Weathering a media storm: What we learned from the PRCA’s Crisis Comms Conference

NB Team

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2015’s media storms have already given us plenty of ammunition for water cooler chat here at NBU Towers – from tragic theme park accidents, to errant tweets speaking their own crises.

It’s no surprise last week’s PRCA Crisis Communications sessions was jam-packed with a cross section of representatives, itching to discuss their own experiences. These range from the likes of Network Rail, the London Underground and Co-operative Group, to Carnival Cruises, Oxfam and even the Department of Health.

Despite the range of recommendations and opinions and the contrasting sectors they came from, there were five points which came through loud and clear by the end of the day:

1. Practice makes perfect. Nobody wants to manage a crisis, but swift, informed internal and external communication, paired with rapid operations management is key.

A well-oiled crisis management process is invaluable when the time comes, so identifying the top risks to the business, developing plans to address them and embarking on crisis media and scenario training regularly is key – “keeping our crisis comms muscle flexed,” as I heard one speaker describe it as. Managing a crisis is often unavoidably stressful, but having a set process to turn to can often take the initial sting out of the experience, even if it isn’t the exact scenario we planned for.

2. The crises which really stay with consumers and cause long-term damage to a business strike a corporate chord, and call into question an element of trust and/or integrity. We shouldn’t bank on an incident which falls within this bracket becoming the next day’s fish and chip wrapping if the response doesn’t put the customer at the heart of their next steps. It’s often not the initial issue, but the response which dictates whether it becomes the stuff of a PR professional’s nightmares.

3. Be flexible. The Department of Health revealed it evolved a flu epidemic crisis comms simulation when it became clear Ebola was escalating quickly, and this quick thinking and preparation contributed to the government driving a huge, downward trend in cases of the disease.

4. Brands shouldn’t forget their legal rights. Although the Defamation Action 2013 has the potential to make libel claims more challenging to win these days, there are still ways brands can show measurable damage as a result of factually incorrect coverage.

Ofcom also continues to reinforce formal processes media are required to follow when requesting a response from a business before publishing an article – we shouldn’t forget about our rights of reply, as this entitles us to a minimum of one hour for print, but also often up to 10 days to provide an appropriate level of information for broadcast enquiries.

5. A picture speaks a thousand words. Images are still key to media outlets, whether they’re online, broadcast or print. Releasing an image which encapsulates the issue being addressed can help move the narrative beyond the issue quicker than simply an updated statement.

During the session, Sky’s Online Assistant Editor reminded us journalists are generally morally guided towards stories, but many view news as drama, with heroes and villains. It’s always easier said than done, as we all agreed last week, but preparation really was the resounding answer to giving a business the strongest chance of coming out the other side of a crisis quickly, and (relatively) unscathed.