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Crisis: Hero or jelly?

Think of the famous crises where a company has emerged from disaster unscathed or with a better reputation. James Burke at Tylenol. Michael Bishop at British Midland. Think of the opposite. Tony Hayward at Deepwater Horizon. BP’s financial and reputational losses run into billions. You could argue (I would) that if Lord Browne had still been at the helm BP could have weathered this crisis.

Think of Richard Branson. Not everyone’s cup of tea, but he does the right thing when a Virgin plane or train has an accident. He gets himself there, fronts up to the cameras and says the kind of things which people want him to say. He comes across as brave and likeable.

The media love crises, perhaps because we all revel in disasters. We certainly like seeing famous people in trouble. Tall-poppy syndrome is credited to Australians but it’s global. Murray Sayle of the Sunday Times (an Australian as it happens) said there are only two headlines: Arrow points to defective part and We name the guilty men.

The media change their behaviour when a company is in crisis. The gloves come off. Everyone wants to be first to condemn the culprit (man or woman: gallantry goes out of the window). Normal standards of verification, never 24-carat in northern Europe, are side-lined in the race to get the story first, best and biggest. Clients feel they can’t win.

But they can. 

It’s all about having the Burke/Browne/Branson touch. Very few of us are born with it, but it can be learnt through training and embedded through practice, rehearsals and simulations. Whatever else a company does or doesn’t do to prepare itself for a crisis, equipping the spokesperson (and it must be the CEO) is mandatory. It is cruel, if not criminal, to let a spokesperson face the media without crisis communications coaching.

PRCA Training makes a distinction between normal and crisis-specific media training. Most ‘normal’ media interviews are level: we want our spokesperson to look good, answer questions succinctly and remember the key messages. The interviewer wants exactly the same thing. But in a crisis, when the media’s fangs are bared, an interview is a totally different experience. Our spokesperson meets hostility, aggression and disrespect. Without preparation, he or she can react with shock and a dismal performance.

Oxford Metrica have shown that companies which give a good account of themselves in a crisis enjoy a better reputation afterwards than they did before. The crisis communications paradox. People, media and markets don’t remember the details, but they remember the spokesperson’s behaviour for ever. Knowing this, PR advisors should push hard for CEOs to spend time and effort on crisis preparation: when the crunch comes, we want heroes not jellies, and so do they.