In the latest excerpt from his forthcoming book ‘Making Waves: PR and comms in the maritime industry’ here Polaris MD Ben Pinnington examines how companies can best prepare for and handle a crisis.
Maritime is constantly vulnerable to crisis
The hazardous nature of seafaring, shipbuilding and port operations is obvious. This means the threat of a crisis is constant for many businesses. And when things go wrong it can become a huge national and international news story. Think about the tragic explosion at Beirut Port in August 2020 when a large amount of ammonium nitrate stored at the port exploded devastating the city causing more than 200 deaths, 6,500 injuries, and US$15 billion of damage leaving an estimated 300,000 people homeless. This became the biggest story in the world for a number of days and its aftermath is still making the news. We have also seen ship groundings, piracy and ship cyber attacks regularly hit the headlines in recent times. Handling a crisis is a highly specialist area and could take up a whole book in itself and so what I provide here is an overview.
The public armed with iphones are now journalists
The risk of being caught in a crisis is now massively heightened with social media. The public have become reporters and undertake vast amounts of newsgathering for media outlets ironically at a time when newsrooms are cutting back on journalists. If you think of many major incidents like terrorism or the horrific explosion in Beirut, it is public recordings that the media are broadcasting, printing and publishing online. For this reason it is vital to have a social media policy covering your workforce and any contractors on your ship or site to ensure they are given clear boundaries with what they can say or share online.
A crisis reflects the true character of a business
What we have learned from handling crisis over the years is that you find out the true character of a business and the senior team in these moments. How you communicate internally and externally can come to define how you are perceived. These can be extremely intense high-stake situations with reputations and the value of the business on the line. It is also true that a crisis handled well can improve the standing of a business if you can control what will quickly become what Amanda Coleman describes in her book ‘Crisis Communication Strategies’, ‘the accepted narrative’ of the event. But coming out of a crisis well requires serious planning, rehearsals and support from the very top of the organisation.
Think people first
The advice at the beginning of this book in the ethos section is critical in managing a crisis. Next to having a plan the best single piece of advice we can give in a crisis is: think people first. We have seen CEOs show real empathy in times of crisis and that has lived with us 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 and 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 organisations go badly wrong in a crisis is when their reaction makes them and their company look selfish and uncaring particularly towards their customers or the public negatively effected by the incident.
Provide mental health counselling
But it is also critical to take care of your team’s mental health as part of any crisis now. From experience we have seen the harm a crisis can bring to a team and it can have a serious impact on people through-out the company at all levels. This is particularly the case if there is a lot of negativity and criticism which can make the crisis a deeply demoralising experience. 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 homes lives and/or with their health. If tragically the incident has seen injuries or fatalities you must prepare for the impact that has on the victim’s family and the team handling the crisis. I remember working with a reporter who covered the Lockerbie bombing and they had been left deeply traumatised for over ten years after being one of the first on the scene of the crash which they then had to return to for weeks. The experience caused them to leave journalism and needless to say there had been no planning for an incident of this magnitude or emotional support for the paper’s reporters caught in the catastrophe. For reasons like this you must ensure you make counselling part of your crisis plan.
Preventing a crisis reaching the media
It is also true that some of the best examples of crisis management are when the issue has been so well managed it stays out of the media. In this instance a business may react with such speed with the CEO taking charge and briefing a journalist personally about a sensitive issue, showing what action is being taken that the potentially damaging report does not appear. More strategically a really good crisis communications plan will identify reputational risks in advance and put measures in place to tackle them before they become a crisis.
What is a crisis?
The Journal of Management Studies definition of a crisis is: “A crisis may be defined as an organisationally based disaster, which causes extensive damage, social and economical disruption, and involves multiple stakeholders.”
This means that something has to happen that potentially causes extensive damage to an organisation that impacts on your sales and the ability to recruit or retain employees and customers. In this sense it is important to understand that while some incidents may be regarded as a crisis they are actually no more than a passing negative news story, they are not a fully blown crisis. A crisis is when your reputation is at risk of being damaged.
Eight categories of crisis
More specifically the Chartered Institute of Public Relations has identified eight categories of crisis (CIPR trainer Stuart Bruce) and it is worth detailing them here as businesses can be hit by a crisis from within the company or by outside factors which then affect their operations and this has been brought into sharp focus by the covid pandemic and how well or otherwise businesses have responded to it. But whatever the cause of the crisis the result is the same – the business is under scrutiny and the reputation is at risk. And often the business is being hit by more than one crisis at the same time.
