MARKETING MIX: SOAP BOX; Communication is a deterrent to ugly PR disasters

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.

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


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