The media can make or break a corporate or brand reputation when a crisis erupts. Crisis and risk expert, Chris Woodcock offers some advice on preparedness, general best practice and facing up to the media in a crisis.

Many myths surround crisis management and risk communication. In light of all the recent scares and crises in the food and drink industry - not to mention the much stricter legislation and stock market focus on manufacturers - it is increasingly important to cut through the deluge of guidance and ensure that your own preparations and processes meet the mark. Consequently this feature outlines two areas: a broad brush approach to crisis best practice, listing the main steps to creating a system that will work; and a brief focus on media preparedness and the irreplaceable value of media training.

General best practice - a simple checklist


"Being seen to be in control can make the difference between failure and success"
Being in control is a critical requirement of crisis management. Being seen to be in control can make the difference between failure and success.

To inject that degree of control, there is no substitute for a systematic approach to lining up people, processes and resources. Here's a simple, step-by-step checklist on getting the basics in place, whether you are starting from scratch or near-scratch. It is not the only way to do it - and it is not always the best order in which to do it - but if you follow these essential guidelines you will not go far wrong. This list should also operate as an ongoing annual cycle of update and maintenance, once things are in place.

Appoint a crisis co-ordinator

Ideally, someone relatively senior, a good networker and respected by colleagues, who can get things done and who will be taken seriously by the Board. They will need to be involved long-term, be a good resource-investigator and have access to all decision-makers. A communications, QA or risk manager is often the choice. They will be intensively involved in procedure set-up, planning and implementation and have the lead maintenance role.

Audit

Explore what systems or knowledge already exist. Look at production safety systems, health and safety, specialist suppliers or support resources, mini procedures, contingency plans, drills and so on. What product or corporate crises have taken place recently, with drinks in production or out in the market? Check individual crisis and risk experience and levels of enthusiasm/cynicism/ability. The co-ordinator would have responsibility for working out what and who should be researched.

Risk assessment

In light of the audit findings, schedule a workshop to focus on risks and opportunities linked to the business plan. Involve relevant senior function heads across the business and definitely include operational leaders and brand managers. The usual format for this vital brainstorm is to use a Risk Grid that charts Likelihood versus Impact and funnels down into priority risks that deserve an action plan. This format should be repeated at least annually, during the business planning process.

Interim plan and checklists

Once risks and receptivity among management are clear, an interim holding plan‚ and resource can be put in place. As a minimum, for an fmcg manufacturer, it would contain:

  • Basic crisis policy
  • Crisis categorisation
  • Identified key risks
  • Crisis team details
  • Crisis room(s)
  • Media relation basics (do's and don'ts, essential holding statements, etc)
  • Emergency contact details.

Detailed plan and procedure

This is the main slab of work and needs to be ready before the simulation but finalised after the simulation has signalled any final omissions or glitches. This phase should include:

  • Briefing and training the crisis team, allocating clear roles and rules.
  • Gathering facts and preparing arguments and positions.
  • Wide resource investigation to line up crisis room contents, facts, site plans, brand information, known databases of  customers, customer service processes and teams, etc.
  • Producing templates for sites or departments to follow.
  • Full media and press office guidelines and resources, including media spokespeople.
  • Producing an easy-to-use manual (and making sure there's a portable and on-line version).
  • Basic training for all staff.

Training and simulation

Although a simulation can be the start-point for this whole cycle, more often it is the ideal way at this stage to test the plans and to put the key players through their paces. For a soft drinks manufacturer, the scenario should definitely be product-based in the first instance and might draw on recent issues or scares in the headlines. Obvious topics include benzene-contaminated carbon dioxide, dental caries or sweeteners. (There's plenty of learning to be had or scenarios to be developed based on the Ribena Toothkind experience, for instance, or around the aspartame issue, or related to the tarnishing of Coca-Cola back in 1999 - see commentary below.)

Review

Analyse your performance to date. What works and what does not? What is missing? How did the simulation show up any strengths or weaknesses? Make refinements and improvements. Test understanding and commitment, especially among key managers. Agree early warning systems via the sales force and your customer service team.

Maintenance

There are no one-stop solutions to risk and crisis management. A professional maintenance programme, led by the co-ordinator, would include:

  • Issues monitoring via the media and relevant pressure groups.
  • Website and intranet modifications.
  • Regular emergency contact updates.
  • Annual risk assessment (to also precede any product launch or range extension).
  • Specialist resource establishment, such as an emergency response telephone operation, field marketing support, etc.
  • Training and testing of sites and countries.
  • Integration into the business planning process and an overall business continuity provision.

Dealing with the media

If you are not well prepared to deal with media demands, no amount of systematic risk assessment nor contingency planning can save a business from suspicion, blame or even devastating condemnation among key stakeholder audiences.

Media training must play a major part in any effective crisis management programme. Such is the speed of the modern media in reacting to, and reporting on, breaking stories that the company executive or drinks brand manager can expect to be in front of the cameras within minutes, whether it's a regional, national or global story that is breaking. Unless he or she is properly prepared, five minutes of fame could spell disaster.

Modern media, rapidly growing and diversifying on a global scale, encompasses anything from newspapers to websites, so media training deals with much more than tips on giving a good interview. Developing an understanding of the needs of different media and being aware of the potential pitfalls are crucial.

Coca Cola products being withdrawn from sale in Belgium One thing is for certain, presenting the wrong image can have disastrous consequences. To take an example, consider how Coca-Cola was badly hit by the health scare connected to its soft drink in spring 1999. Being the world's biggest brand was no defence against its failure to respond sympathetically to the sickness of 120 people in Belgium after consuming Coca-Cola. Lack of communication was cited as the major error of the management team - and a belated apology via the media a week later was futile. The lessons were clear and relate to the fundamental rules of media relations in a crisis: 'say it all, say it immediately and keep on saying it'.

The next layer up of media theory is not complicated either: think about what YOU want to say, condense that thinking into three or four key messages and then concentrate on delivering those messages clearly and with impact. Secondly, be prepared and be proactive, at all hours of the day and with the most credible and knowledgeable spokespeople you can train.

As the backbone of your communication, key messages must be developed carefully, particularly in a crisis. Given the highly emotive forces at work when an issue or crisis breaks, businesses must deal with issues in an appropriate (and sympathetic) way and accord aspects of the problem the right priority: People; Environment; Property; Money.

It may seem obvious, but it is all too easy to let the pressure of a crisis get the better of you and to focus on business and product implications first. There have been many such culprits. No one wants to hear how much this is all costing when your company has put lives at risk, or worse. They need human understanding and honest reparations, not logical systems and detailed processes. They need to see a human, credible face; not a 'company automaton'.