Crisis? What crisis?

Written by Kevin Craig on 17 July 2009 in Culture
Kevin Craig says that successful crisis management is all about well informed, instinctivecommon sense coupled with a passion and respect for the media Any instance of crisis management - whether it's a story that at its heart involves politicians, or a story that is politically linked, can be put into a framework which allows it to be managed to maximum effect.

Kevin Craig says that successful crisis management is all about well informed, instinctivecommon sense coupled with a passion and respect for the media

Any instance of crisis management - whether it's a story that at its heart involves politicians, or a story that is politically linked, can be put into a framework which allows it to be managed to maximum effect. Crisis management isn't neuroscience. You just need to be prepared, be able to take good, quick decisions and have an instinct for what makes a good story and how a story might develop.

Crisis management in 2009 has a number of features that reflect the high speed information age in which we live. There are so many more media outlets than in the past. News travels so fast. Labour has brought in Freedom of Information and with it previously unimaginable levels of transparency and openness. The public is more media savvy than ever. Cheque book journalism is as prevalent as ever. Journalists are cynical and sceptical until convinced otherwise. There is more commentary around public relations, brand, image and PR than ever before. Alastair Campbell and Max Clifford are household names - as was Damian McBride, albeit briefly. The Fourth Estate retains the ability to make or break reputations, be they political or corporate. And these days it can do it in hours.

I've seen close up a number of crises - inside Railtrack post the Paddington train crash, alleged malpractice in the NHS, clinical trials gone wrong, John Prescott laying right hook on an aggressive protestor, acting for one of those involved in the so-called cash for peerages saga (the allegations were totally unfounded), and being involved in very aggressive animal rights extremism stories around the world.

Having served nine years on Lambeth Council and stood for Parliament I've also seen all sorts of political crises unfold. My experience tells me successful crisis management is all about well informed, instinctive common sense coupled with a passion and respect for the media. Many books have been written on the subject, and effective crisis management needs a lot of thought, but what are some of the key considerations?

  • Be as prepared as possible - have a good media operation accessible or in place and know who takes decisions if a story threatens to break.
  • At the outset of a crisis be clear on the worst thing that could happen. What do you want to try to avoid and what action are you compelled to consider given where a story might go to?
  • Act fast and take good decisions in a calm frame of mind. Think about six months ahead. What might you wish you'd done when you look back? Do it now.
  • Don't insult a journalist's intelligence.
  • Equally, don't be bullied or accept unfair or inaccurate reporting right from the outset.
  • Know your position. What's your narrative? Get it written down ASAP.
  • Who's your official spokesperson and who's doing telephone liaison with media pre-publication?
  • How would the ‘neutral' regard your position? Is it reasonable and fair? Is it defendable?
  • Be prepared for things to get very rough and don't get upset by it. Defamation and libel, if they have occurred, can be addressed if it's really worth it.
  • Who's acting against you either covertly or openly? How can you tackle them?
  • Keep your stakeholders informed through the maximum of direct contact -whether they are your association, shareholders, fellow politicians, voters, staff, customers, regulators or government.
  • Line up positive allies and organisations.
  • Have you got instant access to excellent media lawyers?
  • What's the end game - where do you want to get to?
  • Have 24/7 up-to-the-minute media monitoring in place comprising online, print, broadcast, regional, local, national, international and sectoral, as required.
  • Give specific time and attention to the online world - they are leading stories more than ever.
  • Get your facts right - always.

What can you do if you're just not getting a fair shout from the journalist? Well, in the first 24 to 48 hours that the piece has been brought to your attention, you will get the best result if you are able to work hand-inhand with good media lawyers. Legal and PR integration is simply essential to crisis management today.

Are you aware of the warning notice that you can get out to all national news desks in a jiffy if you think you have a breaking story that a paper is getting wrong? You don't have time to mess about in crisis management. If a story is fast moving and moving in the wrong direction and you're not getting any sign that the journo is being fair - slap down a marker. Get decent media lawyers to work with you quickly.

When I got my first job in 1995, press cuttings were still faxed to clients every morning. Now, the internet and the explosion of media outlets means the initial phase of a crisis is key. Google news, Guido Fawkes, Twitter, YouTube, citizen journalism, PR Newswire, Skype, Facebook, RSS feeds, Technorati (for tracking blogs). All of these are now the everyday tools of the crisis management practitioner. As is the ability to pick up the phone and attempt to have a reasonable conversation with the newspaper or media outlet in question if the story that they are considering isn't accurate.

But keeping up with the media is made harder by the fact that journalists often deliberately leave it as late as possible to confront you with a story. Many Total Politics readers will be familiar with feeling twitchy on Fridays as that is the day that, traditionally, a Sunday newspaper chooses to put a story to you. At around 5pm every day for the past month, Parliamentarians have been full of nerves as the Telegraph's revelations for the next day arrive in inboxes seeking reaction.

Right at the outset you have to anticipate the direction of travel of a story. That will give you the best possible chance of staying ahead. You cannot respond to and correct every single point regarding a big story because of the speed and proliferation of travel. So, getting your strategy right and anticipating where the story is going to go and how you can lead it are key. As an example, from the recent cash for expenses saga, David Cameron (who charged the taxpayer £680 for somebody to come and cut down his wisteria) has without doubt come through looking the most decisively. So much of that is down to his talking like a normal human being. In any crisis people just want to know you're bothered and genuine.

Technology has had a sensational impact on crisis management, both by causing stories and by enabling ‘victims' to react to them. It is now very easy to record every conversation that you have with a journalist and every meeting that you attend where the potential exists for a crisis to be given new legs if you are misquoted. I have taped meetings where the transcript proves crucial in disproving false allegations and lies.

We continue to see close up, when working for our clients, the best and worse of British journalism. No matter how tough it is at times in the middle of crises, British journalists are still the best - and the most demanding. Not every crisis is solvable or manageable, but do as much of the above as you can, tailored to every particular situation, and you won't go far wrong.

Kevin Craig is Managing Director of PLMR, a political lobbying, media relations and crisis management company

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