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Beast from the East

Beast from the East – Wrestling with the Comms

The Beast from the East gave Britain a whole host of challenges and while armies of people were dealing with the practical problems others were wrestling with the communications challenge. The train companies spokespeople didn’t quite reach the nadir of the ‘wrong type of snow’ excuses we saw a few years ago. However, many travellers across the UK have expressed frustration with the lack of information and credible explanations on why things have ground to a halt so dramatically.

Beast from the East

The Beast from the East made driving trains difficult and sometimes impossible. It also posed communication challenges.

I preface everything below with the acknowledgement that hindsight is a wonderful thing and gives you 20/20 vision. Nor am I making light of weather which has resulted in several fatalities:

But here are a few observations:

Beast from the East reporting initially guilty of hyperbole

A key part of crisis preparation follows the maxim that ‘forewarned is forearmed’ and so it was reasonable for the media to start warning people that severe weather was on the way several days before it hit. However, another key part of crisis preparation is getting the tone right. So, I began to get slightly irritated at the very start of the week when I heard weather presenters and reporters talking in terms of Armageddon, with temperatures as “shockingly cold as -5C” and “snowfall likely to reach as much as 5 – 10cms”. This is what us northerners call ‘winter’. Neither rare or shocking.

Predicting the weather and its timing is not an exact science. But with the reporting reaching fever pitch right from the start, and the weather initially only hitting the south-east hard, I noticed in Cumbria considerable ‘weather warning fatigue’. That was just before the worst was about to come and all the red weather warnings were being issued for other parts of the country. The hyperbole early in the week might explain why later people took the decision to travel, despite being told not to. Sometimes with very serious results. A reminder that timing and perspective are vital for effective communication in a crisis.

Beast from the East

Train operators: no credible key messages

During severe weather in 1991, a hapless British Rail spokesman infamously tried to explain in an interview that mass train cancellations were caused by the type of snow. The media instantly pounced on his comments and he was held up to ridicule.  ‘The wrong type of snow’ even has its own Wikipedia page, helpfully explaining that “in the United Kingdom, the phrase became a byword for euphemistic and pointless excuses”.

So, I can understand why those caught up in a crisis are often reluctant to stick their head above the parapet and face the media. But, on the other hand, most types of crises can be foreseen, even if the exact timing of them cannot. So, while we don’t get bad winters as often as we used to, they are still fairly regular events, and I have found it surprising that, in the coverage I have heard this week, train operators in particular didn’t have more credible and understandable messages prepared to explain the delays and cancellations travellers were facing.

You can tell from the tone of this interview with Adam Fairclough of TransPennine Express on Radio 5Live’s Wake Up to Money on Friday 2nd March – that the BBC journalist is also sceptical of the messages. The interview starts at 37 minutes 35 seconds and is only available for another 24 days.

Clear messages are only part of what is needed to face journalists in a crisis. They will only be credible if you have sufficient examples to make them real and understandable. It’s always an indication that your messages are not fully developed if a journalist starts asking for examples to explain what you mean, as happens towards the end of the interview. Another clue: the journalist starts arguing with the examples given, as happens here with the journalist saying “if traffic lights continue to work on roads why can’t signals on railways?”

Social media: a picture is worth a thousand words

While word pictures are vital to back up your arguments, use of social media in a crisis can really help you get your point across. One good example is the pictures and video Direct Rail Services posted on their Twitter feed which show far more effectively than words ever could what they were having to deal with during “The Beast From the East”.

Beast from the East

 

Images from Twitter

 

 

 

 

 

 

rail passenger communication

Rail passenger communication in the dark ages

Rail passenger communication needs to be dragged into the 21st Century.

Stuck on a train, in the snow, trying to get to a training session on time or catch a flight must be among the most frustrating, the most stressful and the most unpleasant experiences of my life.  And I had a number of those experiences last week.

rail passenger communication

Snow led to widespread chaos on the trains but the communications with staff and passengers was also chaotic and unreliable.

Rail passenger communication was sparse and mostly wrong

What made them a whole lot worse was the complete lack of reliable information from the train companies. It was absolutely clear that the station staff and the conductors and drivers on the trains were also simply not being told what was going on. Information that did come through was late, out of date or just wrong.

It is astonishing that a few inches of snow and temperatures just a few degrees below the norm can cause such total widespread chaos.

In this super-connected world people expect to be told what is happening

But even more astonishing that with all the technology we have today to stay connected, the train companies, in particular, are so bad at keeping front line staff and passengers up to date.

On several occasions, I heard station staff in high vis jackets standing on freezing platforms telling passengers “We’ve got no idea mate!” Before the widespread adoption of the telephone this would be understandable but in the super-connected 21st century it is not.

