12 October 2021

Communicating in a Crisis

Picture this… your business has just suffered a major safety incident. Details are still emerging. Rumours are swirling, media are bombarding you with questions. Your reputation is on the line and to top it off, it's New Years Eve.

As a matter of fact, a client of KWM Partner Andrew Gray faced this situation. Andy called in ResPublica PR’s Gabriel McDowell. In this article, KWM Corporate Affairs Manager (and former journalist) James Bennett asks them both to navigate a hypothetical scenario, to explain a few of the key principles to communicating in a crisis.

Listen now to the conversation between Andy, Gabriel and James, or read the edited transcript below.

Andrew Gray: I’ll explain why we’ve picked this hypothetical. It’s a major workplace safety incident which is my area of practice but it also has a possible cybersecurity angle. And that’s topical when you look at our recent Directions survey, which asks business leaders about the issues they face – they saw cyber risks, including those arising from rapid digitisation to be the no one concern by a significant distance. Previously it had sat behind brand and reputation, but it has really skyrocketed in this survey.  And equally anyone who has some experience with a workplace fatality will be conscious of the impact that can have on the business and also the personal impact it can have on individual management teams and the first responders and their family members as well.

James Bennett: Thanks Andy. Here we go:

The scenario

  • A fire has broken out after an incident at the Benign Chemicals Co on the city’s outskirts. Three employees have been killed.
  • One is injured but escaped, and another is missing in the affected plant area.
  • Firefighters are urging people in the suburb downwind to leave if they can out of concern that those with breathing difficulties may be affected.
  • The police and WorkCover are already on the site investigating and are seeking to grill a distressed management team on what happened.
  • The EPA has released a statement saying it has commenced an investigation as well. An opposition politician is tweeting erroneous claims that Benign failed a recent safety and cybersecurity audit. The union is protesting about an apparent decline in safety conditions.
  • The plant’s operator is coming to you, Andy and Gabriel, for advice.
  • She confides that she and two senior managers had received a threatening email a week or so ago which claims to have compromised the plant’s production control software.
  • An external cybersecurity agency conducted a threat assessment and found no vulnerability and recommending no further action.

AG: There is a lot in that, safety issues, some environmental issues, cyber issues.  Gabriel, being a lawyer our natural instinct is to avoid risk by keeping our head down wherever possible, but focussing on the legal risks in these situations can create some issues as well, what’s your view from a PR perspective on the initial response?

Gabriel McDowell: The first thing that I would say, we as communication professionals have to get the CEO focussed on what the key task is, and the key task is to assist the authorities in terms of minimising any harm to employees or people in terms of communicating early in the piece. You would be encouraging everybody to actually go to official channels for information. So you would be helping them do that job and demonstrate that you are focussing on the one priority, which is the safety and concern of your people, and make sure everybody is safe.  That’s our number one priority.  You need to communicate that regularly and constantly and say that’s where your focus is – to communicate that they are taking care of matters as they should be in the health and safety of the people number one, and that they’re on top of the situation and done an investigation assisting authorities to get to the bottom of the real issue, which is that threat to community in terms of environmental disaster, potentially.

JB: And there’s a whole range of stakeholders involved?

GM: There’s a hierarchy.  Those who are directly affected, which would be the employees in the community and the families of your employees. You’re going to have to figure out how quickly you can communicate to them, and those other community stakeholders.  You won’t be able to do that with them all immediately, so using the media, electronic media particularly, and social media, in the early days is going to be pretty important. 

Three elements of response

AG: I think there’s three main elements – the legal response, the communications response and then there’s employee wellbeing response as well.  All of those issues need to be front of mind when you’re dealing with an incident like this.  Legal issues in some respects are secondary, but there are a number that we need to be thinking about when an incident like this occurs.  Obviously, the immediate priority is making sure everyone is safe, making sure that regulators are provided the information they need and relevant notifications are made.  One critical thing is that there’s a single point of contact nominated from the company’s perspective, to deal with either media representatives or regulatory representatives, whoever it might be. But Gabriel, although I’ll be cautious about handing the information over to regulators, clearly that doesn’t prevent your organisation from speaking publicly.  What are the key principles the organisation should apply in its public stance?

