The art and science of communications: From strategic to personal

Tag Archives: crisis management

When it comes to dealing with the media, spokespersons do handle most for larger companies and in most companies few devote time/funds for training management and leadership to handle the media.

But, in today’s information environment, where the public and stakeholders demand increased accountability, especially of those industries who ‘fly close to the wind’ (finance, petrochem, automotive, aviation, defence, utilities, pharma etc – where (a) there are utter public reliance, safety, wellbeing aspects and (b)  if things go wrong they have the potential to go very wrong) – trotting out the spokesperson has its limits – as BP, Toyota, the Prudential, British Airways, most banks over the last eighteen months etc, will prove.  Spokespersons are utterly invaluable in the day-to-day dealings with the media, but most know that using the ‘big guns’ or subject matter experts (SMEs) is a necessity in maintaining a fresh, credible and mature relationship with the media.

Further, media relations do not exist in a vacuum.  Any successful organization integrates its communication functions – PR, advertising, marketing – and has strong buy-in from leadership who provide sound guidance and fully appreciate that communications have the ability to contribute to organizational goals way beyond the mere promotion of products or services.  As such communication management, and thereby media relations, is a crucial aspect of organizational development (as the widely respected Grunig ‘Excellence’ Model of Effective Organizations attest – straight out of organizational theory (systems)), just as communications has found its way into the dominant coalition of corporate boardrooms over the last decade or so.  Some have learnt that media handling is not and should not be a bolt-on.

Just as successful companies will invest huge amounts of effort in market research, R&D, branding, advertising and marketing, the lean and mean, the aggressive winners in the marketplace should not skimp on PR and media relations.  And part of the latter involves having key personnel, not just the spokespersons, prepared and able to handle the media.  If it comes to a battle for reputation, it will most likely be fought in the glare of the camera, and the arsenal must be ready, otherwise getting into the ring with experienced journalists will be a painful and damaging experience.

The notion that ‘the spokesperson will deal with it’ is folly as has been shown time and time again – management at the very least need to be engaged in the media process and prepared, if necessary, to engage directly with the media.  Further, if in crisis, a media interview can be a brutal event, both personally and for the organization.  By not preparing anyone for such, any HR department can be seen as neglecting its duty in training its staff for their duties and responsibilities.

Of course, not all organizations, will find themselves in the media spotlight (although the potential is always there) and may not consider media training a high priority – a reasonable judgement call.  But, many, many companies can quickly be under the microscope and media engagement can become, rapidly, very critical to the future fortunes of a company, especially during a crisis.  By this time it may be too late to consider training.

Those caught in a media storm can then reflect on the fact that hindsight is a wonderful thing.

The bottom line is that while it may take years to build a good reputation, it can be shattered in hours through the media, and relying solely on the spokesperson(s) to save the day on their lonesome or wielding unprepared and untrained senior staff and SMEs, is asking for trouble.

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Over the last 18 months, events affecting Toyota and BP have dealt catastrophic blows to the reputations of these two mighty companies.  Poor PR efforts and, more noticeably, disastrous media handling contributed significantly the severity of their respective crises.

No Deepwater Horizons here?

But the trials and tribulations of these global conglomerates seem far away from the dreamy spires of Cambridge, the tranquil Fens or the placid waters of the Cam.

Yet, as the successful companies of this region ever expand their markets, providing vital products and services increasingly impinging on the lives of millions, be they pharmaceuticals through to computer chips, the likelihood and impact of intense media storms in similar circumstances increases.

Of course, not on the same scale – there are few Deepwater Horizons across the Fens – but potentially devastating nonetheless.  The poor media handling of a recall of vital computer components embedded in a critical system or medicines due questionable research can sink a small business providing these products.  This is the volatile and dangerous nature of the information environment in the 21st century.  Referring the media to the marketing department just won’t cut it.  Unfortunately, anecdotal research of Cambridgeshire-based companies has revealed that predominantly communication issues are referred to … the marketing department.

The demands of such crises require people – real people not just twitter handles or blog aliases – to stand up and explain, inform, justify, defend and educate, and to do it quickly.  Not doing so merely adds fuel to the fire and doing it badly lobs a grenade in after that fuel.

The notion that ‘the spokesperson will deal with it’ or ‘that’s something for marketing’ is sheer folly, as has been shown time and time again.  Management, at the very least, need to be fully engaged in the media process and prepared, if necessary, to engage directly with the media.  Further, if in crisis, a media interview can be a brutal event, both personally and for the organization.  By not preparing anyone for such, any HR department can be seen as neglecting its duty in training its staff for their duties and responsibilities.