It wasn’t just the station staff in the dark and out in the cold. Drivers and conductors did not fare any better. Nicky Marcelin-Horne was a passenger stuck overnight after getting on the 17:35 from Waterloo to Poole. It came to a halt somewhere in the New Forest and most of the passengers did not get off until morning. Speaking to the Evening Standard she said:

“The guys on the train were trying to help and keep us informed but they didn’t really know what was happening.”

On my stuck train, the conductor was trawling websites from his personal phone to try and work out what was happening.

Again I am aghast. How can this be so? People on the stranded trains were tweeting and posting on Facebook. Mobile phones were working even if the comms technology on the train wasn’t.  Surely someone from a control room should be telling staff what is happening.

rail passenger communication

For me, all this is a really visceral reminder of how crucial up-to-date, accurate information is to help people cope with unexpected and changing conditions. I made the wrong decisions about which train to get on (repeatedly), and whether to cancel a journey. With better information I would have made better decisions.

Crisis communications need planning and investment

It’s not the same as crisis communications via the media but there are a lot of parallels. Crises or disruption are always going to happen although the exact nature and the timing can never be known in advance. But, as we always say, an awful lot of things can be planned ahead of time. The problem is, it takes investment of time and money and it is human nature to put such investment to the bottom of the to-do list.

But, in both cases, when things do go badly wrong there are expensive enquiries, angry customers, huge loss of brand value and lots internal people saying ‘but we told you this could happen’.

 

Images from Twitter

 

crisis

Crisis management: that’s the way to do it!

In my last blog for The Media Coach, I wrote about the importance of facing the media during times of crisis.
In that article, I credited former UKIP leader Henry Bolton for agreeing to take part in interviews with journalists after the revelation of racist texts made by his new girlfriend but criticised his lack of messaging skills.

crisis

Chief Constable Jon Boutcher made the difficult decision to let the filming continue as one of his own team was arrested.

Crisis management: superb example

One month later – and I note in passing that Henry Bolton is no longer the leader of UKIP –  a superb example of how to engage with the media in a crisis has come to light.

It follows filming for 24 Hours in Police Custody – Channel 4’s fly-on-the-wall documentary series set inside Luton police station. During a recent blackmail investigation, it emerged that the blackmailer himself was not only one of the police officers working on the case, but part of the team monitoring a local lay-by where the £1,000 hush money demanded had been left for collection. Newspaper coverage of the case can be found here and the subsequent video of Detective Gareth Suffling’s arrest can be seen here.

Warts and all: how we deal with people

So why did the Chief Constable not pull the cameras and refuse to let the footage of the arrest be shown? In Jon Boutcher’s own words during a BBC TV interview the morning after the programme was transmitted: “What this programme shows, warts and all, is how we deal with people with care and respect – whether they are a member of our own or a member of the public, when they commit offences. And how can we get our public to trust us and to have confidence in us if they can’t see who we are as people? I think the programme demonstrated last night just how we deal with people who sadly on occasions let us down in the police service.

“This is a human tragedy in my view – the story of a young guy, a Detective Constable with an incredible future – who, for whatever reasons, and I don’t think we’ve ever really fully understood why he did what he did… And that concerns me. It concerns me with regard to how that could have occurred… If people are in trouble, if people are struggling in any way – whether it’s financial or otherwise – they should reach out for a helping hand.

Crisis management: transparency is key

“I accept that this programme and full editorial control sits with Garden Productions who make the programme – not with me. It would be against the values as to why we do this programme, if suddenly when we don’t like something, we shut it down… But what is more transparent, for our communities to see who we are? Normal people, from their communities, as public servants, policing those communities in the very best way we can.” His full reasoning can be found in this YouTube video.

It was a brave and controversial decision. Indeed, Jon Boutcher admits that he’s had criticism from colleagues, including other Chief Constables, with regards to the previous series. But in agreeing to show the footage, he demonstrates a level of police accountability, transparency and fairness which immediately goes some way to repair the damage caused by the initial arrest. And how much worse would it have been for Bedfordshire Police to have been seen to be trying to hide the film, once news of the arrest came out, if they had prevented it from being shown?

What’s more, Jon Boutcher talks about the case in conversational language (“warts and all”, “human tragedy”, “helping hand”), far removed from the ‘police-speak’ we are so often subjected to; a memorable message, said powerfully.

As an extra benefit, he adds: “the interest we’ve had from people now seeking to join the police service because of this programme, is really encouraging.”

 

Picture is a screen grab from YouTube.

Crisis media interview

Crisis Media Interviews: Face the music – but sing from the right song sheet

Crisis media interviews are understandably terrifying, and most people chose to avoid them and stick to that familiar phrase ‘no comment’. Here at The Media Coach, we spend a lot of time encouraging those who suddenly find themselves in a difficult situation with the media, to be bold and accept requests for interviews.

