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If your project hit a crisis - would you know what to do?

Getting communication right in a crisis matters. History is littered with examples of never-recovered share prices and products. Two recent high profile examples have demonstrated how to get it right and how to get it wrong.

Thomas Cook’s handling of the tragic death two small children while on holiday just seemed to go from bad to worse. Andrew Griffin in his new book on crisis management quotes a senior executive at Total, the French energy giant praised for its handling of a gas leak in 2012: “to take care of reputation, you have to take care of people …. first.” Organisations dealing with crises should view at all times what is happening through the lens of the victims.

More recently, the owners of Alton Towers had to deal with the sad accident on one of their rides which has resulted in one young woman having a leg amputated. Speaking to the BBC, Rob Brown, president elect of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations said that it was inevitable that there would be impact on reputation but that the company had shown proper concern for the impact on the victims and were taking the incident seriously.
Chris Tucker who delivers courses in crisis communication management blogged some time ago about how in a crisis, it’s important to work with, and learn to love, the lawyers:

“In a crisis the obvious instinct of a lawyer is to minimise the chance of any prosecution and any future compensation claims.  That usually means telling the organisation to minimise any public statements.  So there is an obvious clash with the classic PR crisis management principle of tell it all, tell it fast and tell the truth.  The standard legal advice is relatively short-term when compared to the longer term view of reputation management taken by the PR professional.

“Make having a good relationship with the legal department a top priority before the crisis hits.”

Projects contain risk, we all learn on our project management courses and the management of risk is something that project managers excel at.  However, as a communicator coming into the project world, a big thing for me is that the identification of risk is often about risk to the project; there isn’t always enough attention paid to potential risks to the wider organisation’s reputation.

This is why it matters to have a communicator involved in risk identification, because he or she will have the reputation of the organisation in mind and may be sighted on issues elsewhere that could combine to make the perfect storm of a crisis.

4 comments

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  1. Meg Infiorati
    Meg Infiorati 30 June 2015, 03:50 PM

    Hi, 2 comments.1) If/when a crisis is in the making or occurs, one key to long term success is to have an understanding of " need to know" within your risk plan. An all out communication blast disrupts those who have no possibility of helping. And that blasting often results in unintended consequences of future and/or extended crisis problems.2) To avoid a situation becoming a crisis, FIRST- don't shoot the messenger. Even if the messenger is the cause. Instead, gather as many as are necessary (see above) to solve the problem, work the solutions, and then communicate your plan to solve along with timeframes. You can deal with the causation factors when the solution is in the making.Everyone does not need to know of a problem. In fact it can harm you. One common comment is "well, if you're going to touch x (sw, hw, service) why don't we also do y (everything else) - which is both scopecreep, introducing new problems, and creating resentment in those who's additions do not get included. A second outcome of crisis communication is "more minds and mouths slow the process of solving the problem". Thirdly, reputation can be harmed unnecessarily. Clearly identifying and documenting the problem gives those you do involve in the second communication the ability to better focus on avoiding the crisis, assessing the proposed solution, and quickly adding their comments or agreement to move forward.Crisis is not about the communication, it's about the resolution with as few interrupters as possible. Communication is one tool used to solve a problem

  2. Ann Pilkington
    Ann Pilkington 29 June 2015, 09:52 AM

    Hi Adrian, I was really interested to read your comment as it reminds me of a debate that we have in the world of communication - ie, how do you evaluate prevention of an issue/crisis and keeping something negative out of the media. We have never really cracked it. From a comms perspective its easy (well, easy-ish) to evaluate proactive, visible activity but we have really cracked how to evaluate what goes on behind the scenes. Of course, every organisation wants people who are a safe pair of hands when things go  wrong but it shouldn't just be about fire fighting.  For me, its about raising awareness in the organisation of the real role of communication and making it clear that it shouldn't just be measured in terms of outputs but also in the quality of advice given and reputation over the longer term.

  3. Chris Tucker
    Chris Tucker 29 June 2015, 01:03 PM

    There certainly needs to be more emphasis on seeing crisis management from the point orf view of three discrete phases: crisis prevention; crisis response; crisis learning.  Adrian is right that we see much written and said around the response part of the process but as one crisis management guru, Heath, has written: "The best-managed crisis is the one that does not occur."  That said it is in the crisis response that communication people in particular are more likely to be given that coveted seat at the top table and are asked to contribute in a more strategic way during what is a very high stakes situation.  Perhaps if they were awarded that role earlier in the project process i.e. when risks are being evaluated and planned for, their contribution would be more valued and better understood?          

  4. Adrian Pyne
    Adrian Pyne 28 June 2015, 09:36 AM

    Ann's observations are very moot.Thing is there are many in the profession who simply LOVE a crisis, who just LOVE to fight fires. Indeed there are whole cultures around the world for whom working to avoid project firefighting is anathema, as ability to deal with crises is how they are measured.Back to culture, of the organisational kind now. One indicator of the project culture in your organisation is recognition of success. Who are the best thought of project managers? Those who have a reputation for rescuing their projects, or those who quietly stop fires from breaking out in the first place?Which one are you?And oh yes, which do you think you really need to be......................?