Are you ready for a media crisis?

“EVENTS, dear boy, events” – the words of former Prime Minister Harold MacMillan when asked by a journalist what was most likely to blow his Government off-course.

The reality for all of us business owners is that things do happen – sometimes outside our control, sometimes very much in it.

And the impact of those events can be severe – both in terms of the damage to the business operation itself, but also its reputation among its stakeholders, the community at large, and especially the media.

In my recent talk to the South Wales Chamber, I identified a range of major incidents in recent years, including the Grenfell Flats fire and the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

Without wanting to pre-empt the public inquiry into the Grenfell Flats fire, major incidents and the resulting crises have a very consistent DNA:

  • They are often the result of a culture within a business or industry
  • They often are avoidable
  • They are often remembered more for how the business dealt with, or rather, didn’t deal with the crisis – Richard Branson has fronted up in the aftermath of two major tragedies, while the head of BP famously asked for his life back during the Deepwater Horizon disaster
  • The organisation was woefully under-prepared for dealing with the resulting media attention

Here is some key advice on preparing for, and dealing with, a crisis in your business:

  • The working day is 9am to 5pm. This means there is more chance of an incident in the other 16 hours so planning for an incident is even more essential
  • Ensure there is a media crisis plan within your Business Continuity and Disaster Recovery Plans. This will include who needs to be involved with the team, assessing the impact of incident, and who needs to do and say what
  • Assess what potential issues your business could face and how you would deal with them, especially if they were to generate media interest
  • Prepare holding statements to issue to the media should any of those incidents ever arise while you deal with the issue
  • Ensure all contact details for you and your colleagues are correct – people do change phones numbers and people leave businesses!
  • Have back-up contacts and their details in case the 1st Report is on holiday etc
  • Identify who your stakeholders are and collate their contact details – customers, staff, politicians, unions, council
  • Agree a gatekeeper and a spokesperson to deal with any media enquiry – they don’t have to be the same person. The gatekeeper can manage what is being said, and when, and enable others to deal with the incident itself
  • Use social media and your website to keep people informed. And monitor social media for mentions of your incident
  • Ensure more than one person has the log-in details for your social media and the website in case of absence
  • Identify a venue for a potential press conference that is away from your business – you don’t want journalists trampling around the business as you are dealing with an incident
  • Agree your messaging: what do you stakeholders need to know to re-assure them?
  • Do front up and be visible – lead
  • Never lie
  • Never say ‘No Comment’

Alastair Milburn is the founder and MD of Effective Communication, and a former editor of the South Wales Echo