1) Act of God – flood, health pandemic.
2) Technology – computer system break down.
3) Malevolence – cyber attack, piracy, terrorism.
4) Confrontation – strike, environmental protest.
5) Skewed values – Where the ethics of the business are challenged increasingly by public on social media or the mainstream media.
6) Misconduct. Aggrieved former staff member blows whistle.
7) Negligence – poor safety controls, cyber security.
8) Business or economic downturn.
Plan, test, review
Once you have understood what form a crisis can take it is important to start pulling a plan together. There are different stages to handling a crisis but by far the most important is to have a plan. A big problem however is that many companies do not have a crisis plan and if they do, they do not test it or devote the time to regular training and subsequent reviews. You must not fall into this trap.
Get senior management on board by ordeal if necessary
The first challenge for the PR and comms team can be to convince the senior management that a crisis plan and creating a crisis team is necessary. Some bosses like to think they have the experience and skill to handle any situation but a proper crisis can overwhelm and humble anyone no matter how able. The job of the comms team and the CEO is to realise the threat posed by a crisis and come together to build a plan that embraces the whole company and is then tested so you are never in a position where you are blindsided. If you have trouble convincing a CEO that a crisis plan is required a good device, according to CIPR trainer Stuart Bruce, for challenging them can be to organise a crisis training drill with an experienced media trainer who can ask properly tough searching questions. This baptism of fire can be the ordeal that shows your boss the brutal ‘realities of war’ and just how important planning is.
We advise the following steps:
Set up a crisis working group
Draw people from across the business notably Comms, HR, health and safety and legal. If you have a continuity plan, or other emergency response plans make the crisis comms plan align to that. Use the working group to identify risks in the business to inform your crisis comms plan. It can also be useful to introduce someone from outside the company who can offer valuable insight and think differently to people in-house. Having a blend of people is key, again according to CIPR trainer Stuart Bruce, including a humanist who looks for the people angle and a doom-monger who can help wargame the worst-case scenarios. Use the group to undertake stakeholder mapping so you have identified all organisations and businesses that should be briefed in the event of a crisis. From the working group you can also establish your crisis comms team.
Pick ‘horses for courses’ in crisis comms team
The make up of the crisis comms team is critical. A ‘horses for courses’ approach is best, keep in mind that a good promoter is not necessarily a good manager of bad news. You must pick the right people for the roles either in-house or a blend of internal and external PR consultants ideally crisis specialists. Similarly, your spokesperson or persons should be the best communicators you have available not just the most senior. They should be good at showing a caring human response as well as being expert. They must have received media training and should also not be the coordinator of the comms response. The spokesperson will have enough on their plate handling and preparing for the media interviews, give the role of organising the response, and carefully adapting your crisis comms plan, to a dedicated individual and make sure they are given the space and time to do their job properly and are supported by a team.
You will need people to log all the social media and media reports, you will need people to answer phones and draft and issue statements as well as respond to social media comments. So think of appointing a lead for each component of the communications response: overall comms, spokespersons, mainstream press, social media, internal comms, monitoring.
Ultimately someone has to be responsible for signing off statements in quick time, if that is the CEO they again have to have the time to respond rapidly. If they are buried in other aspects of the crisis that sign off authority has to pass to someone else. Speed can be everything. In the case of a confrontational crisis, for example, you may be under attack from other organisations and your efficiency of response can be critical to counteracting their propaganda both in mainstream media and social media.
Look at societal trends like green activism
Use your crisis working group to undertake horizon scanning looking at issues that could affect the company such as new legislation and trends in society. In maritime we see the industry caught right in the heart of the climate change and clean oceans debate led by global figures like Greta Thunberg, Sir David Attenborough and the Duke of Cambridge. We have seen huge demonstrations in support of Ms Thunberg from young people and future leaders deeply angry about climate change and the world they will inherit. And while shipping is listening to this societal change and slowly changing driven by the IMO targets and Poseidon Principles, as detailed in earlier chapters, the change in attitudes does make some maritime organisations vulnerable. Are you out of step with the drive to stamp out fossil fuels and clean up the oceans? Greenpeace for example regularly stages anti fossil fuel protests and in 2017 14 Greenpeace activists protested on a coal freighter on the Rhine River calling for a coal phase-out in Germany. This type of protest could easily happen to any number of shipowners or ports supporting fossil fuels. There is also risk that shipping lines could be ‘named and shamed’ by investigative journalists for not adapting their fleets fast enough to the IMO targets. Good reputational management will identify this and try and remedy it before it becomes an issue perhaps aligning the business more closely to the green agenda changing the marketing image. But again PR is more about ‘what you do’ than ‘what you say’. So if you are going green you have to actually do it. It is the job of a crisis working group to identify if the company is falling dangerously behind the curve of public opinion creating reputational risk.
