At a re­cent sum­mit for pub­lic re­la­tions pro­fes­sion­als, we sat in on a ses­sion with cri­sis com­mu­ni­ca­tion ex­pert and ca­reer trou­bleshooter Don­ald Steel.


At a re­cent sum­mit for pub­lic re­la­tions pro­fes­sion­als, we sat in on a ses­sion with cri­sis com­mu­ni­ca­tion ex­pert and ca­reer trou­bleshooter Don­ald Steel.

As jour­nal­ists, we deal with PR and com­mu­ni­ca­tions peo­ple day in and day out and it was the curiosity of try­ing to fig­ure out what hap­pens on the other side of the wall that drew us ini­tially to the Global Trends in PR Sum­mit or­gan­ised at W Ho­tel Doha re­cently. One par­tic­u­lar ses­sion that caught the eye was Don­ald Steel's Cri­sis Com­mu­ni­ca­tion Sim­u­la­tion. When you are the voice of your or­gan­i­sa­tion, how would you re­act to a rapidly-es­ca­lat­ing cri­sis in­volv­ing your com­pany? Would you have planned for ev­ery even­tu­al­ity or would you just fol­low your gut in­stinct? What would be your pri­or­ity? Time? Au­then­tic­ity? Clar­ity? “Any busi­ness that deals with the pub­lic has in­her­ent risks,” he says. “If you op­er­ate a busi­ness that in­volves the pub­lic in large num­bers, a shop­ping mall for ex­am­ple, you have to pre­pare for risks like fire, build­ing col­lapse, crime or worse. You need to have a plan and rehearse it of­ten. Maybe you'll be lucky enough to never need it. But it is a fact that the pub­lic and the mar­kets judge a com­pany based on how they re­spond when things go wrong and in an emer­gency your true val­ues tend to shine through.”

Dur­ing Steel's 11-year stint as the chief me­dia spokesman for the Bri­tish Broad­cast­ing Cor­po­ra­tion, where he “solely dealt with ev­ery kind of trou­ble and very lit­tle pleas­ant news”, he de­vel­oped a “deep level of knowl­edge of cri­sis com­mu­ni­ca­tion and ex­per­tise through ex­pe­ri­ence”; ex­pe­ri­ence like be­ing on the in­for­ma­tion front­line when a top pre­sen­ter is shot dead on her doorstep, a ter­ror­ist at­tack on the cen­tre, jour­nal­ists be­ing kid­napped and del­i­cate news sto­ries that lead to diplomatic stand­offs. Also, be­ing a me­dia mam­moth did not mean that the BBC had any con­trol over how the news re­ported the BBC it­self. It was like any other cor­po­ra­tion caught in the head­lights when some­thing un­ex­pected comes down on it like a ton of bricks.

In W Ho­tel a cri­sis was sim­u­lated for the ex­er­cise. Imag­ine you are part of the com­mu­ni­ca­tions team at a ma­jor hy­dro­car­bons pro­ducer and dis­trib­u­tor. The day be­gins like any other reg­u­lar work day would, ex­cept at 10:37 a.m. an alarm­ing news re­port comes in. A tanker, sus­pected to be­long to the com­pany, has had an ac­ci­dent near a

school. Cause un­known. Ca­su­al­ties re­ported, num­bers and se­ri­ous­ness of in­juries un­known. With this min­i­mal, un­ver­i­fied in­for­ma­tion, you'll have to put out a brief state­ment to the press on be­half of the com­pany. What would you say? This was the first ex­er­cise given to the PR pro­fes­sion­als gath­ered at the ses­sion. “A good re­sponse is quick, truth­ful and also por­trays the com­pany's val­ues,” Steel tells us. While this has been true through­out the his­tory of cor­po­rate com­mu­ni­ca­tions, the def­i­ni­tion of 'quick' has shrunk dra­mat­i­cally, es­pe­cially over the past cou­ple of years.

“Ear­lier we had what's called ‘the Golden Hour' af­ter any cri­sis; one hour to get all your facts straight and the state­ment crafted, ap­proved and re­leased,” Steel re­calls. “Now we no longer have the lux­ury of one whole hour.” He il­lus­trates this with the case study of the Asiana crash at the San Fran­cisco Air­port in July 2013, re­sult­ing in three deaths and over 180 in­juries. “News of the crash, with pic­tures, video and eye­wit­ness ac­counts, was re­ported on so­cial me­dia within 60 sec­onds of the crash land­ing. It doesn't get quicker than that. A com­pany needs to be able to say some­thing within the first 15 min­utes at least. Or else the pub­lic would think the com­pany doesn't know that some­thing is go­ing on,” he says. This com­pounds the woes of the com­mu­ni­ca­tions team – you can't take the news or so­cial me­dia ac­counts at face value but there is no time to get your own peo­ple on the ground for ver­i­fi­ca­tion. “Asiana, though a rep­utable com­pany that did their best, had a lot of mis­steps – like de­lays in putting out the first state­ment, lack of clar­ity and a fail­ure to up­date their web­site to ‘cri­sis mode' which meant that even as the num­ber of in­juries were mount­ing, the Asiana web­site was ad­ver­tis­ing flights to hol­i­day des­ti­na­tions. We learnt a lot from the ter­ri­ble ac­ci­dent and the af­ter­math,” he says.