Communication principles

GM: One of the key things in terms of the communication perspective, is to communicate that it is being treated with the seriousness that it deserves, so if there is a crisis or major issue, that demands the CEO or somebody very senior seen to be the front in facing this. The biggest mistake is under communicating in the early hours of a crisis.  Even if you don’t have all the facts. In this particular case we know some of the facts so you can share those. You know that phrase, nature abhors a vacuum? So does the media, there’s a rumour mill and if you step away, somebody else will fill that gap and your chances of controlling the communication agenda will evaporate if you don’t get on top of it early. Communicate regularly. Over communication is much better than under communication.

I haven’t seen it arise for close on a decade now, but I used to get – not with KWM – a situation where a lawyer would say don’t apologise.  Well you do apologise. I don’t think an apology is necessarily an admission of some sort of legal liability.

A lack of control over social media in the early days is something to watch particularly for B to B corporations who aren’t really across social media as a communication tool. So having somebody that can quickly get to grasp with that space for you is, this is pretty important. 

Impatience is an issue too. This scenario could go on for weeks and months as new information or investigations unwind. The worst case of impatience was the BP disaster in the Gulf Mexico where the CEO went sailing whilst the issue was still alive, and when asked by the media about this he said I want my life back. That just showed a lack of empathy for people whose lives and livelihoods had been destroyed.

Take it seriously

JB: That’s a really interesting point, it goes to the point that you make about the perceived seriousness – a CEO who is creating a perception that he’s more concerned about his own work/life balance?

GM: Yes early in that piece they suggested that the explosion may have been caused by a contractor for them, so again it looked like they were trying to dodge responsibility so those were two real no no’s.  In those situations I would say well ultimately we are responsible and ultimately at the moment my focus is on trying to help the authorities get to the bottom of this so it doesn’t happen again, and that you know you can handle the fire again putting the liability on yourself but at the same time that suggests that you’re somehow trying to dodge a responsibility.

JB: Andy and Gabriel you’re now about to join a call with the plant's General Manager. Her phone’s obviously ringing off the hook and you can appreciate the level of stress knowing the people that have been directly affected.  What do the key messages need to be?

Key messages

GM: It’s really getting them to focus on the known facts as they impact the audience or the particular group of people that they’re going to address and try as much as humanly possible to stick to that whilst you know demonstrating you’re really concerned about what they’re going through.  That’s the key to this, and not being afraid to say "well I don’t know that that’s true, that’s speculation, you can appreciate I really need to deal with the facts as we know them right this minute".

AG: Speculation is dangerous. I think that’s the key message I provide in these sort of scenarios, don’t speculate. Avoid the temptation to try and figure out the answer before you know it and communicate that, because there’ll be a great amount of pressure being applied from a range of stakeholders and speculating and getting it wrong just comes back to cause problems in my experience.  And then the other thing is to focus on employee wellbeing and your own wellbeing.  People often forget about the general manager or the CEO whoever it is. I’ve seen that before – everyone else gets counselling except for the person at the top who is probably bearing the brunt of this incident in a whole different variety of ways so be mindful of that. 

Media management

JB: Dealing with media.  It is easy to think of media as a holistic entity, but individual journalists are each going to have their own needs - some might be working for just a written news service who’d be happy with a couple of comments, others might be saying, you know can we get your GM on the phone to talk about it.  You’ve got a range of different interests within media.  So how would you think about going to manage something like that Gabriel in a situation like this?

GM: You want to figure out how you can knock off as much as you can in the shortest space of time as you can.  Both for the media but also your spokesperson who in this case is your CEO – there is a range of other issues they must manage. Have a plan of action gives people what they need.  Have somebody who’s professional and understands those needs and can follow up with journalists and give supplementary information. They need to fill that 30 seconds of TV or that 3 minutes of TV.  Reassure journalists they are going to get what they need from you, and they do not have to go and unnecessarily interview ten other people instead of one or two other people as to what their perspective is when they may or may not have a necessarily valid perspective. As I said, media abhors a vacuum. 