But why bother?  Is it really worthwhile getting worked up about this? Two counter arguments are often expressed by small and medium enterprises.  One: surely it’s all about social, new, digital media nowadays, not the good old-fashioned spokesperson in front of a camera. Two: we’re not BP.  The national and international media will never focus on us; we’re just too small and therefore off their radar.

These little things make traditional media skills even more vital.

This is flawed logic.  Regarding social media – all that tweeting, blogging, websites and the like – the marketing departments are increasingly getting involved in that, and rightly so.  But in crisis, it is about people, not so much technology.  People want someone, not something, to reassure them.  Besides, it is that very technology which is paradoxically enabling the personal interface.  The traditional media interview, once destined for the six o’clock news and maybe the ten o’clock slot but then forgotten about, now readily enters the internet echo-chamber, to be viewed and, more importantly, critiqued and commented upon, over and over again online on YouTube or BBC iPlayer, across the world, with interest fuelled by a torrent of Tweets and blogposts.  New social media has made the skills of the traditional spokesperson even more important.

On the second point, technology now allows the ‘harvesting’ of ever more low level news by the larger media outlets, making the tactical issue a strategic problem very quickly.  That technology has also enabled the citizen journalist.  Further, the coalition government is rightly forging ahead with ideas for digital Britain, including major policies in opening up local media and, not least, local television.  Technology is ensuring that, when it comes to even a minor crisis, there will be no way of hiding it, the potential of exacerbating it and the possibility of rapidly widening coverage of it.

Just as successful companies will invest huge amounts of effort in market research, R&D, branding, advertising and marketing, the lean and mean, the aggressive winners in the marketplace do not skimp on crisis communications and media relations.  This involves having key personnel, not just the spokespersons, prepared and able to handle the media.  If it comes to a battle for reputation, it will most likely be fought in the glare of the camera, and the arsenal must be ready, otherwise getting into the ring with experienced journalists will be a painful and damaging experience.  It also necessitates comprehensive crisis communications planning beforehand.

Of course, not all organizations will find themselves in the media spotlight (although the potential is always there) and may not consider media training a high priority – a reasonable judgement call.  But many, many companies can quickly be under the microscope and media engagement can rapidly become very critical to the future fortunes of a company, especially during a crisis.  The speed at which this can happen can be breathtaking and by this time it may be too late to consider training. Those caught in such a media storm can then reflect on the fact that hindsight is a wonderful thing.

So, the bottom line?   While it may take years to build a good reputation, it can be shattered in hours through the media, and relying solely on the marketing department or, if you’re lucky, a spokesperson to save the day on their lonesome or wielding unprepared and untrained senior staff and subject matter experts in front of the camera, is plain asking for trouble.  Just ask Tony Hayward.


A few weeks ago Jeremy Hunt, the UK coalition government’s Culture Secretary, unveiled new plans for media provision in the UK.  “We need to do something to stimulate investment in new media services that give a proper voice to local people,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme.   He is seeking to encourage commercial public service broadcasters (PSBs) including BBC, ITV and Channel 4 to back a new generation of local TV and online services by making the provision of local sevices a condition of their licences.

There have been many moans and groans from several quarters, not least the PSBs themselves over the viability of these grand plans.  Indeed it is proably internet TV, not digital terrestrial television, that is most promising in the local TV revolution. Internet TV also presents an opportunity for other organisations such as local newspapers and smaller niche outfits to get into the game.    In a major sense this is already happing through digital convergence, as video becomes a major factor in online publication.  There are already many local internet based news outlets using existing broadband technology.   There has been an interesting comparison between two cities, one here and one in the US:

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx         xxxxxxxx Birmingham, UK  Birmingham, Alabama

Population 1,028,700 229,424
Local newspapers 8 4
Local television 0 8

This may be the trajectory we’re already on.

So the notion of Digital Britain charges on.  But what does it mean for businesses and their handling of this media in the UK?

Let’s recap. Over the last 18 months, events affecting Toyota and BP have dealt catastrophic blows to the reputations of these two mighty companies.  Poor PR efforts and, more noticeably, disastrous media handling contributed significantly the severity of their respective crises.

