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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Clothing stunt catches the eye

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MC900433800Hit (though it pains me to say it!)

 

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.

Hats off to Hacked Off

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MC900433800HIT

The Hacked Off Campaign, set up to draw attention to press excesses and call for a new way of regulating the newspapers, seems to have pulled off a significant coup with its campaign for greater accountability for journalists in the written media in Britain.

It’s been announced today that all the three main parliamentary parties have finally agreed a way forward establishing a new, more robust approach to press regulation (see here BBC report) and that the main thrust of the Leveson Inquiry may become a reality.

Whether the agreed way forward gets implemented is still up for question as the media are likely to fight tooth and nail for weaker oversight (much as they have now with the in-house, Press Complaints Commission which has been described as as much use as a one legged man in a backside kicking competition), however in the light of their recent activity, with more revelations still coming out about their lack of ethics in news gathering, the tide of public opinion is very much against them.

In my training I work with people ranging from business executives to academics and charity workers – I have yet to come across anyone attending my workshops who comes with anything better than a jaundiced view of journalists and what to expect from them. Indeed many come with downright hostility and suspicion. Truthful and honest reporting of the facts is rarely at the top of their expectations and it would be a salutary experience I’m sure for journalists to attend one of my sessions to see how low their reputation lies with ordinary people. So significant is this, that perhaps 30% of the work I do to help organisations work with the media is focussed on building some understanding and sympathy for the way journalists work to reduce the fear and suspicion people have of them.

The problem for most journalists (who do act fairly and ethically) is they fail to understand that the extent to which the excessive behaviour of some of their brethren has tainted the whole profession, and that the only way to regain public confidence is to clearly demonstrate that decency, truth and honesty are at the heart of their trade. Having a robust regulator is one way to reassure the public that the beast can be domesticated. But the profession has to accept that it also has to embrace these changes and adopt a more ethical approach to news gathering if it is to regain public confidence.

The truth is, straightforward honest journalists, even investigative journalists, have nothing to fear from tighter regulation and everything to gain – because once again their readers will have faith in what has been written, rather than viewing everything with cynicism.

So hats off to Hacked off – not only have they done all those who have ben abused by journalistic excess  a huge service, but they may well have done journalism itself a favour too by forcing the first steps towards it regaining public trust and support.

A Victory out on the front line for Harry

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MC900433800Hit

The decision to allow an extended interview with Prince Harry at the end of his tour of duty as an Apache helicopter co- pilot/gunner was an exercise in pragmatic media management with unexpected consequences.

After his last tour, which was cut short when the media revealed he was with his Regiment on the ground in Afghanistan, the MOD decided to take a co-operative approach, offering the media an opportunity for an extended  pooled interview to be broadcast at the end of his deployment if they stayed off his back whilst he was on duty.

Whilst there was some limited PR value for the MOD,  there is no doubt in my mind that the real hit here was that the interview did much for “Brand Wales”.

Prince Harry is someone the media ( and hence the public) have enjoyed seeing make a gaff or two – from Nazi costume at a fancy dress party to candid shots snatched in a Vegas hotel room – he has been called the “Party Prince”. Yet here we saw a young man, clearly uncomfortable with the rigmarole of the media circus imposed upon him, showing how much it means to serve his country, and to “belong” to something where he is valued for who he is and what he can do, rather than what he represents.

To some who are less familiar with the culture and language of the Army (and Officer’s Mess in particular), he might have come across as diffident. But to me this was his clear reluctance to engage except on his terms. His interview showed he holds a genuine love for soldiering, which it is clear gives him an environment in which “he can just be one of the boys”, getting on with an important job without the superficial judgement of journalists. At one pont he even alluded to the fact that the interview was not what he wanted, but part of the deal to make it possible for him to serve on the front line again.

In the business of reputation management honesty and openness are priceless assets. Whilst the interview may have been seen as a PR opportunity for the MOD the real winner was Harry himself, with his reluctant yet revealing words he has shown that behind the picture painted remotely by the media stands someone keen to be his own man.

Ambush tactics

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HIT for David Cameron

MISS for ITV This Morning Show

 

The Paedophile scandal tsunami sweeping Britain at the moment got close to getting out of hand this morning when Phillip Scofield (not someone known for his investigative reporting) ambushed the PM on his “This Morning” TV show on ITV with a list of names gathered from the internet of alleged paedophiles in the Conservative party (Story here.) The reputation of one was enhanced, the reputation of the other degraded.

Schofield asked Cameron if he would be speaking to the people named, and the PM responded with a warning about “a witch-hunt” driven by unsubstantiated rumours about party members past and present named on the internet.

