Plan for the worst – act for the best

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The dreadful accident in Glasgow last Friday in which a police helicopter has crashed into a crowded pub reminded me of the importance of contingency planning and the vital role PR has in the actual management of a situation.

An incident like this illustrates the pressure the media can bring to bear on the emergency services with on scene live coverage continuing more than three days after the accident happened and reminded me of a key lesson I learnt when I was the PR Manager at Rampton Hospital which was you can’t have too many trained spokespeople. Crisis PR is often overlooked by organisations because “It will never happen to us” yet even when it is recognised as a key element of the reputation management of an organisation it is often under-resourced.

In particular this incident shows that you need cover in depth for crisis media management – both to handle the volume of interest, and to deal with a protracted incident. One PRO couldn’t possibly handle the media interest an incident like this generates for an extended period of time, which is why for instance I suspect we saw a spokesperson for the Fire Brigades Union explaining what fire-fighters would be doing on the news last night rather than an official spokesperson for the Glasgow Fire Brigade.

The second issue is in the training spokespeople have. No-one can see into the future, so it’s impossible to foresee every single crisis we may encounter. Certainly I doubt whether anyone trained for a scenario involving a helicopter crashing onto the roof of a crowded city pub (though I have I admit used some pretty outrageous scenarios in my time!). Training needs to be able to take this into account and avoid corralling the spokespeople’s thinking too much in advance.

Flexibility therefore is essential in developing training scenarios. The aim should be to give spokespeople a clear understanding of the questions the media will want to ask in a time of crisis (seeing the world through a journalist’s eyes) and a set of skills which will allow them to develop a clear narrative that meets those needs, provides a truthful picture of what has, is and will happen, and finally that ensures the reputation of the organisation is protected and if possible enhanced by the way it is seen to respond.

Finally, what few looking in from the outside will realise is that PR in a crisis is as much a part of the management of the situation as any of the more obvious operational responses of an organisation. The media are hungry beasts with constant and voracious appetites. Left without guidance they are quite capable of getting in the way of the operational handling of a crisis, so it’s important to develop a way of working which recognises that the PR function has a huge practical impact on operations during the immediate aftermath of an incident when space, people and resources will be required for the handling of the incident.

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Police see short term gains instead of long term advantage,

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I don’t often comment on political PR, but the “Plebgate” row made me think about the role of PR and the triumph of tactical thinking over strategic thinking.

“Plebgate” for those not in the know is an on-going scandal in the UK in which a government minister, Andrew Mitchell,  lost his job as a result of an incident with a police officer (he was alleged to have sworn at him and called him a Plb as he left a meeting a downing Street).

It seems now however that all was not quite as reported and that the situation was created and subsequently made worse by manipulation of the facts by Police officers in support of their wider campaign to attack the Government’s programme of cuts.

One important event leading to the minister’s departure was a meeting with three members of the Police Federation in his constituency after which they called for his sacking (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-24629610 ) .

It was this meeting that eventually led to the minister going,  that a Parliamentary Committee was examining today and emergence into the public domain of some interesting facts about the involvement of PR advisers.

Key to the Committee’s questions was clarification as to the aim of the meeting – it had been officially arranged as a “clear the air” session by the three Police Federation representatives with Mr Mitchell, yet the evidence today revealed that prior to their arrival the three police officers were accompanied by a PR adviser employed by the Police Federation who was liaising with the media to arrange interviews after the meeting. Such was the plan that the meeting was terminated at 5.45pm in time for them to meet the media in time for the evening news programmes – interviews in which they made it clear Mr Mitchell should go.

Why is this a MISS in PR terms? Well tactically they got it spot on – the bru-har-har they created  with their comments after the meeting, helped bring down the minister and there was massive coverage of what they said.

Unfortunately good PR is actually about achieving not just short term tactical gains but at achieving long term strategic success.

Andrew Mitchell had secretly recorded the meeting and it turns out what was actually said does not tally with the report given by the Police representatives in their highly critical media interviews afterwards. This has thrown considerable doubt on the integrity of the individuals, the Police Federation and the Force in general . One MP on the Committee stated that whilst he as at one point taking questions from  his constituents about Government cuts he was now dealing with questions about Police integrity instead.

So that PR adviser clearly helped manufacture a great deal of short term advantage – but that advantage has turned out to be a long term problem. It will be interesting to see what emerges should that PR adviser be invited to give evidence to the Commons Committee and how they refute the strong evidence that there was a conspiracy to bring down a minister even if it meant playing hard and fast with the truth.

I suspect a suit is being pressed  and an alibi being concocted as we speak.

Clothing stunt catches the eye

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Apparently people wearing animal print clothing have been banned from Chessington Zoo “because it is scaring the animals” in their new “African Zufari” area offering an “off road safari” experience. See article here.