The most effective crisis management keeps stories out of the news
Outside green look at wider operational risks, do you have an aging fleet of ships which are at risk of accident, what are the facilities like on board your ships for seafarers given the huge spotlight on seafarer welfare. Or do you have a large site with old buildings and equipment that are a looming safety or fire hazard. Or is there a risk you may have to close part of your business as a result of machine learning and AI resulting in job losses in a few years? In maritime and engineering often work is contract driven which means when large contracts come to an end redundancies may be made if no new work comes in. It is important to start to develop responses to these scenarios and wherever possible mitigate them – remembering that the most effective crisis management keeps stories out of the news.
Crisis communications plan contents
Avoid being too tailored to one type of crisis
When you have identified the risks within the business you can start to pull together the plan but be aware the plan is only as good as the testing that supports it. It is important that the plan is simple with space to develop your response when a crisis hits. It cannot be too tailored to one type of crisis as all are different.
Introduction statement – make it come from the top
Set out who owns the plan in an impact statement ideally from your top person. If the CEO writes this it sets the tone for the whole organisation and makes clear everyone should take it seriously. We would suggest it reflects the ethos of your business closely following your communications plan detailing your values and how you want to be known. You may want to say you intend to be open and honest offering full disclosure and transparency in the case of a crisis and you will not mislead and you will tell the truth and only put out verified facts. Remember that a crisis handled well can enhance the reputation of a business and strengthen understanding of its ethos and values as well as the quality of its management. The statement should also set out the responsibilities and legislative requirements the organisation has which is particularly important in maritime where there are a multitude of regulations from a range of bodies from coast guards to flag states to class societies to the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS).
Be clear where the document is held so people can access it at all times on the cloud and where hard copies can be found. Also be sure to keep it secure given its highly sensitive nature. Some would advise giving the document a general name rather than crisis comms plan in case it falls into the wrong hands. When writing it be aware it could leak so be careful what you say.
Rehearsal dates and revisions
A big problem is organisations treating crisis planning as a box ticking exercise. It is the working group’s job to ensure the crisis comms plan is dynamic and regularly reviewed, updated and tested. Again the covid pandemic has shown just how important this process is. What have you learned from recent events like covid, ensure there is an audit trail understanding why changes have been made and what you have learned.
In this part of the plan you can set out the different phases of the crisis and how you plan to respond from identifying a crisis has begun to managing the peak, to moving to recovery.
- Think about how you will organise the comms team when the crisis begins, where they will be based, keeping in mind they may have to be off site, what equipment, food and drink will they have, and ensure the team has a grab bag of all the passwords they need for website and social media updates as well as access to the internet and mobile phones – do not let technology trip you up at this critical moment. Having company graphics, factsheets and FAQs together with photographs of senior staff in an appropriate setting with serious expressions will be necessary. You must set the right tone and show you are accurately judging the mood. For this reason all other comms must be shut off – such as planned lighter social media posts.
- You will also want to work out as quickly as possible who will be leading the response – your company or other agencies and stakeholders. In maritime, for example, during covid we have seen seafarers trapped on board ship unable to disembark for long periods causing in one instance, reported by the media, a suicide attempt. Fortunately the shipping line had been very vocal for months about the crew’s plight and had shown caring responsible leadership. But in this type of instance a number of organisations can be involved from the ship owner, the ship management company, the flag state, seafarer charities and the port authority all having a voice. It is important in this situation that all stakeholders are singing from the same hymn sheet. It should be clear who is leading the response and that no stakeholder issues any information to the media or social media without clearing it with the lead party first. Your comms plan can be shared with stakeholders ahead of any crisis so they are aware of the plan and can adapt and feed into it as necessary.
