The crisis battlefield: preparing for your mission  

As part of the Mumbrella Comms Conference for 2017, I was quick to mark my attendance as a lawyer turned PR consultant at a session titled “911: Do I call the Lawyers in or the Crisis Comms Team”.

Having just developed Scout, an innovative crisis and issues offering with Cannings’ sister-agency, DT, I thought the insights from other industry experts on how modern day crises are handled would resonate.

My key take-out from the session was that lawyers and PR consultants have equally important roles to play that are clear, almost analogous to military roles:

The Sergeant

Having a Sergeant or command controller responsible for managing the crisis management team and to act as the key spokesperson is crucial. The Sergeant should be someone who has a robust and strong personality to be able to respond to all stakeholders when a crisis breaks. This is usually the Corporate Affairs or Communications Director who is tapped into each stakeholder group and aware of the sensitivities and areas of concern for each.

This role has oversight of the operation – collecting facts, reporting back to the crisis management team and giving honest feedback to those at the frontlines of crisis response.

The Lieutenant

With the priority to manage and protect the legal position of the company, the Lieutenant or the lawyer is critical in preparatory and response phases of a crisis to ensure that the issues in question won’t expose the company or its personnel to legal action.

Working seamlessly with his / her platoon, the public relations team, all key messages developed for the crisis should be communicated to stakeholders effectively and in a way they can understand.

Above all, the Lieutenant should be assisting the public relations team and company to look for legal solutions during a crisis, as opposed to finding roadblocks that hinder the company’s ability to respond effectively and authentically.

Strategy requires empathy

As we talked through some recent crisis examples, it emerged that emotions are often at the forefront during a battle.

Emotion can often amplify a situation and be difficult for spokespeople to cut through, hence why it is even more important to have a well-rehearsed process to rely on.

To ensure your process is effective and current, the panel encouraged personnel to be proactive in flagging potential issues. Ask yourself and your troops, what current topics are going to drive particular issues to be higher on the public’s agenda? Is the media’s spotlight currently positioned on a particular debate or trend in company culture? These bigger picture questions can help you remain focused when media or public scrutiny tries to pull you off course.

Decisive victory

As we often talk about at Scout, a modern day crises can spread like wildfire, particularly across social media channels.

The panel agreed that “A good decision made on a Tuesday, is better than a perfect decision made on Sunday”. In other words, a quick response is the best approach, even if you have limited information in the early stages of a crisis. You can continue to refine and assess facts as more details emerge. And of course, working with your Sergeant and Lieutenant to keep stakeholders in the loop by transparently communicating what is known and unknown at that particular point in the crisis.

There was also strong emphasis on the need for companies to take ownership of the issues at hand, to bear the brunt of their problems and not point blame elsewhere.

In terms of a best practice social media policy, the consensus amongst the panelists was to have a portal of information to link people back to as opposed to preparing individual responses to comments– resist reacting and focus on listening. Listening to conversations on social media can often be the key to predicting and preparing for further issues that may snowball as a result of the original crisis. Above all, like any sophisticated defence force, you must be constantly training your troops for a potential ambush.

Panel members included: Ava Lawler – Weber Shandwick, Stephen Von Muenster – DVW Law, Nicole McKechnie – Telstra and Robyn Sefiani– Sefiani Communications Group

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