Dealing with a crisis: advice for PR folk: drop the hierarchy (updated)

I was on a panel on Tuesday at the PRWeek “Taking the drama out of a crisis” event, along with Kevin Bakhurst, controller of BBC News 24 (and former editor of BBC News At Ten) and Simon Cliffe, group head of news for GCap Media (they own tons of radio stations). We were expecting Mark Sellman, news editor of TimesOnline, but he didn’t make it – do you think there might have been a story about lost stuff?

Anyway, what was interesting was that it was clear from the morning session that the PR world is really struggling with the decentralised nature of media information-gathering now. Especially in a crisis – which is of course a short-term abruptly-emerging series of events.

The session started with a five-minute video compiled by Kevin Bakhurst showing how BBC News 24’s coverage of the Glasgow airport attacks had developed, which clearly demonstrated that it’s now eyewitnesses who provide the necessary detail, and that official channels are far, far, far behind what we – as in media – can find out from people who are close to whatever it is. (Of course, this doesn’t apply with events that happen out of the public eye and that are covered up. But.. as the lost CDs story shows, those will probably come out in time, and it’ll be bad for you.)

And then the killer blow: Kevin Bakhurst pointed out that the first official statement about what had happened came about three hours later and said that “an incident has occurred at Glasgow airport.” Well durr.

I then described how blogs – and being able to blog – has changed how we can gather news and opinion. It’s decentralised. We don’t have to go through PRs. If they can react as fast as the news happens, we’ll be there.

And here’s a positive example: when that big black cloud appeared over London some time last week, we spent a lot of time trying to figure out (via Google Maps) where it was. Sky News had some idiot in Canary Wharf on the phone who said “it looks like an atom bomb!” which indicated that he’d never seen a picture of a mushroom cloud.

Meanwhile someone else looked on the London Fire Brigade website for its latest incidents – which had been updated to say there was a big diesel fire at a site by a bus station. Story done and dusted. Now that’s impressive. OK, fire services are a centralised organisation. But putting what you’re doing straight onto the website? That’s impressive. That’s not waiting for someone to sign it off.

So, back at Tuesday’s event, the moderator asked how many people there had a crisis plan. About half to three-quarters held up their hands. He then asked how many didn’t rely on central approval. Only one hand was left. So what was it with this person? He did PR for multinationals – and had found, or shown them, that national needs for reaction varied enormously, and so a centralised reaction wouldn’t work.

Question from the audience. “But how should we react to this when you’re gathering information in this way?” from someone from a public-sector organisation. “We have to get our statements signed off by our chief executive.”

I suggested that the weakness was in the thinking behind the word “react”. If you’re thinking that your PR has to react, you’re already behind the game. You need to get ahead by having your people in the field feeding information towards the people who want to know it.

And that means that you can’t wait for the chief executive to sign off the press statement; if you’re in a crisis, either the CEO has to be pushinhg the statements down to you, or – more likely – you have to prove your worth by having it all prepared and pushing it out and telling the CEO to trust you. OK, you might get fired. But you’ll probably find that actually it works a lot better than you’d expect.

Update: one thing that occurred as a corollary to this is what it’s like in newspapers now. Once upon a time not long ago, an editor could read every word that went out under the newspaper’s name before it appeared, if he (very rarely she) chose.

Now, with the website? No chance. Alan Rusbridger couldn’t read every word that goes out on the Guardian website if he wanted to: there’s Comment Is Free, all the individual blogs, the comments, and then we get on to all the actual news that passes through. The editor’s task now is to delegate effectively: to choose the people who’ll be able to make the right choices, and get the correct culture inside the organisation so that what he (occasionally she) thinks is the right editorial line is reflected throughout.

1 Comment

  1. Thanks for this post! I’ll use it as an example in 2. conference of Bosnian PR society (PRIBA) (yes, PR is SOOOO new in ex-comunist society)!

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