As successful UK companies ever expand their markets, providing vital products and services increasingly impinging on the lives of millions, be they pharmaceuticals through to computer chips, the likelihood and impact of intense media storms in similar circumstances increases.  And with the approach of more localised digital media capability, that impact and likelihood increases even more.  Well, that’s our contention anyway.

Two counter arguments are often expressed by small and medium enterprises.  One: surely it’s all about social, new, digital media nowadays, not the good old-fashioned spokesperson in front of a camera. Two: we’re not BP.  The national and international media will never focus on us; we’re just too small and therefore off their radar.

Local media .. Coming your way?

This is flawed logic.  Regarding social media – all that tweeting, blogging, websites and the like – the marketing departments are increasingly getting involved in that, and rightly so.  But in crisis, it is about people, not so much technology.  People want someone, not something, to reassure them.  Besides, it is that very technology which is paradoxically enabling the personal interface.  The traditional media interview, once destined for the six o’clock news and maybe the ten o’clock slot but then forgotten about, now readily enters the internet echo-chamber, to be viewed and, more importantly, critiqued and commented upon, over and over again online on YouTube or BBC iPlayer, across the world, with interest fuelled by a tidal wave of Tweets and blogposts.  New social media has made the skills of the traditional spokesperson even more important.

On the second point, technology now allows the ‘harvesting’ of ever more low level news by the larger media outlets, making the tactical issue a strategic problem very quickly.  That technology has also enabled the citizen journalist.  And with increasing decentralisation and access to media bandwidth for local PSBs, the camera will be ever closer to one’s business. The chances of that interview being required, especially during a crisis, are increased. Technology is ensuring that, when it comes to even a minor crisis, there will be no way of hiding it, the potential of exacerbating it and the possibility of rapidly widening coverage of it.

Counter-intuitively, digital Britain and the local TV revolution merely increase the need for good old-fashioned media skills.

You have been warned.


Shakespeare, Henry IV part 2, Act 1 Scene 1: Yet the first bringer of unwelcome news hath but a losing office. Pretty eloquent stuff (well what would expect of the Bard?) but basically in modern parlance we’re talking “Don’t shoot the messenger”.  Bad news is often reason enough to feel like pulling the trigger, but just plain bad communicating is just asking for the metaphorical bullet between the eyes.  So how can we try to avoid the bullet?

Rule one in ensuring an effective message is carefully selecting the appropriate words and phrases. Culture, education, gender, language skills, age, even things as nebulous as emotions play a role in the way in which words, phrases and sentences will be perceived, and that’s not even catering for the vast number of words in English which possess differing meanings to different people.  Context and the syntax applicable to that context (the rules of the Queen’s English do not always apply) also have significant effect.

Simplicity is key, and especially in media engagement, where context, culture etc will be a much more amorphous.  The more simple (without losing the essence of the message) the less likely to be misunderstood, cause confusion or, even worse, offend. And this is where your average technocrat, official, reasonably educated guy or gal, often goes astray.  When writing documents, briefing panels, scribbling papers, especially in an official capacity, there is often a mesmerising desire to use distracting, confusing, misleading, obfuscating, imprecise wording (try reading an official document – corporate or public sector – you’ll see what we mean).  Now that’s acceptable (to a degree) on paper, but not in speech.  If the audience is struggling to merely comprehend the wording, any message those words should convey, are going to be lost.  At this stage, the receiver may well, check the magazine for bullets.  So, for simplicity’s sake, what to avoid:

  • Slang, jargon or regional expressions, as they might not be understood by everyone.
  • Abbreviations or acronyms unless well-known.
  • Technical terms unless the audience is fully aware of the topic.
  • Neologism (see point above*)
  • Politically incorrect words (unless of course that is the objective and also remembering the context (some audiences may be receptive)).

Now, in public speaking often we can gauge the crowd and thereby the context, but it’s a little more difficult over the media.  Simplicity here really is key.  And being simple in the explanation of a complex issue is far from simple.  It takes time and preparation and is as far removed from technocratic, business speak as possible.  Some see rapport as a major player in communication, or a common ground between speaker and listener (or viewer).  But when millions are watching or listening, rapport as such doesn’t exist (it may between journalist and interviewee, which can help (if the journalist is respected/liked by the audience)) and the common ground will lie in simplicity and ensuring that as little effort as possible is required of the audience to decode the words and ‘get’ the message (and then hopefully do something with that message).   It’s worthwhile pondering here that giving a presentation is very, very different to giving a media interview – the mechanics of the former, we practice every day when talking with others, the mechanics of the latter (talking to one person, whilst actually trying to engage with thousands, even millions, through that person) are rarely experienced.  Being a good public speaker doesn’t necessarily make media interviews easy – it could even be a hinderance.