- Be clear who is leading the communications with the stakeholders of your company who are not directly involved in the crisis but who have been identified as important in the stakeholder mapping process such as customers, investors, suppliers and politicians. Ensure your messaging is consistent as they may talk to each other.
- In the initial response your ‘grab bag’ should have as a bare minimum short holding statements for the media that will give you breathing space as you respond to the crisis with more detailed information. This can be as much as acknowledging the crisis, saying that you are dealing with it and that more information will be available soon. It gives the message you are alert and taking the matter seriously. Think of adding important information to these statements such as a helpline or contact details if people are worried about the welfare of loved ones. You should, as a rule, have statements and messaging prepared for specific crisis relevant to your type of maritime business that your working group has identified including cyber-attacks, piracy, groundings, sinkings, accidents and fatalities, site shut downs, explosions, strikes and former employees with an axe to grind leaking sensitive information to the media.
- Your comms team can then start adapting the crisis comms plan to the specific nature of the crisis while monitoring the media and social media and reporting back how the crisis is evolving documenting what you have said, and critically what other businesses and agencies have said, to which media and when.
- It will be important to ensure all reporting is balanced and accurate. We have found opening channels of communication with priority media and editors particularly helpful in this situation so they are aware you expect all reporting to be accurate and that their news team must come to you for a response. If the media runs an article or broadcast that is unbalanced or inaccurate you must request an immediate correction in robust terms with the editor. Going to the top shows how serious you are about the issue, and given that your reputation is on the line you cannot leave anything to chance. A reporter or news editor may not see giving you a correction as a priority unless they hear it from the editor. However, it is our experience that any feedback presented as a ‘complaint’ is most unwelcome to newspapers as they may have to formally explain to their editor-in-chief what has been done to address the complaint. We have found that requesting a correction ‘without having to make a complaint’ is much more favourably looked upon by journalists. It may be that they went to press before you responded as they were under pressure of a deadline – so try and work constructively with reporters and help them to do their job without dropping them in it.
- Prioritising the media is key. You may not be able to devote time to every individual news outlet given the overwhelming number of websites and social media accounts now. You have to work out which channels reach your stakeholders best. You can look at ‘earned media’ outlets like news websites, newspapers, radio and TV and decide which you want to prioritise for briefings and even site visits and face to face interviews with the senior leadership team to show them what you are doing to tackle the crisis.
- Your ‘owned media’ like your website and social media channels will play a vital role. Here you can can report news in a way that is not at risk of being distorted by mainstream press. Equally you can correct misinformation and answer important queries using your social feeds. The use of social media by BP during the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe for example is generally understood to be the moment digital communications came to the forefront as a response tool during this crisis. The explosion on April 20, 2010 at BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig killed 11 workers and caused millions of gallons of crude oil to spew into the Gulf of Mexico. PR week (https://www.prweek.com/article/1265206/bp-year-later) said BP began the crisis by making some well documented PR gaffes with seemingly unguarded comments by former CEO Tony Hayward, such as “I want my life back” and the spill is “relatively tiny” compared “with the very big ocean,” But PR Week says BP then got creative and invested in the Deepwater Horizon website which generated more than 150 million page impressions from April to September in 2010. At the height of the crisis, from late May to mid-June, it sustained an average of more than three million impressions per day. More than 60,000 comments were submitted to the Deepwater Horizon website, the Facebook page connected with 40,000 followers by mid-August, and the Twitter handle connected with more than 8,500 followers by mid-August during the peak of the response. A team of five to seven staffers were focused on managing and responding to enquiries.
- One factor covid has taught us is the value of consistency of communication. Having the same people giving information at a set time and supplying a source such as a single website or twitter feed where people can get up to date information helps simplify and structure your response.
- As the crisis develops and peaks you want to give yourself space to be creative. If you are in a confrontational crisis you may want to give your team or crew a voice by starting a petition or uploading their authentic quotes on your website and social media or offer them as interviewees to the media for example. In addition the more you can engage third parties such as contractors, lobby groups, local politicians or the public to support your position, the more powerful your response.
- After a period you should also be able to gauge the ‘accepted narrative’ of the crisis and then plan how you move to the recovery position resuming normal operations. Clearly a big review is necessary at this point to work out the way forward for the organisation learning lessons for future crisis and adapting your day-to-day communications to the ‘accepted narrative’ of how the company has come out of the crisis. Your objective is to understand how the event has affected your reputation and the trust and confidence in the company. If lessons need to be learned start to plan activity to show you have learned – as has been mentioned a number of times, the most important dimension to PR is what you do, ahead of what you say and what others say about you.
