to the public, you have the opportunity to express regret and concern for those affected - and what you're doing to help them deal with the consequences.

Trying to get by with issuing a statement that does not recognise the facts is a short term fix that will rarely, if ever, work - particularly these days when everyone with a mobile is a TV crew. Rather than getting one hard hit with your side of the story told alongside the unpleasant facts, you're begging for a drip feed of stories that are wholly negative.

If you preserve your silence while that negative coverage is breaking, you are effectively positioned as arrogant and uncaring. News expands to fill a vacuum, so your silence encourages investigative reporting which will tend to be negatively skewed precisely because your silence ensures that your side of the story is not being told.

Because today's world is a fast-moving little place, news can globalise in minutes flat. That means having a sound crisis communications plan in place. This starts with imagining the unimaginable, planning for the very worst (including the unthinkable. It's funny how often the unthinkable happens) and then answering the million dollar question - how would we react if this happened?

There are a lot more questions to answer, too. Questions like who do we care about? What are our policies and procedures? Who owns this problem?

You actually need to put procedures in place, define reporting and escalation paths and have a team assigned for the unthinkable. You need to have 'dark sites' in place - websites that can be cut in to replace your standard home page so that relatives, friends and other concerned people can get access to information. You need to be able to scale quickly to respond to requests from media - local at first, but very quickly global. You need to have statements in place, at least in draft, so that you can minimise the time you spend wondering what on earth to say. Where appropriate, you need to have advice lines up fast and other facilities to help people deal with the incident and the concerns it raises with them.

For me, the most valuable part of this whole extensive (and, yes, expensive) exercise is forcing organisations to actually think about the unthinkable - and how it could be avoidable. If more organisations went through this structured process, I believe that more of the unthinkable could be avoided. You wouldn't believe how hard it is to get people to take this whole process seriously, by the way. Until, of course, they get that phone call...

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Susan said...

All very well but you're making the huge assumption that people think - and most of the time they don't. In fact in some organisations they would get fired if there was even a hint of thinking going on!

El Shahlab said...

Many leaders, whether political or organizational, neglect this very important ingredient for any successful change initiative, that is communication. Lack of it results in insecurity, resistance, and skepticism from people.
You need to tell people involved what will happen, how it will happen, and when will it happen. People appreciate translates to sincerity, and that make people more accepting and understanding.
I've been in organizations that went through disasterous changes due to neglecting management of communication with stakeholders.

Dave said...

Yes it is all very well, and if I wasn't mistaken I would presume you were talking about a deomocracy; where freedom of speech and the media's ability to openly crticise the Govt and its ruler was permitted. Well this ain't it.

El Shahlab said...

So democracy is only about criticizing the government and its ruler?!
Look at the first page of today's issue of The National. The education system is being criticized..freely. Isn't education part of the government? And who are the two people in charge of education in the UAE? They're Shk. Nahyan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan and Humaid AL Qattami, who were not immune to this 'constructive' criticizim.

Shk Mohamad bin Rashid set an example himself when he reshuffled the Cabinet few years ago based on unsatisfactory performance of few ministers, and his criticizim was televized live.

People take for granted that we are a very young country, but we are evolving, just like other older nations who learned by trial and error. They also take for granted that we are a culture that is greatly influenced by religion.
You can't just copy any democratic system and paste it here.

I don't know why some people are just obsessed with criticizm and complaining. Even if things were perfect, they'd still find something to complain about.

Oussama said...

I agree with you for the need of having an emergency response plan. Airlines and airports are required by regulations to have one. A crash if not handled properly could close down an airline.
It is all about how you care for those affected directly and their relatives and friends and then how do you handle information. It is essential that the organisation be proactive and provide the media with information at regular intervals so they are in control and speculation is kept at a minimum. It is not a bad idea that senior executive undergo a Crisis Communication course that helps them deal with the media. It is very daunting to answer questions from reporters who are acting like a pack of wolves, no disrespect intended.

Dave said...

El Shahlab. Point taken. But the eduction system is really only a quasi-Govt service here in the UAE with most instituions being run with very little state control or (enforced) regulation.

As for the UAE being a young nation, yes fair enough, it absolutely is. But Brand Dubai has tried to perform on the world stage before it was ready and then tells people to 'shut up' when they criticise its actions - you cannot have it both ways.

You say any ole democratic system cannot be pasted here on religious grounds. Is this why no democracy is pasted here?

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