* By the way, it means the use of newly coined words or phrases

Keep the ego out of it

As mentioned above, keeping it simple, stupid, isn’t all that simple to do in practice.  And that’s often because of ego.  We all naturally communicate ego-centrically – I’ll say it this way because if I heard it, I’d certainly understand it.  Yeah, well, the message isn’t for you, it’s for your audience.  Public speaking and presenting always involves assessing your audience and servicing their requirements.  Those audiences tend to be smaller and, to a degree, homogenous.  In a media interview, the audience is as heterogenous as they come.  Of course, if you’re really up to the mark, you’ll know exactly what your objective is and who, of that audience, you need to convince or persuade to achieve it.  If not, or you’ve got to carry the vast majority of the entire audience, then the communication, the words, phrases, construct, need to cater for the needs of the entire audience.  And that means decoding your syntax into theirs.  And the more heterogenous the audience is the more neutral that syntax, and those words, are going to be. Note, this is not about being neutral in terms of position or passion but in syntax and style.

So it’s got to be as simple and as neutral as the audience, not the speaker or interviewee, dictates.  Otherwise, the gun’s hammer gets cocked.

But there’s got to be flair

Brilliant – it’s got to simple and neutral, and that’s difficult to do, especially with a complex subject or issue.  Well, we’ve not quite finished.  Simple and neutral is getting there but there’s a hitch – too simple and neutral and the audience will fall asleep, and that’s only assuming the journalist or editor has bothered to air what’s been said and recorded.  Got to have a little flair, a little ‘sizzle’ to it.  If it’s boring, it’s going nowhere – the media will shun it and the audience will ignore it.  Both will go elsewhere for their information.  Of course, credibility matters, but many will be claiming that credibility and the ones who can be credible but interesting with it will win out.  And that’s not just about words but also in the way that their said, both verbally and non-verbally.  If the delivery doesn’t have that something special, fingers will tighten on the trigger.

Words simple, syntax neutral, delivery exciting and all via a third person or filter, the joutnalist/camera – easy!

If it’s bad news, the messenger often gets shot, but by preparing carefully and considering the above, then hopefully the wounds won’t be fatal.


BP Oil Spill, Toyota Recall Put Spotlight on Reputational Risk – Via Suite101

The vanishing act in 2001 of energy giant Enron and Big Five auditor Arthur Andersen in the wake of a fraudulent accounting scandal shows how real the threat is. For corporate risk managers, the question is whether reputational risk can be managed directly or whether it results from other types of failure.

The situation faced by BP as the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico ran on for weeks with increasing amounts of pollution washing ashore was a collapse of its reputation due to operational failures in the original oil rig accident and the subsequent cleanup effort.

The stock price plunged as the oil producer, which can trace its origins back to 1908, faced a battery of legal and liability claims that threatened to empty even its very deep pockets.

Companies sometimes have to adopt massive and costly measures to stem the threat of reputational risk. In late 2009 and early 2010, Toyota had to recall some 9 million vehicles after a number of fatal accidents were attributed to unintended acceleration. The auto giant also had to suspend sales of several models while fixing the problems.

Reputation - you've got to work at it.

Banks, the quintessential managers of risk, have wrestled with the problem of how to measure reputational risk and how to safeguard against it. Many banks consider it an effect of failures in the three major risk categories – credit risk, market risk, and operational risk, says staff writer David Benyon in a specialist publication on bank risk management.

But operational risk itself was considered impossible to measure just a decade ago, Benyon adds, so that some risk managers anticipate an evolution in assessing and managing reputational risk.

Goldman Sachs acknowledged the issue in a filing earlier this year with the Securities and Exchange Commission after a spate of negative publicity about its actions in selling the mortgage-backed securities blamed for causing the 2008-09 financial crisis.

The “adverse publicity … can also have a negative impact on our reputation and on the morale and performance of our employees, which could adversely affect our businesses and results of operations,” Goldman said in the filing.

The Spanish bank Santander spent an estimated 500 million euros in early 2009 to make good the losses by investors in one of its funds that placed money with Bernie Madoff, an investment manager who pleaded guilty to running a Ponzi scheme that led to investor losses of some $50 billion altogether.

