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Masters of disasters
Friday, 26 June 2009 14:53

From crash landings on rivers to rivers crashing down landings, we’ve witnessed a torrent of potential PR disasters over the last couple of years: But when it comes to being prepared for crisis communication, which companies have remained watertight? Jon Barker took the plunge

Monty Python may have ridiculed him in rhyme, but when Henry Kissinger said: “There cannot be a crisis next week – my schedule is already full”, was he actually being remarkably prescient? In some of the following examples of successful crisis management we find similar wit, audacity and frankness, despite the enormous potential for catastrophe.

In this month’s Trial by Jury, we asked UK media relations and communication agencies to pick their leading recent examples. Here are the top five crisis communications, as chosen by those in the know.

Virgin Trains

On the evening of Friday 23 February 2007, a Virgin train travelling from London to Glasgow derailed and
crashed at Grayrigg, near Kendal, Cumbria, killing one person and injuring five. At a press conference at the scene of the crash, Virgin boss Sir Richard Branson was visibly emotional and every comment he made seemed positive, complimentary and dignified. He even commended Network Rail for being “dignified” in accepting responsibility for the accident.

Branson had cut short a family holiday to attend the scene of the accident and visit the hospitals treating the injured. He hailed the train driver as a hero and also praised the design and robustness of the train, saying that an older train would have resulted in “horrendous” injuries and mortalities.

“Communication with the media from all parties at the crash site was swift, efficient and accurate with Virgin chairman Richard Branson and John Armitt, CEO of Network Rail, both briefed and available for interview,” says Jeremy Kent, director of PR agency The Brand Counsel. “As the investigation continued, Armitt was the central spokesperson for Network Rail and gave an honest, full and up-to-date disclosure at
every point.”

But Branson’s was a high-risk strategy: he’d speculated about the cause of the crash, spoken over the agreed lines of media PR with Network Rail and other stakeholders, and had made a hero out of one of his own people ahead of the emergency services involved.

However, on Monday 26 February, Network Rail announced that the suspected set of points were in fact the cause of the accident. It also confirmed that there was no evidence that the train was a contributing factor. Branson’s words had been backed up by the facts.

During a PR conference, The Independent editor-in-chief Simon Kellner described Branson’s handling of the crisis as ‘genius PR’. He added that ‘Branson took the story away from being an institutional and public disaster and made it one about the heroism of the train driver.’

Branson turned a potentially reputation-damaging incident into an example of best practice crisis communications.

British Airways crash-landing at London Heathrow

Branson demonstrated that leaders can emerge from crises with their reputations enhanced. And in crisis
management, there is more pressure than ever before on leaders.

None more so that the pilot of British Airways flight BA038, which came so close to crashing catastrophically. Captain Peter Burkill and his crew were something of a godsend for the BA media team: televised press conferences were accompanied by cheering and applause and every word of Captain Burkill was perfectly weighted to convey an image of a captain whose team had simply done a duty for which it was trained.

Naturally, the press seized on a hero named Coward - the co-pilot who glided the plane to its terrifyingly bumpy but safe halt – but no sense ofindividual glory was communicated from BA, only a quiet and understated team pride along with proper apologies to the miraculously few who had been injured.

And while a crash or near-miss will rarely bolster public confidence in an airline, BA’s communication team was able, within hours, to parade a cast of true Brit heroes. The briefing that told the press how the crew had celebrated their heroics “with a curry”, while further human interest interviews continued to direct a favourable news agenda that concentrated on the human skill that saved lives rather than on the mechanical failures that could have cost so many.

Both aviation and communication disasters were averted. Indeed, the skilled presentation of BA’s band of heroes could even have prompted increased passenger confidence and numbers.

“There are a few recent examples from the travel industry demonstrating that companies going through a crisis can not only keep their reputation intact, but have their staff turned into heroes,” says Andrew Griffin, MD of Regester Larkin Limited.

“British Airways got it right here. Fortunately, no one died, but it could have been a reputation damaging incident. However, they came through it, making the pilot a hero and almost manifesting the BA brand of solidness and reliability.”

Yorkshire floods
In January 2008, prolonged heavy rain on already saturated land resulted in 12 severe flood warnings being issued across South and North Yorkshire. In anticipation of widespread flooding, based on detailed information from its flood forecasting team, the Leeds-based Environment Agency’s communications team immediately put plans in place to prepare a 24/7 rota of spokespeople to handle media interviews.

Area manager Craig McGarvey volunteered to lead on media interviews and dedicated his time to interviews as priority while a communications programme for key stakeholders was set up so our area managers were assigned to speak to each via telephone providing updates for their specific area.

Based on recommendations from the summer floods of 2007, proactive updates on the flood situation were sent to key journalists and filming opportunities were identified for them out on the ground, which meant the Agency could manage the situation, and pull media to one location, where they could ensure a spokesperson was available for interviews.