Rehearsals, training and testing drills
- Once you have your working group, comms team and crisis comms plan it is crunch time. You must test the plan. Like any sports team you have to practise before your big game. Imagine the England cricket team turning up to play the Ashes having rarely practised and without a game plan. It is unthinkable (even if performances in the 1990s would suggest otherwise). The same is the case for crisis. You must try and find your weaknesses so you can improve and adapt your crisis comms plan. Do not be afraid to fail or look stupid, draw learning so you derisk falling flat on your face during the real thing.
- In maritime there are a number of ways you can approach this. You can undertake a desk type training day or you can get out on site or ship and do it in a live environment. They key is for it to be a realistic as possible.
- Specialist training organisations are available with trained journalists who can mock up real scenarios based on the types of crisis you have identified but keep the details absolutely secret from you to maintain the element of surprise and ambush you. Planned coordinated multi-agency, multi-media attacks can happen in the case of a confrontation crisis. And remember you can be hit by more than one crisis at once and ideally you want to test this. These exercises can be laid on for your organisation or together with stakeholders you are likely to work with in a crisis. And there is a lot of benefit in this if, for example, you may need to work with the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, the RNLI, the police, fire or ambulance services, classification societies and flag states. It will be important for your top people to be involved including the CEO and department heads so they are put under genuine pressure creating the febrile atmosphere of a crisis.
- The exercise should test your statements and how well and quickly the comms team and senior management team responds to media enquiries as the crisis evolves.
- Mock press conferences and media interviews for radio and TV are essential. These should work as a feedback exercise so interviews can be played back and feedback given in how to improve before being done again. You must not leave yourself in the position of senior management having to front up to the media in the heat of a crisis without experience of interviews or media training.
- Having a social media component to a training drill is now absolutely essential. It is not easy to test this given the public nature of social accounts but systems have been established in recent times that are able to replicate a social media reaction in a crisis. Social media is now with question a key battle ground in any crisis especially in a confrontational crisis. You want the training drill to test your ability to judge whether to respond, defend your position and risk fanning the flames or stay silent and risk being outboxed – and see what happens as a result. Often there is no right or wrong way but you need to see the implication of both scenarios and how to respond. Keep in mind that in a confrontational crisis there may be a highly organised assault on your company from a wide range activists as well as organisations – a social media propaganda blitzkrieg. The social media component as we all know has changed the world and it has changed crisis management fundamentally. The mainstream press can be whipped into a feeding-frenzy by social media, still a Wild West of shrill, politicised and frequently, and unacceptably, abusive commentary. It seems publishing standards and even the defamation laws that underpin traditional journalism are bulldozed, particularly on Twitter, as the sheer volume of commentary becomes impossible to police and the lines between free speech, abuse and truth become blurred. Your training will need to expose you to the brutal reality of this game of murderball and test how well your team can cope with the volume and at times extreme nature of social media.
- The hazardous nature of maritime makes the threat of crisis constant for many businesses.
- Understand what is and is not a crisis. A crisis endanagers your reputation and ability to recruit and retain staff and clients.
- Provide mental health support and counselling to care for your people caught in a traumatic or demoralising crisis.
- Ensure your crisis plan has the full support of your CEO and board.
- Set up a crisis working group from each main department to horizon scan potential crisis which could affect the business including operations, legislation and changes in society.
- Identifying potential crisis in advance can prevent them happening – this is the most effective crisis management.
- Establish a crisis comms team but choose the right people, a good promoter may not be as effective in crisis.
- Have a crisis comms plan but do not make it too prescriptive to one type of crisis.
- Review, test and update your crisis plan with training drills finding weaknesses. You must not face a real crisis without practise.
- Prioritise key media that reach your audience.
- Social media has changed crisis management fundamentally and can be used to blitzkrieg organisations caught in a confrontation crisis with negative propaganda.
References and recommended reading and learning materials related to this article includes:
Amanda Coleman’s Crisis Communications Strategies book
Stuart Bruce Chartered Institute of Public Relations trainer https://www.stuartbruce.biz/
Chartered Institute of Public Relations training modules