Sometimes these efforts fall short and lead to the company’s demise, as was the case with Enron and Andersen. In June 2010, the security firm Blackwater put itself up for sale after various efforts to repair damage to its reputation from actions in Iraq were unsuccessful.

A roundtable discussion at the Association of Insurance and Risk Managers in April found that risk managers overwhelmingly agree that reputational risk is important to their organizations, but only 6% felt they were leaders in this field.

While Toyota seemed on the road to recovery after its decisive action, the eventual fates of BP and Goldman Sachs remained to be determined in mid-2010. What was certain is that corporate risk managers will be paying more attention to reputational risk.

Sources:

“Why chatter matters,” by David Benyon,OpRisk & Compliance, January 2010.

“A good name? Priceless,” Strategic Risk, April 1, 2010

Darrell Delamaide – Via Suite101


According to the Times, BP said that its costs for the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico spill have reached $1.25 billion (£870 million) as it set out plans to place a second cap on the leak.  Further, as of 1 June, BP’s shares had fallen by 13%, as reported by the BBC.  It has lost nearly a third of its value since the Deepwater Horizon blowout on 20 April.

There is no doubt that the sheer severity of the Gulf catastrophe has had a monumental effect on the reputation of BP, justly or not, and the financial cost will be staggering.  But with perception being reality, how much has the ‘perception’ of BP’s response contributed to the financial accounts?

BP’s engineers, along with countless others from several agencies, have worked tirelessly to stem the oil flow, yet still they are seen as the culprits, while the US government and its loose legislative approach to oil drilling in the area, Haliburton, responsible for the mechanical upkeep of systems that failed, and Transocean, the drilling company hired by BP, largely avoid the ire of the public.  BP’s response has been massive, practically and financially, yet their efforts are all painted against the blame which is thrown at them.

The fact that public anger is concentrated on BP, and not others, may have something to do with the media response they put forward.  It terms of crisis communications they have acted quickly and succinctly, as can be seen from their online work.  But their words, coming from their spokesperson of choice, CEO Tony Hayward, have acted as a magnet for anger and distrust, not sympathy and understanding.  And the question, albeit unquantifiable, must be raised: how much has the performance of Hayward in the media contributed to the financial hammer blow? 1%, 5%, 10% (even at 1% we’re taking  lots of zeros)

It is ironic that Tony Hayward, a very capable CEO, has always been known for his aggressive approach to maintaining and raising safety standards.  His experience in the field of oil exploration and the industry as a whole is (or should be) beyond reproach.  But all that counts for little when dealing with a vengeful media, encouraged by a public baying for blood, feeding a crisis maelstrom.

Hayward - Good CEO, bad spokesperson?

The cleverest, most capable, experienced, sensible, respected, even honest, CEO is never necessarilycapable of dealing with a media storm.  Such circumstances tend to be way outside their comfort zone, in an environment normally way out of their control.  The angel of the boardroom may be adept at managing people, resources, time, finances and the market, but without considerable forethought, experience, and training in dealing with the media these management attributes will count for little, and may cost a lot.

Hayward has been castigated for his performance in the media – from wanting his life back, when 11 were killed in the initial tragedy, to claiming that the ocean is very big, when to locals that’s not quite the point.  There are many other examples, in which Hayward has added (excuse the pun) fuel to the fire.

CB3, having looked into Hayward’s background and career, has no doubt over the honourable intentions of BP’s Chief, but if CEOs, senior managers, subject matter experts and spokespeople are ever going to face the media under such an onslaught, preparation, practice, mentoring and extensive training are utterly vital.  Working your message (assuming you know what it is), reconnecting during interview, handing tangential issues, subtle bridging, persuasive techniques, linguistic dexterity – these are all cerebral actions which must be almost second-nature during the sparring of a harsh media interview, manifesting itself in a rapid mental obstacle course.  Speaking confidently at the annual AGM, providing lively and humourous dinner party chat amongst other titans of industry, eloquently arguing your case in the  boardroom – all good and well, but such attributes, whilst handy, will not enable the dynamics, strategy and tactics required of a crisis media interview (or any media interview, come to that). It is a different ball game, in a different ball park, in a different country.

In defending one’s reputation during a crisis, being seen to do the right thing is crucial but as Hayward has shown, words spoken in the media during a crisis can be very, very expensive, immediately and for a long time afterwards.