The PR best practice handbook, were it to exist, would explain that the ‘vacuum’ which would be caused by the absence of timely comments can quickly be filled by something even more damaging. If you don’t talk it is likely your enemies or detractors will.

However, it’s absolutely critical on such occasions the spokesperson has his or her messaging sorted with pin-sharp accuracy, as well as preparing and rehearsing answers to the tirade of negative enquiries.

Henry Bolton had clearly not been given such advice. The UKIP leader (at the time of writing, anyway) had left his wife and children for glamour model Jo Marney who subsequently was discovered to have sent racist texts, some of which were about the most recent addition to the royal family, Meghan Markle. Bolton appeared on national TV and radio the morning after he and his girlfriend had decided to part company.

 

Whilst credit goes to him for facing the media in a series of interviews (BBC 1 Breakfast, BBC Radio 4, ITV’s Good Morning Britain, LBC, Talk Radio and the rest), what emerged was a confused, chaotic, hesitant, and humiliating performance which was almost as destructive as deciding not to do the interviews in the first place.

For the benefit of others who might find themselves facing a series of crisis media interviews, here are three main reasons why every single interview went so badly:

1) Misplaced concern

Unbelievably, during all of his media interviews, Bolton seemed more interested in talking about how “absolutely distraught” his former girlfriend was with the fallout from her racist messages than the offensive nature of the texts themselves. He also suggested that he wanted to “help her re-build her life” and “support her family” (these are the relatives of someone he had been dating for just four days), rather than talking about the support he might provide for his wife of seven years and their two young children back at home.

2) Arguing over minor details

If Bolton had prepared his key messages, he would have been able to focus on getting them across. Without them, he wasted time and effort trying to contradict the interviewers on minor, irrelevant points. So he tried to claim that Jo Marney’s messages had “been taken out of context” – although failed to reveal what sort of context would make such messages acceptable. He also talked about the fact that the original messages were meant to be private (as if that suddenly made them OK). Similarly, when it was put it to him that the content of the messages were “still her views”, he tried to argue “Well, no they’re not, actually” – but failed to explain why anyone would expound views which they didn’t believe.

3) Ambiguity about the future

When events in the recent past have been as chaotic as those experienced by Henry Bolton, the future should have presented a chance to make statements which are simple, clear and unambiguous. But that opportunity was missed, with the curious suggestion that “the romantic side of our relationship is over”, whilst adding that they were “not breaking contact”, then arguing that he hadn’t “dumped” her and that he would be “standing by her”. Both journalist and audience could be forgiven for being left uncertain about what the nature of their future relationship might be.

So whilst it’s almost always better for interviewees to face the media, they should do so only when they’ve got their messaging and reactive lines sorted out. To his cost, Henry Bolton is an example of a man who had neither.

If you would like further reading on this, my colleague Catherine Cross wrote a blog some weeks ago with her top tips for handling a crisis including crisis media interviews. 

Crisis Comms: how to say sorry

Crisis Comms: How to say sorry

Crisis Comms should include a basic tenet: know when to say sorry.

“Sorry seems to be the hardest word” sang Elton John back in 1976. And in the world of corporate relations, it would appear to be something company bosses still struggle to say, even when reacting to an obvious and recognised mistake.

Crisis Comms: a new ‘how not to’ case study

None more so than at United Airlines last week, after footage of a passenger being forcibly removed from one of their overbooked flights between Chicago and Kentucky went viral on social media. In the videos, the individual concerned, 69 year old doctor David Dao, was shown bleeding from his mouth after being dragged screaming from the aircraft.
 
There has been much speculation in the press about why United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz – the recipient of PR Week’s ‘communicator of the year’ award only last month – could have handled the situation in a way which has been termed ‘brand suicide’. The videos drew more than 200 million views in China alone, with internet users describing what happened as ‘barbaric’ and ‘horrific’, and with thousands of re-tweets for the Twitter meme ‘United Airlines: board as a doctor, leave as a patient.’
 
Crisis Comms: how to say sorry

Dr David Dao was bloodied as he was dragged off the United Airlines plane. This image and others went viral on twitter.

Crisis Comms: it’s never that simple

The truth is there are a couple of complicating factors here – although neither of them should have prevented Munoz following the three key rules around making public apologies as a business leader, which I will go on to outline below.

Firstly, it’s important to recognise that Dao was not removed by airline staff. That job was carried out by Chicago Aviation Security Officers – so there was understandable caution in the moments after the event about which organisation should apologise for what. We saw this confusion over who was responsible prevent a speedy apology in both the Deepwater Horizon oil spill case and the chaos around the opening of Heathrow Terminal 5. (Sorry, this is a link to an FT piece behind a paywall but many of our readers will have access to this.)