From a PR perspective top marks to Frank PR for this media management stunt, which has caught the eye of news desks at national level – in some cases even using and crediting their photographs (see Daily Telegraph article here). Apparently they only got the Chessington contract at the start of this month (Article) so they have had to move rapidly to get the creative work done to organise and deliver this stunt.

With this bit of fun Frank PR have pulled the zoo right into the public eye at a time when zoos generally are probably not at the top of public awareness when it comes to leisure activities.

Of course, I should justify my comment that it “pains me to say” this PR stunt is a hit. There is no basis to the ruling – it really is a made up problem. Animals see the world with greater clarity than any of us and the fact that these “animal printed” humans will be sat in vehicles means they will never be seen as a threat to the wildlife – particularly in an environment entirely constructed by people.

I know from 20 years visiting Africa to view wildlife, that in the real, open spaces of the African plains, it is actually bright colours such as reds, yellows and blues that animals notice – and even then they only react when they see people on foot. Interestingly of the articles I’ve read generated by this stunt, only the BBC sought the views of other animal experts.

I suppose though that making anyone wearing red, yellow or blue wear the “grey overalls” supposedly being distributed at Chessington would have been an expensive proposition, and simply banning people for bad taste if they turned up in animal print clothing might have attracted the wrong sort of headlines.

Looking forward to getting back in the s

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Looking forward to getting back in the saddle at Lincoln Uni and to meeting PR course students new and old.

Volunteer Britian?

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Well done Lord Coe for highlighting the importance of volunteers and for calling on the nation to step up its efforts to encourage more people to give their time.

After the boom in enthusiasm for volunteering focused on the Olympics last year it appears the 70,000 “games makers” is not translating into a sea change in volunteer involvement in the UK ( Sunday Telegraph). But one of the key PR messages to come out of the Olympics has perhaps been missed.

The secret to encouraging people to give the time to good causes is not their recruitment – important and challenging though this is – but in ensuring that the people who do volunteer are appreciated and valued for their input and rewarded when they perform well. For too long volunteering has been seen by the Third sector as “free labour”, and the culture has been one of organisations taking rather than giving. This, in my opinion, is partly why volunteering in the UK never takes off in the way it could.

Traditionally there has been too much focus on the role of volunteers and too little on what the volunteers themselves get out of the experience. Certainly the Olympics couldn’t have happened without the volunteers – and whilst altruistic desire to see the games succeed will have been part of what made individuals come forward, the real drivers were much more personal factors, such as challenge, personal development, developing business opportunities, learning new skills and let’s not underplay it – sheer fun.

People working in the Third Sector responsible for persuading people to volunteer and for managing them when they do come forward need to switch their messaging focus from what’s in it for the charity or cause to what’s in it for the individual.

In 1961 JFK said “… ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.” Perhaps managers and communicators in the Third Sector could re-phrase this and say “Ask not what your volunteers can do for you – ask what you can do for them.

Basil Clarke – a PR hero for our time

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It’s not often a new hero comes along, still yet one who was working on reputation management almost a century ago.

This PR Week article about Basil Clarke was a revelation and I can’t wait to read more about this remarkable man.

Almost a century ago Clarke was developing a way of working which would put many of today’s practitioners to shame. His ethical approach was not driven by codes of conduct or the risk of bad press in the trade media, but on a strong and practical understanding of what was right.

I try to impress on students that working ethically is not an altruistic choice – there are strong business reasons for working in a way which considers the needs of others. Clarke knew that his business relied on relationships and trust and the examples given in the PR week article show him to be a man of great vision and understanding.

Some of this, no doubt came from his experiences in the First World war and the picture of him is one in Uniform – to come through the carnage of the trenches must have made many men question the values of the society in which they lived, yet Clarke shows a down to earth understanding of fairness and honesty in business which many today fail to understand.

We can learn a great deal from men such as Clarke.

Budget no barrier to communication

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Working with a small budget and volunteers is no barrier to PR success, and two examples of this close to my heart show this .

Now, it might seem like a bit of self promotion, but I can assure you I’m awarding a hit this week not for my role in the training, but for the attitude and approach of my colleagues in the Army Cadet Force, who, as volunteers with no previous PR experience are adapting and adopting techniques which just a few years ago would have been way beyond the budget of not for profit organisations.

First I’d like to highlight the work of a delegate on a recent training weekend who started with no video experience at all. A day and a half later this short film, now up on You tube is what she was able to create. It goes to show what can be achieved in a very short space of time with a little guidance (credit to my ACF PR Training team colleague Tony Lloyd) and a willingness to learn.

Where this then heads is my next PR Hit – Cleveland ACF. Their PR Officer, who recently attended our Social Media training weekend, has just placed a video of the cadets from his county achieving success at  athletics on Facebook . In just 24 hours the video had got more than 1000 views.

Together these successes show how easy it is now for volunteers to gain the basic skills and how significant free tools can be in giving not for profit organisations the reach traditionally associated with commercial concerns with big budgets.

 

 

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