Over recent months, some of the most sophisticated companies have
suffered from high-profile, negative exposure in the national media.
Cunard, British Gas and Shell are probably the most obvious examples.
Commentators within the public relations industry have suggested, with
the benefit of hindsight, that these crises could have been avoided with
better communications. Indeed, blame has been attributed to a lack of PR
awareness among top executives and a lack of corporate communications
specialists at board level.
While it is easy to criticise senior managers for all corporate
blunders, it seems about time managing directors invested more in their
organisation’s reputation, and ensured vital communications plans are in
For instance, in the case of British Gas, the company may have emerged
better from its crisis over executive salaries if its senior managers
had a fuller understanding of the media and its power. To some people,
the company’s performance represented a fundamental misunderstanding of
public attitudes. With greater preparation and understanding, British
Gas may have mitigated the damage from those notorious national
interviews, and especially the Radio Four Today programme.
One of the main problems is that it is easy for executives to get too
close to the logic of their own business to realise the emotional
response they engender to journalists and their audiences.
The elevation of communications to the boardroom is a major factor in
anticipating and tackling crises. Board level communications specialists
are ideally placed to predict and reduce potential threats, although
this requires careful research and on-going contingency planning - plus
the willingness to invest.
Most large organisations already have the financial resources needed to
research possible crises and their solutions. They also have capable
communications personnel. The main weakness of such organisations
appears to be excessive inertia, inhibiting a vigorous response to
potential public relations problems.
Speed is absolutely crucial, as many embryonic crises can be defused
before they become full-blown disasters. For instance, the recent scare
in the tabloids about the dangers of patulin in apple juice was squashed
swiftly by the producers’ PR consultancy by facing the issues head-on
with key journalists at an early stage.
This requires authoritative personnel in a position to respond
effectively: with a proper grasp of the issues, up-to-date information
and, above all, senior management having the trust in their consultancy
so it is receptive to the emotional feelings of critics, and do not
remain focused on the company’s internal perspective.
Much that affects companies is beyond their immediate control and
adverse media fall-out is sometimes inevitable. Ultimately, the degree
to which that adversity can be managed depends on a planned and
proactive approach to crisis communications.
Chris Woodcock is deputy managing director and crisis communications
specialist at Countrywide Communications