Secondly, Munoz has two audiences to address: not only the wider public but also his staff. That explains his comment about ‘following established procedures for dealing with situations like this one’ and his pledge to ‘emphatically stand behind all of you’ in a letter to them, which was later leaked to journalists.

Crisis Comms: apology rules

Nevertheless, there are rules about planned corporate apologies which should always be followed in such circumstances:

1)    Say ‘sorry’ and say it quickly
Saying you are ‘upset’ or expressing ‘regret’ (both words used by Munoz in his initial letter) is simply not good enough. Company bosses need to use the word ‘sorry’ – with ‘apology/apologies’ as a second-place alternative – a matter of hours (not days) after the event. Owning up to the problem quickly will limit the damage, which will inevitably follow. There is always pressure from lawyers not to use the ‘sorry’ word but from a PR point of view, it is essential.
 
2)    Empathise with those involved
The passenger concerned should have been the focus of the CEO’s empathy – rather than describing him as ‘disruptive and belligerent’ as in the letter to staff. No one should be mistreated in such a way, and Munoz should have made clear that he recognised this fact. But he should have also widened his focus to take in the distress caused to fellow passengers who had to witness the event. After all, many of the videos later posted on YouTube start with the warning ‘the following footage may be disturbing…’.
 
3)    Promise a fix for the future
Current and future passengers need to know that steps are being taken to prevent something like this ever happening again. Regardless of whose “fault” it was – the airline’s, the aviation security officers, or a mixture of both – they need to fly with the confidence it will not happen to them or their fellow passengers.
 
As events unfolded in the days after the story, the lyrics of Elton John’s hit from more than four decades ago seemed increasingly pertinent: ‘It’s a sad, sad situation. And it’s getting more and more absurd.’
crisis communication lesson for david cameron

Cameron’s Crisis Communication Lesson

Many a good crisis communication lesson is never shared, or the various stages are not so public. But the revelation in the Panama Papers that David Cameron’s father had set up an off-shore fund and that until 2010 the Prime Minister himself had owned shares in that fund, has given us a very public case study. And the crisis communication lesson is that you need to get out in front of the story.

Crisis communication lesson

crisis communication lesson for david cameron

David Cameron has had a difficult week after ignoring basic crisis communication lesson

Crisis communications training always emphasises that you need to release all the bad stuff in one hit, as early as possible. Giving misleading statements or closing down enquiries will increase the damage if the whole story comes out later. And that is just what we saw last week. Here is a detailed blow by blow account of Cameron’s horrid week from The Guardian which is claiming the story as theirs.

Crisis communication lesson: refusing to say anything is a mistake

But the basic facts are that on Monday at a regular press briefing reporters asked Cameron’s official spokeswoman if she was aware that his father had set up an off-shore fund called Blairemore. She responded that this was a ‘private matter’. Unsurprisingly, this did not kill the story.

Crisis communication lesson: being economical with the truth is unlikely to work

On Tuesday, with the story all over the front page of the Guardian and running on all networks, Cameron answered a question with a phrase that can only be described as being economical with the truth.

‘I have no shares, no offshore trusts, no offshore funds, nothing like that.’

The furore continued. On Wednesday the prime minister’s office said: ‘There are no offshore trusts or funds from which the Prime Minister, Mrs. Cameron or their children will benefit in future.’ It was not enough. The statements clearly referred to now and in the future but did not mention the past. Journalists could smell blood.

By Thursday Downing Street decided the Prime Minister would have to come clean. In an interview with Robert Peston, Political editor of ITV, Cameron explained that he had owned shares in Blairemore from 1997 until 2010, just before he became Prime Minister. When he sold them, he added, he had paid tax on the profits.

On Saturday, David Cameron felt he needed to publish full details of his tax affairs, and then chancellor George Osborne announced he would do the same. Despite considerable efforts to draw a line under the whole thing, as I write the story continues to hit the headlines and the fall out is now spreading to other members of the Tory party. The damage to Cameron, to Osborne and to the Tories is huge.

Crisis communication lesson: deflect, dismiss, deny is not recommended

The question is, had David Cameron come clean on Monday, or even before, would the damage have been less? Accepted wisdom  is yes, that after an initial splurge of coverage the world would have quickly moved on because there was no ‘sport’ in chasing the details. It is hard to be sure, and the truth is that sometimes companies and people do manage to kill a story by obfuscating. But ‘deflect, dismiss, deny’ is not a strategy recommended in any crisis communications training.

 

Here are 13  minutes of Cameron being gently grilled by Robert Peston, the crucial bit is at 3′ 20″. Overall we think Cameron handles this interview very well but the damage was done.

 

 

Photo: the Mirror via Creative Commons