A Communication Failure Can Turn a Crisis into a Public Relations Catastrophe
“What we’ve got here is failure to communicate,” is the famous line from the 1967 Paul Newman movie Cool Hand Luke. It best sums up the Marathassa – Burrard Inlet oil spill and points to a critical failure we often see in a crisis. In planning for a crisis, organizations forget the importance of communication, not only in dealing with the crisis, but also when informing the public. They plan how to deploy resources and deal with the crisis internally, while often forgetting what exists outside of their organization.
A timeline in the Globe and Mail shows several communications failures that lead to delays in calling out cleanup and containment crews in the Marathassa spill. Once deployed, the Western Canada Marine Response Corporation (WCMRC) teams did an excellent job, cleaning up 80 per cent of the oil in 20 hours, but the communication delays turned what might have been a minor incident into a major event. Those internal communication failures were then compounded by a failure to inform the City of Vancouver until 12 hours after the spill was first reported. This turned it into a major story.
Rather than being praised for its response, the Coast Guard faced a storm of criticism for an inadequate response and cleanup effort. The public was unhappy. Local politicians were unhappy. The Provincial Government was unhappy. This could not come at a worse time for proponents of expanded crude oil shipments out of the Port of Vancouver. Oil spill prevention and a world-class response are central to gaining public support. Public and political sentiment is that this was not world-class. Poor communications lead to a slow response, which let the crisis get out of hand.
The Coast Guard’s prime stakeholder in a crisis situation is not the Federal Government or Coast Guard management in Ottawa. The Coast Guard’s number one stakeholder in a crisis is the public who they are charged with protecting and that includes local governments who represent all of us. That stakeholder was forgotten.
So how do you avoid making the same mistakes in your crisis? Here are seven things to think about:
1) Have a crisis communications plan. Crisis planning is not complete without a crisis communications plan. Who to call (or tweet), when to call (or post on Facebook), what to say, and how to best get your message out. To be seen to be effectively responding, you have to tell someone about it
2) Alert your communications team right away. Don’t wait until the story is out of control—get the communications team working on the crisis from the outset. Bringing in heavy hitters from Ottawa didn’t save the Coast Guard’s reputation, nor change the public perception of the crisis. By then the story was written by the public, the media, and the critics. The story was “clean up was a failure,” “world-class spill response was anything but” and “Coast Guard cuts made the problems worse.”
3) Prepare your statements in advance. Have fill-in-the-blanks templates for media advisories, statements and news releases for predicted events so you can get those out to the public quickly. It should include social media channels and your website as well.
4) First out with the information controls the message. The first voices set the narrative, the tone of the story. It’s your crisis so you know the most and you know first. Use that to your advantage. Become the source of accurate information. Media and the public go to who can provide the best information. In an information vacuum, they go to who screams the loudest.
5) Know who your stakeholders really are. Make a list. Make a list and have it as a key element of your crisis communications plan. Who they are and how to reach them. If the public isn’t on the list, they need to be there and the best way to reach them is through the media: both social media and traditional.
6) Define each potential crisis in advance. You should have a list of potential crises, each given a crisis rating based on seriousness and a planned response for each level of crisis. That way in the heat of the moment you can just follow the plan and effectively manage crisis communications.
7) Exercise the plan often. The worst thing you can do is create a plan and never practice it. If you regularly deal with minor events, get in the habit of pulling out the plan, assessing the seriousness and whether to call in the communications team. It’s free practice! Follow the same steps until they become routine. Use the templates mentioned above. It should become second nature so when a major crisis happens you know what to do. If you don’t have regular minor occurrences, then you need to do formal practice until you are confident in your ability in a crisis.
Look at the oil spill and relate it to a crisis your organization could face. Would you do better or make the same mistakes? If you don’t have a crisis communications plan, or if you have a plan but don’t know how to use it or where it is or who to contact and how to do that, then expect bad news. A crisis defines your organization. Your response to a serious event is revealing.