Having a face of the crisis helped the audience identify with the Environment Agency, especially as McGarvey appeared on several interviews on the BBC, over a few days. Indeed, McGarvey handled a total of 16 proactive media interviews for radio and television over the period (13 of which in were elivered within 48 hours).

Feedback to the team’s service during this time was commended and ultimately enhanced its reputation in the organisation – it won Communications Team of the Year 2008 at the Environment Agency’s annual awards ceremony. McGarvey received a highly commended award for regional spokesperson of the year 2008 at the same ceremony.

Alexandra Wales, communications business partner at the Environment Agency says: “Since the widespread floods in Yorkshire in summer 2007, we’ve made good links with the local media, so that we can work together more effectively in a crisis.

“We’ve also improved our crisis response plan, and a fundamental part of that is having dedicated and skilled spokespeople like Craig on hand who can be on location at short notice. The floods in January 008 were an opportunity for us to put it all into practice – and ultimately we were much more in control of the situation.”

US Airways landing on the Hudson river

Continuing the ‘crash-course’ in best practice crisis communications is the handling of the US Airways jet that crash landed in the Hudson River: excellent handling, both by the pilot and by US Airways’ management of the media.

Almost within an hour of the news breaking the US Airways senior vice president of communication Elise Eberwein was able to introduce her CEO, Doug Parker to the world’s media, and give an informed and prepared statement that demonstrated a corporation reacting swiftly and competently to the unfolding incident thousands of miles from the airline’s Arizona base.

“Right now, we’re working to care for those who have been touched by this accident,” he said. “Members of our airline family will come together with these families to help however we can. Safety is, has been and forever will be our foremost priority. All of us at US Airways are committed to determining the cause of this event and to assist in every way possible in preventing a similar occurrence.”

The footage of the crash made for great television viewing – in spectacle alone, and in the speed at which the organisations involved reacted. But also for how quickly crisis communications plans can be put into action.

Naturally, airlines regularly practise responding to emergency situations. They never know when an incident is going to happen, what form it will take and how bad the crisis might be – but they do know they will need to respond quickly, calmly and effectively demonstrating that they on top of the situation and responding appropriately. And they need to focus on communicating as much inside their organisation as they do externally.

One of the fundamental principles of crisis management is that bad things happen to good organizations all the time. It isn’t the severity of the negative event that determines whether the organization suffers reputational, operational, or financial harm, but rather the nature and timeliness of the response.

Health food manufactures’ association (HFMA)

Pegasus PR has been working to raise the profile of the Health Food Manufacturers’ Association (HFMA) since May 2007. Potential disaster struck on 15 April 2008, when the HFMA was presented with 24-hours warning in advance of the publication of a Cochrane Systematic Review into the use of antioxidant vitamins and minerals for the primary prevention of mortality, undertaken by the Cochrane Collaboration.

Faced with a potentially negative story on a slow news day, Pegasus PR was tasked with defending the natural health industry, asserting the views of the HFMA and positioning the organisation as the number one source of comment for the sector.

So what did they do? An HFMA statement from the HFMA’s senior scientific advisor, Dr Michele Sadler PhD was composed and distributed to 158 key national and regional health and news correspondents, plus the news syndication services including Reuters and PA News, to provide a considered expert opinion in response to the story.

The crisis team fielded 136 media calls throughout the day, setting up interviews with 23 broadcast channels and five print publications including BBC News 24, Sky News, The Wright Stuff and The Times. But it was also important to maintaining the momentum: immediately after the initial publication date, a more in-depth scientific response was drafted and despatched to correspondents at 66 Sunday newspapers, weekly and monthly publications.

The lessons here? Pro-activity speaks louder than words: the decision to proactively rebut the Cochrane Review in advance of its publication assisted in balancing pieces published on the story. But also, one voice: with blanket media coverage, the HFMA and its Expert Panel was the most widely quoted of all organisations speaking about the research on behalf of the natural health industry.

Unlike many other crisis situations, success was measured not on the number of publications who did not run the story, but on the number who did, incorporating the HFMA comments and observations. As a result of the campaign, the HFMA and its Expert Panel was positioned at the forefront of the minds of virtually every health journalist in the UK - sustained media coverage was achieved in national press and 95% of coverage on the research publication date included reference to the HFMA, or a quote from the HFMA Expert Panel.

“As a communications consultancy, we have the same procedure for dealing with crises,” says Lisa Bradley, MD of Pegasus PR. “This was different in that we had a day’s notice to source experts and prepare a statement. We adopt a three-stage plan: what are we doing today; what are we doing tomorrow; and what are we doing longer term. We assigned one person to handle all the calls – there were over 100 – and sort them into those on the tightest deadlines, those who needed a spokesperson and those that were for broadcast media. And weensured that everyone in the consultancy knew what was going on, and that we were dealing with a crisis. We were like swans – peddling frantically beneath the surface but behaving calmly.”