Throw out the playbook* and buckle up. It’s a bumpy ride.
By Oliver Druttman,
“Ah yes, I’ve seen this one before. Just copy and paste the statement from the crisis manual. That’ll hold ‘em,” said no (self-respecting) PR ever.
The one sure thing about an issue or subsequent crisis is it never plays out like the scenario dreamt up in the manual. So is it any wonder that in the midst of a crisis, some brands ‘appear’ to be so ill-prepared? Or in these days of strategic comms teams and agency support, is there simply no excuse for not being better prepared? Before addressing that, a brief step back into the noughties…
Like many of us in comms, I didn’t initially plan to have a career in PR. And as an Account Executive, I certainly didn’t plan to go down the issues and crisis route. But planes go down, ships sink and horse meat attempts to masquerade as beef. And all of a sudden I found myself in the gladiatorial arena (nicely carpeted, well-lit Holborn offices) battling to save a client’s reputation; all the while gaining enormously valuable experience that – perhaps unbeknownst at the time – would stand me in good stead for the future.
In those formative years of agency life, my observations of crisis comms management were not that the crisis manual saved the day.
The cavalry who truly helped clients through turbulent times were the seasoned agency professionals with a deep understanding of the brand who had been through crises before – proper comms battle-axes.
Not necessarily those who had been through the exact same scenario in the exact same sector as that particular client – but those who had been through the ringer of a crisis before and emerged out the other side.
Effective navigation through an issue or crisis requires – to an extent – that the playbook be thrown out the window. Because every time an issue or crisis occurs, it does so on a new day, in a new global environment, with new forces, people and influences at play. When the landscape in which an issue or crisis occurs is constantly evolving, fresh creative thinking is required to navigate the new circumstances. Incidents are managed most effectively when the playbook is put to one side and comms teams stop, think and act like humans; not corporate robots.
Showing empathy. Doing the right thing. Saying sorry. Admitting to mistakes. Because nobody’s perfect.
Could Malaysia Airlines ever in its worst nightmares have anticipated the circumstances in which MH370 disappeared and MH17 went down? Should Pret have scenario-planned around allergic reactions due to insufficient labeling? Should Boeing have made the connection between the Ethiopian Airlines and Lion Air flight quicker and been more front-footed in their comms rather than letting the airlines take the lead?
Big questions – and opinions vary on what should have been done in advance that could have prevented a crisis.
Hindsight and all that…
The point is, the landscape in which these large scale incidents occur was nuanced with numerous factors that made the conditions and context unique to that particular crisis on that particular day.
Those major crises thankfully don’t come around every day. But those of us with brand reputation briefs are battling every day behind the scenes to keep brands out of the news, as well as in it. And every single niggling little issue that pops into our inbox reflects a new day and therefore new context. And from a brand management point of view, it requires a fresh creative approach and thoughtful consideration about how today’s news landscape will impact on what’s happened. Every time.
‘Expect the unexpected’ seems to be the one consistent in the world of brand reputation management.
*Don’t actually throw out the playbook
Olliver Druttman is Brand Reputation Director at Launch