Many years ago, I received the sort of phone call that any public relations adviser dreads: a client had been accused of assaulting a woman at his offices and the press were all over the story.
The then partner at the firm had apparently rugby-tackled a client, the wife of a wealthy property developer, following a dispute in which he refused to hand over certain documents before an outstanding bill was settled. Although my client was ultimately convicted of falsely imprisoning and causing actual bodily harm and faced a three-month suspension, the tale, unsurprisingly, resulted in reams of salacious media coverage - and that was back in 1996.
Today, the press interest in any perceived wrongdoing by its senior protagonists is at an all-time high, as evidenced by the extraordinary volume of column inches dedicated to the insurance industry. Only recently, Willis in conjunction with Kiln has launched a reputation cover for hotels aimed at limiting the financial fallout from negative PR. There are so many examples which demonstrate the inherent need for firms to think ahead and to be ready to deal with the media properly in any event.
Be sure of the facts at the outset
The lesson to be learnt in all of these instances is to be sure of the facts at the outset. While that may sound odd, having different board members expressing different views of what is going on is unhelpful, both internally and externally.
Appoint a small steering committee to handle the crisis
The real position must be established in terms of the story and the firm's response. In a crisis, a small steering committee should be appointed to deal with any media attention, ensuring that the firm takes a proactive stance even in difficult circumstances. While the instinct may be to run for cover in the face of the gathering media storm, it must not be ignored that there will always be someone - often inside the firm - willing to air their views on the issue. Furthermore, journalists are well-versed in picking up the phone and finding out what is really happening, albeit on an off-the-record basis.
The same message from all
It is vital, therefore, to speak as a team and ensure the right message is presented, loud and clear. We can learn from political parties. Even though they come in for considerable criticism about policies and issues, few can fault the way they deal with press attention, when MPs are regularly bleeped or paged with precise instructions as to what they can say, when and to whom, in the face of either good or bad news.
Keep staff informed
As part of any damage limitation exercise, it is vital that staff are fully briefed on what is going on and are told as much as is reasonably possible. You do not need to invite the opinions of your junior employees but you should keep them informed of the situation, safe in the knowledge that they will probably express a view regardless.
Consider your clients
Another - arguably the most important - constituency to consider is the client. Some firms strongly feel it is none of their clients' business as to how they conduct themselves. However, when a potentially negative story has made it into the national newspapers, this position seems more difficult to sustain. For instance, consider the tomato ketchup-related incident at Baker & McKenzie, when a senior associate famously quarrelled with a secretary over a £4 dry cleaning bill. An email outlining the dispute quickly did the rounds on the internet and made headlines all over the world, showing just how far these stories can travel and what a wide audience they can reach.
Be human in your response
The first thing to do in a time of real crisis, especially where human life or a serious tragedy is involved, is to respond in a humane and compassionate manner and to express sorrow to the family involved. In such cases, that is really all the firm should be doing.
The firm may well be under a barrage of pressure from media outlets asking questions and it would be inappropriate to say anything further. There will inevitably be an inquest into any tragedy and until that process concludes, none of us will really know what happened or why.
We live in an environment where we are often exposed to press interest, scrutiny and revelations. In every case there are peculiarities, but a few truths remain applicable: do not panic or appear to panic; be united in your responses; and remember to keep all constituencies informed.
An example of a crisis
A fireworks manufacturer, one of the most revered in the country and internationally renowned, found itself in the middle of a crisis following a November 5th display which went badly wrong. There were 15,000 spectators; seven children were hurt, three seriously, with burns to their lower bodies. We took control of all press enquiries and handled the role for broadcast radio and television interviews at a time when the company was in shock. The best thing that we did was to issue an immediate and compassionate apology for what went wrong. We also promised that lessons would be learned even though proper health and safety procedures had been in place. There is always a tendency at such moments to rely on insurers and lawyers but statements can often appear contrived and unhelpful. The client was congratulated by the media for being so upfront and truthful. Unsurprisingly, it is still in business today.
Don’t forget to plan for a crisis
In a recent survey of 200 companies across Europe: only 53% of firms surveyed had a crisis communications plan; 68% of those organisations who had drawn up a plan actually put one in place because of a previous crisis;
the majority said that their plan had saved them money in a subsequent crisis and that recovery from a crisis is accelerated by two months. Running for cover in the face of calls from the media can seem a very tempting option but, in the long term, will rarely prove to be the best strategy.
Ronel Lehmann is chief executive of Lehmann Communications, a marketing communications agency.