Tag Archives: crisis management

Cameron turns a drama into a crisis

The current turmoil surrounding UK prime minister David Cameron, including five different announcements about his tax affairs over the last seven days and culminating in the release of his tax return details, is a masterclass in how not to do media relations.

The root of the story is simpler than the hype might have you believe. His father owned a business and made an investment on the young Dave’s behalf. Dave sold the shares before he became Prime Minister alongside all the other shareholdings he had, and paid all appropriate taxes. Unless you have an objection to buying and selling shares, and I know some people do, that’s it. Experts have confirmed that the “offshore” element was not a tax dodge.

So on Monday the official line was that it was a private matter, said a spokeswoman. On Tuesday Cameron himself clarified that he had no shares. On the Wednesday the government issued a statement saying he and his family did not benefit from offshore funds and then added a further statement to say they wouldn’t in future.

On Thursday the PM confirmed that he’d owned shares and sold them and over the weekend he published his tax details.

Ridiculous delay

I have some sympathy with Cameron this time, but in spite of his request that people blame him rather than his advisors, who on earth was advising him about this?

Here’s a little trick if you want to avoid this sort of flare-up when you’ve done nothing wrong. Ask yourself: what’s the worst that could happen? In this instance, the worst that could happen was that people would find out that nothing illegal and probably not immoral happened. Had he come out with the whole lot on Monday and said “Of course, nothing to hide, this was actually reported by the press in 2012 but let me get you my tax details so we can have full disclosure as they do in America…” he would have looked a lot more transparent.

As it is he looks kind of shifty. The damage done is going to last a while. The PM needs to be seen as trustworthy, particularly with the EU vote coming up and although it’s evident that there has been no wrongdoing, he’s left a smell of “why was that such hard work, is he afraid something else will come out?”

For someone who was in the Conservative Party’s PR operation in the John Major years this is pretty embarrassing. The lesson the rest of us can learn from this is to play the “what’s the worst that can happen” game on ourselves; what if we give a full, honest and frank answer to a difficult question so it won’t come and bite us later?


My thanks to Alan Burkitt-Gray for the correction on the timing of the prime minister’s years in PR, also for the information that he was working for the Conservative Party and not the government at the time. I have amended the text accordingly.

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Image: Flickr: Brett Jordan

Katie Hopkins: publicity master?

This week, a group of students at Brunel University first stood up and turned their backs on, then walked out on former candidate on “The Apprentice” and now columnist Katy Hopkins.

Hopkins has built herself quite a reputation. She is right wing and has made numerous controversial comments about refugees, women, overweight people…I could go on. She behaved pretty badly during “The Apprentice”, trying to plot the downfall of a couple of the candidates. And failing.

She is also a master at publicising herself and making a great deal out of what appears simply to be a particular outlook on life.

If I were here I’d be thanking those students at the moment. Look at what it’s done for her. She would have been unlikely to get into the Guardian and the Independent without their actions, these papers are not her spiritual home. She would also not have had the ammunition to launch an attack on universities and freedom of speech in her Daily Mail column, in which she has some justification for accusing the students of having closed minds and not researching other speakers with the same diligence. There’s an important lesson about handing people the moral high ground in there.

How do you solve a problem like Katie

It’s an old difficulty: how do you efficiently protest against someone without drawing attention to their views? There are a number of ways, and the students in this instance blew most of them.

First, you ignore the speaker. Just don’t invite them to speak and they won’t force themselves on you.

Second, if your uni or other organisation has invited them to speak and you object, don’t go. An empty or poorly-attended hall is not a news story.

Third, if you do turn up and want to object, give the speaker a chance to make his or her point first. Whatever objections you have, walking out before he or she has spoken is always going to look unreasonable. Putting a film of it on YouTube is going to hit the papers – Hopkins can probably charge a larger fee as a result of the last couple of days’ notoriety.

