Why you can't PR your way out of a crisis

Why you can't PR your way out of a crisis

Business journalist and communications professional Alexander Liddington-Cox talks about managing a crisis

Alexander Liddington-Cox is a business journalist and communications professional based in Melbourne. He's worked as an online journalist, editor, podcaster, PR and crisis communications consultant.

Communications professionals would do well to remember the names SP Ausnet, Utility Services Group and Christine Nixon when scoping the media risk posed by this summer’s bushfire crisis.

In 2014, a court found the two companies responsible for the Kilmore East-Kinglake bushfire that killed 119 people and awarded $500 million in damages to survivors. Black Saturday was a decade ago, but these two brands are still mentioned in bushfire stories today.

Nixon’s exemplary work as Victoria’s first female Police Chief Commissioner was significantly undermined by her decision to take several non-work appointments, including a dinner, during the worst day of the 2009 bushfires. People in Victoria still remember that.

The bottom line is you can’t PR your way out of the bushfire crisis. Those that tried last time were forever branded for it.

With climate experts and insurers expecting the scale and frequency of bushfires to increase, the number of organisations and stakeholders impacted will follow. The communications industry needs to respond with proper crisis communication plans and training, not just template press releases.

Most PRs will say they’ve got a full plate handling an organisation’s day-to-day activities. A crisis provides a sudden surge in communications through formal and informal channels from all your stakeholders all at once. This will overwhelm every traditionally structured communications team, let alone a lone PR. Even if the crisis isn’t your fault, it’ll look like it pretty quickly.

Right off the bat, a proper crisis communication plan will include a scenario matrix that determines the level of brand risk associated with the crisis, as well as the size and seniority of the team required to deal with it. Given bushfires mean potential loss of life and assets, they will always rank as the most severe and demand C-level management. Even though the Police Commissioner frequently deals with loss of life, in their case the potential for significant loss of life means Nixon, full stop.

Even with the executive team activated, you’ve still got a massive influx of information, creating a variety of critical tasks that need to be performed together with clear, concise messages that need to be drafted, approved and sent out across multiple channels in the right order as soon as possible.

Has the power gone out because of the crisis? Will your phones work? You’ve gotta plan for that too.

What good crisis communication plans do is break these communication functions down to their most basic elements (information gathering, information distribution, spokesperson training and more). Working beneath but in conjunction with the executive team, who are often privy to critical information themselves via their contacts, this information is then collated and disseminated to the key decision makers so the best calls can be made.

These also allow for rolling shifts of trained personnel for ongoing crises, because people can’t work forever. That’s when you’re allowed to go and grab dinner, when a like-for-like replacement has stepped in. It's what your stakeholders would expect.

You’d also have a master stakeholder list with the most up-to-date contact information of your most important stakeholders, a matching media stakeholder list with your most crucial media contacts and a list of communication channels (internal and external). Without them, you could lose time fumbling about. Who’s that chief of staff at...are they with Network 10 or ABC?

Finally, you’d have a Google Doc (or similar) to manage all tasks that need to be completed from all available channels.

Only when you’ve got this infrastructure in place (and more), and competent, trained people to manage them, can you both handle the crisis itself and meet your PR goals effectively.

A telltale sign of a crisis communication response that doesn’t have this structure in place is an announcement being made before the most crucial stakeholders have been notified - a strict PR focus.

Revelations that the NSW Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons or the defence force personnel working from the state control centre were not informed of the Prime Minister’s plan to deploy 3,000 army reservists to assist in the bushfires was a classic example. They found out through the media, who then get a second story to throw back. Tremendous!! Are these people even talking to each other?

This came on the back of Scott Morrison’s poorly timed and horribly communicated family holiday in the middle of a national crisis. Together this all smacked of a team that was not on the job. When it did show up it was unable to communicate its message and deal respectfully or effectively with its most important stakeholders at the same time.

With "Scomo" now boasting its own Urban Dictionary of a "person in charge who leaves things to others when a difficult or emergency situation arises," Nixon’s looking better by the day.

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