Managing Press and Public Relations around Disasters
Every organisation occasionally has its problems. Some of these may be bigger than others. The worst, of course, involve loss of life, or potential loss of life, but there are many other issues that may result in huge press interest.
When an organisation has problems, the press often wants to know more because bad news sells. So how do you manage the inevitable press interest at such times?
This page gives you some ideas.
Legal vs. Personal
In recent years, legal advice around problems has tended to be, broadly, “Don’t apologise because it’s an admission of liability”.
This advice has resulted in some massive PR disasters for companies and public sector organisations.
For example, if someone has died, families are desperate for answers and also understanding. An organisational response of ‘No comment’ or ‘Not my fault, guv’ is extremely unsympathetic, to say the least.
It is possible to apologise for someone’s loss and/or injury without admitting liability.
For example, if you are talking to the people involved:
“We are so sorry to hear about this. We are not sure what has happened at this stage, or what can be done to help, but we are doing our best to find out. As soon as we know, we will let you know. In the meantime, is there anything that we can do to help you manage your situation?”
If you are making a formal statement, you can say something like:
“Our thoughts are with the families involved. This is a very tragic situation and a really difficult time for them. We are doing our best to resolve it as fast as possible, and if there’s anything that we can do to help, we will.”
The point is to make a human connection with the people affected. Don’t be tempted to hide behind legal jargon, but reach out to them as people and tell them how sorry you are that this has happened to them.
A bit of fellow-feeling and empathy goes a long way to help in a disaster situation. But what goes even further is practical help.
A Tale of Two Airlines
In 1988, Pan Am Flight 103 was blown up by a terrorist bomb over the Scottish town of Lockerbie, killing all 243 passengers and 16 crew, together with 11 people who lived in the town. Although Pan Am had no direct responsibility, it was later found guilty of lax screening procedures. The company has since ceased trading.
In January 1989, a British Midland Boeing 737 jet crashed just outside Kegworth in Leicestershire. The plane was attempting to make an emergency landing at East Midlands Airport. 47 of those on board died, and 74 were seriously injured. Later investigation proved that there had been some confusion among the flight crew as to which engine had malfunctioned, and that they had switched off the wrong one.
So. Flight crew’s fault. Surely the end of the airline, given Pan Am’s fate? No.
British Midland had an emergency plan, and brought it into action. A local store brought clothes, food and blankets to survivors and their families, providing much-needed support of just the right kind.
Unlike Pan Am, British Midland not only survived the experience, but saw its share price increase in the aftermath.
What Lessons Can we Learn?
First, and most importantly, do your risk analysis well, and put in place plans to mitigate the risks.
If you are working in an industry where there is a risk of events that could result in loss of life or injury, develop a plan to manage those events.
Your plan should include how to provide immediate practical support to anyone injured, and the families of those involved. Make the arrangements ahead of time so that all you have to do is press the ‘go’ button. Also make sure that the emergency arrangements operate 24/7, and that everyone in the organisation is aware of the disaster plan.
Beyond the immediate situation, whether you think it’s your company’s fault or not, consider what you can do to help those involved.
Whether that’s providing access to counselling support, or advice about legal services, make it available. It’s not an admission of guilt to do so, it’s helpful and it will also make clear that you understand how difficult the situation is for all those involved.
Support all investigations into the event, openly and transparently.
Above all, never lie, either to the press, those involved, or any investigations. The exposure, which these days is likely to be via social media, will be extremely damaging and you will never contain it.
Providing Information to the Media
Disasters are one of those times when a press conference is likely to be appropriate.
The news will be breaking, your phones will be ringing off the hooks with journalists wanting to know what’s going on, and it will be a good way to get information to a large number of people.
…you don’t want to hold a press conference just to respond to hostile press questions.
Instead, craft a positive story about what you are doing in the aftermath of the disaster.
Start by expressing your sympathy for those involved and their families, and saying how terrible the event has been for everyone concerned.
Then provide information about your activity, which may include some or all of:
- Practical and other support for the families involved;
- Investigations into what happened, either internal or cooperating with wider inquiries involving police or other national bodies. If possible, include some early findings from any internal inquiries;
- Changes to your internal rules or systems to prevent similar events happening in future; and
- Lobbying for changes to national legislation to prevent similar events happening in future.
Conclude by inviting questions.
Be prepared for questions to be hostile, and have a stock answer for anything under investigation such as:
“This is a very important issue and we’re investigating it fully. As soon as we know, we’ll let everyone know, starting of course with the families involved.”
“This is the subject of a police inquiry and we’re not able to say anything more about that just now. Once we can, rest assured that you’ll all be told.”
Don’t enter into speculation about anything, but make clear that you have nothing to hide.
Emphasise the fact that those involved come first as far as your organisation is concerned.
Managing disasters is never going to be easy for an organisation
It is, however, a lot harder for anyone who has lost a family member or friend. Keep that in mind in all your planning and media activity and you are unlikely to go far wrong in your approach or in what you say.