What Katie should do next

On the other hand, you might be the Katie figure rather than the listener in this case. If I were advising her or someone like her, I’d suggest:

  • Turn up to anything to which you’re invited and get a friendly colleague along with a camcorder, DSLR, phone with good video recording or something like that. Get any protest on disk.
  • Stay calm and be reasonable. Don’t allow yourself to look flustered. It’s your right to express an opinion in a democracy and the fact that I wouldn’t vote for you/buy your newspaper/whatever takes nothing away from that right.
  • If there’s a walkout, make it a bigger news story than it is – as indeed Hopkins appears to have done. Wait and see whether someone uploads their own footage for sharing, and use the copy you’ve made only if they fail to do so – so it doesn’t look like self-publicity.

I hold no brief for Katy Hopkins. The audience, however, has handed her an incredible win. I suspect this wasn’t their intention.

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Now TalkTalk your way out of that!

Let’s accept for the moment that the CEO of TalkTalk is not directly responsible for any security leaks. Dido Harding herself is not to blame. Let’s go even further: attacks happen all the time. So how come this event is blowing up in the company’s face so spectacularly?

Let’s have a look at the interview she gave to NewsNight on the BBC. You might want to skip to 40 seconds in:

She does a lot right. She is calm under pressure. She stays factual. She puts things into context. However, she’s made one fatal mistake in the briefings she’s taken: neither here nor anywhere else is she able to say whether the stolen information was encrypted.

Now, encryption is pretty vital in security terms. Essentially it means that the data is scrambled as well as protected – so if someone batters down your ultra-secure gates you’ve put up around your data, they still can’t read it without the key to the code. This is basic stuff.

Handling a crisis

To judge from other interviews, it appears that encryption is basic stuff that TalkTalk hadn’t done. This is bad news but it’s outside the remit of a blog on media tips. So, assuming you’re stuck with having to impart bad news, where do you start? Here are some thoughts – and Harding gets a lot right.

  • Be honest: Don’t try to cover anything up. Declare as much as you can up front so that it doesn’t catch up with you later.
  • Be open and available: The PR person will facilitate everything for you at a time like this but the press and public need to see someone senior and responsible. Go in front of the camera yourself.
  • Be serious and talk about customers: Remember when the CEO of BP, Tony Hayward, reacted to an oil spill by saying he’d like his life back? So does everybody else. Harding has spoken a great deal about customers and their concerns. This is the right thing to do.
  • Make a list of likely questions: And have answers ready, including answers to questions you’d rather we didn’t ask. “Was the data encrypted” is a stunningly obvious question. The answer should have been available immediately. And if the answer is “not all of it”, a better reason than “we don’t think we’re obliged to do that” should have been found. Phrases like “the situation is developing as we speak” can get you out of trouble quite reasonably if things really are changing minute by minute.
  • Choose your interviews: This is a tricky one. The journalist in me thinks everyone should be allowed to ask anything. Logistically this is likely to be impossible. You might be better off with a few high-profile interviews rather than popping up everywhere. Very recently the charity, Kids Company, collapsed and Camila Batmanghelidjh was everywhere, as I pointed out here. She and now Harding might have been better off selecting their appearances more carefully. Harding, as CEO of a going concern, would have the excuse of having to go and run the business rather than spend too much time with the press. On balance, erring on the side of being accountable was probably right.

Taking better care of the data would have been a good starting point, it has to be said. In terms of communications, this hasn’t been as big a disaster as it could have been – but there were some fairly basic gaps.

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Camila Batmanghelidjh and crisis management – managing the media

 

Let me say first that I know nothing about Kids Company, the charity run by Camila Batmanghelidjh in London that closed down on Wednesday. I’m not a specialist, there appear to be investigations ongoing from the police, for all sorts of reasons commenting would be a bad idea.

What’s clear, though, is that she’s been very loud in the media. And in terms of crisis management I’m not certain this was a wise decision – although it’s better than hiding yourself away and refusing to comment at all.