First of all, David Cameron scores a hit for the way he dealt with this live TV ambush. His media skills were well up to the mark this morning. When something like this happens on live TV it’s hard to maintain composure and with an issue like this easy to respond in a populist manner, yet he rightly stuck to his line that any allegations need to be directed to the Police, and pointed out very firmly that there is a real danger in picking names off the internet which may be there without any basis whatsoever. As a result he appeared in control, capable of seeing the wider picture and offered a degree of gravitas lacking in the event itself.

Second I think this is a Miss in PR terms for ITV as not only did it make the presenter look rather poor in journalistic terms (no self respecting journalist would admit to taking information from the internet at face value) but the stunt of passing the paper to the PM over the table on live TV risked the names being seen opening up the potential for legal action by people potentially slandered. (The Telegraph blurred the paper to obscure the names when re-running the footage for this very reason, and the PM himself placed it face down on the table). Furthermore, just as New Labour shunned The Today programme on Radio 4, it would be no surprise to see “This Morning” getting the cold shoulder in future from the present government.

The issue of child abuse in institutional settings is clearly a serious one, but crass, opportunistic stunts like this do nothing to shed light on the matter, nor do they treat it with the seriousness it deserves.

Taking the rap.

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MISS

 

I feel a bit bad rating the BBC’s handling of the Jimmy Saville allegations a miss – because I’ve been there and know how hard it is, as a corporate body, to take the rap for the behaviour of an individual employed by you.

Loyalty between an organisation and its staff, and staff to an organisation is a laudable trait – but it has a dark side for people working in PR tasked with protecting an organisation’s reputation.

The gradual shift of approach by the BBC in response to allegations about Jimmy Saville reflects many an organisation’s reaction to a member of staff being the focus of criticism, not about their corporate behaviour (ie their actual work on behalf of the organisation), but their personal behaviour.

The initial response is to protect the individual (in the BBC’s case an individual with a high public profile and massive public appeal who had been an employee for decades), this protection becoming more and more difficult and strained as more information emerges (as it always does in crisis situations) until they have to respond with a commitment to investigate.

Of course by then the damage has been done, the corporate body has been seen to be slow / reluctant to act and therefore becomes implicated in the story – a passive accomplice to the personal actions of the individual.

Now, clearly in the case of the BBC there are other issues – some of the allegations are said to revolve around activity carried out on BBC premises and with other BBC staff “in the know” – but the general pattern of response is a common one.

Organisations do not like to turn on their own.

Yet people who care about organisational reputation need to be able to push the pace of response, and have to be prepared to cut individuals loose early on if necessary. The truth is no organisation sets out to have staff doing the kind of things Jimmy Saville is accused of, and the organisation’s trust in him as an employee has been betrayed. In reputational terms the organisation becomes another victim.

When an allegation like the Jimmy Saville stories breaks it’s like a bottle of ink being knocked over – the stain spreads quickly and over a wide area if it isn’t blotted up at once.

What the BBC are saying now, some three to four days after the story broke, is correct – it’s a Police matter first and after they have investigated the BBC will look at their own failings. It appears as though  they have now “cut loose” Sir Jimmy.

The problem is, the stain has already spread, and there will be an awful lot of people wanting to look into a great many areas of the organisation to see how deeply tainted they are.

As always speed is of the essence in crisis comms – but it’s not just communication response time that matters in these kind of issues. It’s the will to act, and act quickly against individuals who threaten your corporate reputation, distancing the body corporate from their personal behaviour and acts that really matters.

The biter bit?

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MISS

 

On this morning’s “Today” programme on BBC Radio Four we had the interesting experience of hearing a seasoned broadcast journalist drop himself well and truly in it.

In an interview about the Abu Hamza extradition BBC Security Correspondent Frank Gardner dropped in to the interview  that, at the hight of Hamza’s notoriety,  he had had a conversation with The Queen in which she had commented on the fact that Hamza had not been arrested.

The moment he said it you knew the interviewer, James Naughtie would pounce – and pounce he did.

There was also a moment where, if you are a seasoned interview listener, when you could hear Frank Gardener’s mind saying “Oh no why did I say that”, as clearly the almost off the cuff comment was going to open a can of worms consisting of Royal protocol, journalistic respect of off the record and private comments.

Before the Today Programme had finished the comment was lead item in the news and only an hour or so later the BBC was back tracking with Frank Gardner, to apologise for revealing something which was not intended for public consumption.

A couple of PR lessons here. First it’s worth bearing in mind that even if you don’t expect something you say to a journalist to be published or broadcast, remember they may end up revealing it by accident – even years later. My advice has always been never say anything you wouldn’t want to see in print.

Second, it shows how even skilled, seasoned broadcast journalists can get caught out by their colleagues, particularly when they become commentators rather than reporters.

True Naughtie could have spotted the hole Gardner was digging and helped him out, but his nose for news was too strong – but Gardner could have spent more time preparing what he was going to say, just as I would advise any client going to do an interview.

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