Excerpt: Making Waves

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AN excerpt about how to prepare for and handle a crisis from chapter 8 of Making Waves by Ben Pinnington, author and managing director of public relations firm Polaris Media in the UK.

Why you must plan for a crisis

WHAT I have learned from handling crises in the maritime industry over the years is that the true character of a business and its senior team becomes clear in these moments. How you communicate internally and externally can define how you are perceived. Crises are extremely intense high-stake situations with reputations and the value of the business on the line.

A crisis handled well can improve the standing of your business, as long as you can control what will quickly become the accepted narrative of the event. But coming out of a crisis well requires serious planning, rehearsals and support from the top of the organization.

Think people first

The advice I shared in the ethos section of this book is critical in managing a crisis. Next to having a plan, the single best piece of advice I can give in a crisis is think people first. At Polaris we have seen CEOs show real empathy in times of crisis and that has lived on in our perception of them, and I am sure we are not alone.

It is vital to show you care, particularly for the people most affected, so think about how you will support all your team. PR is about what you do, what you say and what others say about you, but it is the ‘what you do’ that is the most important thing – actions speak louder than words.

Often where organizations go terribly wrong in a crisis is in allowing their reaction to make them look selfish and uncaring, particularly towards their customers or the public who have been negatively affected by the incident.

Provide mental health counselling

It is critical to take care of your team’s mental health as part of any crisis management. From experience, I have seen the harm a crisis can bring to a team and it can have a serious impact on people throughout the company at all levels.

This is particularly the case if the crisis results in a lot of negativity towards, and criticism of, the company or organization, which can make it a deeply demoralizing experience for the teams. The strain of handling a highly pressured high-profile situation on a 24/7 basis can leave conscientious people feeling unfairly blamed or burned out, causing problems in their home lives and/or with their health.

If the incident has seen injuries or fatalities, you must prepare for the impact that tragic situation will have on the victims’ families and the team handling the crisis. I remember working with a reporter who covered the Lockerbie disaster when a bomb exploded in mid-air on Pan Am Flight 103 in December 1988, killing all passengers and crew and 11 residents of the Scottish town below. The reporter had been left deeply traumatized for over ten years after being one of the first on the scene of the crash, to which they then had to return for weeks. The experience caused them to leave journalism. Although this kind of disaster is mercifully rare, you must ensure you make counselling part of your crisis plan.

Preventing a crisis reaching the media

Some of the best examples of crisis management are when the issue is so well handled it stays out of the media. A business may react with such speed, the CEO taking charge and briefing a journalist personally about a sensitive issue, showing what action is being taken, that a potentially damaging report never appears. More strategically, a good crisis communications plan will identify reputational risks in advance and put measures in place to tackle them before they become a crisis.’

Making Waves: PR strategies to transform your maritime business is published by Rethink Press on Amazon.