I’ve prepped a few people for crisis management before now, and had I been advising Batmanghelidjh here are some thoughts I’d have offered.

  • Try not to look or sound defensive. Journalists are going to ask questions on behalf of the viewers and it’s never personal. If there’s been a crisis, your first concern is with those affected. Looking contrite, whether you feel it or not, is an appropriate reaction when your organisation has just been closed down, however unjustifiable you might feel it was.
  • Try not to accuse the media of being irresponsible. No matter how strongly you feel that a report has been put together for the media’s benefit, don’t rise to it. It will sound to many listeners and viewers as if you are blaming everyone else for your misfortune and lashing out.
  • Don’t comment on anything subject to an inquiry. If the police are checking something, bow to their pre-eminence in the case. “I’d love to help but there’s a police inquiry going on, which we welcome and with which we will co-operate – the important thing is to find out what’s actually gone on and to help the kids who were in our care” is a summary of the only appropriate response, even if you don’t use those exact words.
  • Have some short answers prepared to a number of obvious questions. The temptation is to answer as fully as you can but in print/online journalists will select parts of your comment – they have little choice – and in broadcast settings they will have to keep you to time. Trying to put long answers leaves you saying “let me finish” and “you’re not letting me answer the question” – which can sound defensive and ill-prepared. Have some shorter answers ready and you can stay in control.
  • Stay calm and don’t speak too quickly. If you sound panicked, no matter how convinced you are of your case, listeners and viewers will not trust you and you don’t want to prejudice opinion.
  • Get advice on the best interviews to do. Not hiding when things get difficult is admirable, too many businesspeople and others retreat into their shells when the going is tough; however, getting saturation coverage can look like an orchestrated PR exercise. Have a statement ready for the interviews you don’t do and get advice on those that you should.

I’ve helped companies with crisis management – do you need a crisis session? Click here to drop me an email and we’ll talk.

Image from Flickr:NHS Confederation, showing Camila Batmanghelidjh on stage with Sarah Montague

Ashley Madison and other crisis management

A couple of months ago I was media training someone who thought their company may at some stage face a crisis. They were a respectable business and since my sessions are confidential I’m not going to use them as an example.

It certainly wasn’t Ashley Madison – the dating site for people who are already married – whose database has been hacked and its members’ data compromised. There will be a lot of people sniggering at the thought of unfaithful people getting caught out, having their details published or their credit cards compromised.

Rationally it’s not funny. If their partners found out and gave them marching orders, fair enough – but whatever your moral standpoint, the company was doing nothing illegal and the members had their right to privacy. Oh, and their partners are going to be just as badly hit by any misappropriation of their funds.

So, if I were advising Ashley Madison – or if your company were to face a crisis – what would I advise?

Have a plan

The first step is: don’t wait for something to go wrong. Assume it will and have a plan, and have a couple of dry runs. Then if nothing ever goes wrong there’s no harm done and if it does you’re not taken by surprise.

Some second steps would be as follows:

  • Prepare a statement. Put it on the website for everyone to see. Direct people to the statement, particularly journalists – we won’t like it but it’s stronger than “no comment”.
  • Make sure the statement says something that sounds humble. Ashley Madison now and others who’ve been hacked in the past might feel like saying “it’s because hackers are scumbags” but it won’t help. “We take our clients’ security seriously and are doing all we can to safeguard their details” is better.
  • Ensure that your colleagues know who’s authorised to talk to the press and who isn’t. Make sure they are aware that there are consequences for unauthorised people talking to journalists.
  • No matter how unjust you think the crisis is, or how much you feel the journalist is needling you and holding you responsible (because you happen to be the person in front of them), don’t get angry. Stay calm.
  • Confirm facts where you can. Don’t confirm or fuel speculation. As a journalist I might say to Ashley Madison “Surely people might find someone has maxed out their credit card and their partner doesn’t know – this could end a relationship”. We both know that’s technically correct but don’t agree – say “At this stage all we know is that X amount of personal data has been compromised. We are watching the situation carefully and doing everything we can to help.” And something about how your main concern is for your clients’ confidentiality.
  • Watch social media. Respond where appropriate in a measured way – and accept that in this case you’re going to be the butt of a few jokes and a fair bit of sangfroid from people who think you’ve got a dose of what you deserved.
  • Have a crisis management team in place if at all possible.

