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5 things I learned from PRWeek’s Crisis Conference

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The opportunity to listen to some brilliant case studies from some seasoned comms operators at the recent PRWeek Crisis Comms conference was a rare opportunity to validate some existing thoughts and note some useful pointers for the future. Having waded through the notes I scribbled with the enthusiasm of a Labour Party supporter at a Stormzy gig, I wanted to share a few of the takeaways. I’ve not referred to specific people or brands who presented at the seminar as I didn’t think that’d be fair without their prior knowledge.


The convergence of legal and comms teams during times of crisis is not, in my experience, a match made in heaven. As we know, when things go wrong, as comms people we’re inclined to express compassion and regret. Yet there can be perceived legal implications to ‘apologising’ when something goes wrong. But as we’ve all seen, the reputational damage caused by not apologising can be worse. Not to mention the commercial implications. Just ask Oscar Munoz, CEO of United Airlines, who in 2017 stalled his apology to the 69-year-old passenger forcibly dragged off a United flight. Whether or not Munoz was advised by his legal team not to apologise, I don’t know. Lesson learned: The fact remains that legal and comms teams simply have to work together in times of crisis and we need to work with them to find the best way of communicating with audiences.


One fascinating case study we heard was from a global beauty brand whose North American team had decided some time ago to detach themselves into a separate corporation, essentially leaving two separate companies both operating under the same name. So, to the unwitting consumer, they are the same brand. Not a problem. Until the North American company published an ad that was more, shall we say, 1950s than 2019 in the message it was conveying… Unbeknownst to them, the global comms team (i.e. not the ones who’d created, seen, signed off – or even had anything to do with the ad) then found itself at the centre of a reputation storm. They were having to fight a fire started by a distant cousin across the pond that was subsequently fuelled by a rightly disgusted influencer. Lesson Learned: Unfortunately, a case of mistaken identity can still damage the innocent brand.


In the throws of a crisis when clippings are rolling in faster than a Glastonbury ticket register, it’s easy to assume you’re front page news all over the world. The risk of the doing so is that any response could be ill-timed, unnecessary or disproportionate. It’s vital to use your senses – and your agencies – to guide you on how the story is actually registering with audiences. Lesson learned: Get your social agency to give you twice daily volume and sentiment reports. Get your PR agency to give you anecdotal feedback reports from journalists. Trust me – we love doing reports. Then let those agencies guide the tone, timing and force of your response.


When an issue is breaking, as comms people we tend to be preoccupied with trying to manage the outside world. Invariably, this involves prepping comms people for interviews, writing and re-writing statements, developing ten pages of social media Q&A only to then decide “we’re not engaging with this nonsense on social”…the list goes on. But all the while, those colleagues employed by the brand in crisis – who are not in the comms team or directly involved in the crisis – are continuing to go about their day to day lives, and face questions from their friends and family. “How was work today, darling? What’s happening with that contamination? My friends are all asking if they should still be drinking BRAND X and I don’t know what to tell them!” Lesson learned: Arm your colleagues with one or two lines they can feed family and friends. Your (hopefully) most valued commodity – your people – will appreciate the consideration and you’ll get a accurate and consistent message out.


‘Control’. It’s a word that comes up a lot in crisis comms. But in this instance, one comms director at a financial institution talked about how they knew some bad news was coming. Rather than bracing through gritted teeth and awaiting the disastrous coverage, the approach adopted was to brief media proactively on the bad news that was to come. Open, honest, humble and believable was the strategy for conveying this story. And low and behold, the media appreciated this gesture and it actually gave them the time to construct a more positive story for the brand. Lesson learned: Not all media are out to get you. Doing them the courtesy of a heads up on bad news to come can actually turn that negative into a positive when the coverage lands.

Ollie Druttman is brand reputation director at Launch and runs media training. If you’re interested in hearing more about this or for a confidential discussion about your media training requirements, please get in touch on oliverd@hellolaunch.co.uk / 0207 758 3900.