JB: From first-hand experience, instilling in a media pack the sense that an organisation is trying to be helpful and as upfront as it can be is really very impactful in the way that media respond in terms of whether they take explanations at face value or go searching for an alternative story which, as you say, leads into the risk of speculation.

GM: Absolutely. It is building trust.  You know, (assuring people) "he doesn’t have all the answers, but he is being honest with us and he’s facing up to us and he understands what we need."  It is so, so important in those circumstances.


AG: The client’s relationship with their advisors needs to be honest and open as well.  There is nothing worse than finding out a piece of information after it’s brought to your attention by a regulator or after it’s brought to your attention by a journalist and you are on the back foot.  With individuals involved in the incident, you need to create an environment where they feel that they can be open and honest with their advisers about what’s occurred.  Because our role as an adviser is only ever going to be as good as the information we are given. If people feel it’s a blame game or there is a lack of trust between the advisers and the management team, you will get a sub-optimal outcome and we have seen that in the past. I think that’s an important thing to keep in mind as well.

The next phase

JB: Looking forward, there are going to be regulatory investigations that kick in.  What additional considerations then apply, are there other advisor roles that are useful?  Government relations, for example?

GM: It probably would be a good idea to supplement it if indeed you are going to find yourself at the pointy end of potentially some adverse regulatory findings. 

JB: A regulator is going to be acutely conscious of not being perceived as gone soft on a corporation when there are public health issues at stake?

AG: Once you’ve moved beyond that initial response phase where the priority is providing assistance to the regulator or the authorities at the time, you then move more into a longer term investigative phase and that can go on for many months or many years. Individuals need to be prepared for that so I think you move more into preparing employees for how they may participate in an interview with a regulator, getting more documentation and doing further reviews, root cause reviews and the like into what’s occurred. Various stakeholders, including your board are going to want some assurances pretty quickly - to understand what’s occurred, why it’s occurred and what’s being done to prevent it from occurring again. That can be a double edged sword sometimes because it obviously shows there is a problem in the first place but that always seems like a no-brainer to me. you just need to get on the front foot and address it.

Prior planning prevents...

JB Back to your opening example Andy – an incident that happens on New Year’s Eve.  A lot of this it seems can be improved with some scenario planning and understanding how you’d deal with this sort of thing?

AG A lot of our clients and other organisations have got some protocols in place but I find sometimes they don’t really extend to cover all the relevant issues we’ve discussed today. Gabriel have you got some tips in terms of what organisations should have to be prepared?

GM Whether you’re small, medium sized or large, the nature of your business is going to throw up potential crises – if you’re an aviation business it’s going to be a crash, if you’ve got a lot of machinery it’s going to be an industrial accident. Virtually every crisis is predictable, and you should do scenario planning with all your relevant executives about once a year.  You should have a plan that clearly articulates who is responsible for what, and alternates for the various people who are involved, because as Andy said, he phoned me up on New Year’s Eve, I was in Dublin but we have a policy because it’s our business, so we make sure that we’re not both in the Northern Hemisphere you know. It’s very important that companies themselves, when they’re looking at their issues management plan, ensure that they have thought about things like the leave cycle to ensure that somebody senior is on the ground. You need at least one media spokesperson available within 1 or 2 hours of an incident happening.

Review your plan, at a minimum annually. If you don’t have systems in place to track media sentiment and stakeholder sentiment, make sure that when the issue does arise that you understand precisely what you’re dealing with, then you know to put in arrangements to rapidly get those in place should an issue arise.

Gabriel McDowell is Executive Chairman of ResPublica, a leading Sydney-based full-service communications agency, focussed on corporate, financial, government, consumer, community and organisational communication.  He and KWM’s Andy Gray have worked together advising clients on managing the legal and communications challenges major incidents present.

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