…and of course hire a journalist in advance to put you through your paces, practice your responses, in your office or in a TV or radio studio if possible. I can provide all of that – email me for details or fill in the contact form below.

What to do when someone publishes something wrong

Last week I published a wrong fact on a website for which I’m responsible. I won’t repeat the inaccuracy but it was an offhand comment based on an entirely wrong assumption about someone’s work. It was part of the intro rather than the substance of the story, which is no excuse but that’s pretty much how it slipped through.

So, if someone does something like this to you, what do you do? Here are some guidelines, not to make you feel better (shouting might do that) but to get to a good resolution (which shouting probably won’t).

  • Accept that a human being made a mistake. You don’t know them but there is every chance they’ll be as concerned at their error as you were. Approach them in this spirit rather than with the aim of “taking them down”.
  • Try to think through what you want from the situation. An apology should be forthcoming but more importantly you want every online source referring to the wrong suggestion taken down or amended as swiftly as possible. A clarification or retraction should also follow.
  • If you have a PR company or other intermediary, use them. You might well be furious, and this might be perfectly understandable but heated and sweary emails or calls are going to make people reluctant to deal with you, no matter whether they ought to or not.
  • If you approach the people making the error by email, definitely don’t swear. It’s a sure fire way of ending up in their spam bucket and this might delay any constructive response.
  • Remember it’s an error in a piece of writing and not a personal attack. The journalist will know they’ve done something wrong and although it may be tempting to rub their nose in it, it will rarely help. Also the chances are that if it’s a professional journalist they’ll have a means of dealing with what happens when we goof – it’s an occupational hazard, we do know mistakes will creep in. Ask about their usual procedure and see whether it will work for you.

I’d be interested to hear of approaches that have worked to salvage a situation – or approaches that haven’t worked – as comments.

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Media training: Journalists might not have an agenda!

I come across a lot of strange preconceptions in media training sessions – strange to me anyway. One of the biggies is that people often assume I’m up to something. This means one of two things: either they’re really getting into the interview role play exercise, or I seem really untrustworthy!

It goes something like this. We set a scenario – often I’m playing a journalist at a trade show who’s wandered onto the client’s stand. I introduce myself and ask something like “So, tell me about yourself and your organisation.”

This, believe me, is effectively a journalist clearing their throat. Which is why the reactions can be pretty odd.

Panic

A few years back I had a woman saying “Can we stop the exercise? I can’t answer that! Why would you want to know anything about me? What’s behind this?”

What was behind it was a journalist trying to find out who they’re talking to. A name and a job title, and preferably a one-sentence summary of what the company does, would have been admirable.

I’ve asked IT hardware companies how they distribute their goods, directly or through indirect sales channels, and they’ve seen an agenda creeping in and gone cautious. I’ve asked how long people have worked for a company and been perceived as being “up to something” and I’ve asked where a business is based and been told “I wondered what was behind that question”.

The answer is really simple. In most cases there’s nothing behind it, a journalist just needs to get their job done and any background information is on the “essential” side of welcome.

Overthinking

My first ever media training session was with Microsoft in 2002. It became apparent quite quickly that the delegate – with whom I’m still in touch – could tell me what he was trying to say after the exercise, but when the big bad “interview” word was in his head he flustered a little.

Is this you? Do you panic just a little and overthink every question when confronted with a straight question from a journalist? Try thinking again, they may not be as loaded as you or your client (if you’re in PR) thinks.

I can help you with your media interview difficulties – talk to me on the phone on the number on the side, email me by clicking this link or fill in the form below. I’ll look forward to coaching you – many thanks.