Back in the ball­room at W Ho­tel, the first state­ments to the me­dia had been sent out – most of them ex­press­ing re­gret and sup­port and promis­ing more in­for­ma­tion when it be­came avail­able. Now more dire news started com­ing in. It has been con­firmed that the tanker most def­i­nitely be- longed to the com­pany0 and re­ports from the hos­pi­tal point are of at least a dozen fa­tal­i­ties, many of them chil­dren. Worse still, the press re­ports that the driver had been op­er­at­ing the ve­hi­cle un­der the in­flu­ence of al­co­hol. It is in these cir­cum­stances that you have to present one of your top-level ex­ec­u­tives, prefer­ably the CEO, in a live in­ter­view. “A com­pany's rep­u­ta­tion is partly built by what the ex­ec­u­tives say on me­dia,” Steel says. “The me­dia's job is to hold you to ac­count and this can get very un­com­fort­able dur­ing a cri­sis. What we have to help the ex­ec­u­tives un­der­stand is that a me­dia in­ter­view is a busi­ness trans­ac­tion, not a so­cial com­mu­ni­ca­tion. He/she has to be trained keep­ing that in mind.” This was ap­par­ent with the sam­ple in­ter­views Steel con­ducted with some se­lect vol­un­teers. Tough ques­tions were aplenty. Will you re­sign? What is your re­sponse to the mother of the dead child? What ac­tions will you take? It's hard to imag­ine pre­par­ing your­self to face this line of fire in less than an hour since the in­ci­dent.

This is why Steel re­peat­edly points out, that mor­bid though it may be, it's vi­tal to an­tic­i­pate all man­ners of catas­tro­phes and have a plan in place to re­spond quickly and ef­fec­tively should these comes to pass. “The plan is ev­ery­thing. This way every­one in the com­pany knows which di­rec­tion they are tak­ing with the re­sponses and know what their roles and re­spon­si­bil­i­ties are from start to end. In­stincts play a role, for sure, but in a large com­pany un­less you stick to the plan you are lost,” he says. You'll be thank­ful for that when fate throws some­thing bizarre, out­landish and com­pletely un­ex­pected at your door (like when Voda­fone Egypt had to deal with ac­cu­sa­tions ear­lier this year that the pup­pet in its TV com­mer­cial was send­ing coded mes­sages on be­half of the Mus­lim Broth­er­hood).

Be­ing pre­pared can in­volve some­thing seem­ingly sim­ple, like hav­ing ready the lay­out of a press con­fer­ence with the list of re­quire­ments that you can send across to a ho­tel at short no­tice. “The ho­tel might not have hosted a press con­fer­ence be­fore so it'll save every­one a lot of time and ef­fort try­ing to get the de­tails right. Be­cause the lay­out is very im­por­tant and a huge amount of thought goes into it based on ex­pe­ri­ence. If the CEO is to give a press con­fer­ence, es­pe­cially if he/she is an­nounc­ing bad news, the event has to be con­trolled and dig­ni­fied,” he says. There can't be demon­stra­tors and dis­traught vic­tims; that's not what the press con­fer­ence is for. The chaotic Malaysian Air­lines press con­fer­ence in March taught us how ugly it could get. The mock press con­fer­ence at W was loud, bois­ter­ous and dra­matic with ob­nox­ious jour­nal­ists and griev­ing moth­ers, all han­dled with a firm iron hand in the vel­vet glove.

Since leav­ing BBC, Steel has joined Kenyon, a 100-year old in­ter­na­tional emer­gency ser­vices com­pany. Kenyon sup­ports sev­eral large or­gan­i­sa­tions – air­lines, cruise com­pa­nies, ho­tels, civil au­thor­i­ties – in their emer­gency train­ing and re­sponse, and cri­sis com­mu­ni­ca­tion and me­dia ser­vices form a key part of their port­fo­lio. For a high­risk busi­ness, it's com­fort­ing to know that the power of this pro­fes­sional or­gan­i­sa­tion is be­hind you in the back­ground, says Steel. His in­ter­na­tional ex­pe­ri­ence has also given him unique in­sights into the cul­tural dif­fer­ences in how we com­mu­ni­cate.

“The way we ex­press sen­ti­ments is dif­fer­ent in dif­fer­ent cul­tures. I have worked ex­ten­sively in China where they are much less likely to vo­calise feel­ings in the way we do in Bri­tain. The Chi­nese pre­fer to talk about ac­tion. It doesn't mean they don't care but for us, it might come over as a lit­tle cold. To them, our state­ments might seem over-emo­tional. But we have to re­mem­ber that we live in a glob­alised world, so any state­ment we make has to read well out­side our own cul­ture. In­creas­ingly the Chi­nese are start­ing to put a lit­tle sen­ti­ment into state­ments and we are be­ing care­ful about spec­i­fy­ing what we are do­ing and putting out facts,” says Steel. The Mid­dle East and the busi­ness here are very global in their out­look and this re­flects in their com­mu­ni­ca­tions, he points out. In the run up to World Cup 2022 and dur­ing the event it­self, Qatar would prob­a­bly have to pre­pare for a wide range of cri­sis sit­u­a­tions and Steel feels both ex­pe­ri­ence and ex­per­tise would serve it in good stead

A cri­sis com­mu­ni­ca­tion sim­u­la­tion un­der­way.

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