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Headline Disasters: How to Manage the Media in a Crisis

August 10, 2010

​"Is Shell Australia responsible for this oil spill?" asked a journalist of the company’s then country chairman Peter Duncan about the oil released into Sydney Harbour from a third-party vessel at Shell’s Gore Bay terminal. Standing dockside in front of the cameras and wearing an orange safety vest, Duncan insisted: "We've got a social responsibility. We've got an environmental responsibility. And I feel a deep sense of ownership in coping with those things, no matter whose fault it is." It was a perfect reply that was prepared in anticipation of the question. As a subsequent enquiry revealed, the owners of the Italian registered oil tanker, Laura D’Amato, were held responsible, but when the spill happened in August 1999, Shell was in there from the beginning, managing the cleanup and being open with the media.​

Shell’s media management was vastly different to the early blame game between BP and Transocean, the owner of the Deepwater Horizon rig that exploded in April 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico. The size of the ensuing ecological disaster – the worst in US history – has since strangled any ability BP might have had to "manage" the media, but an early straightforward account of the size of the spill might have seen a different outcome for the company’s now damaged reputation and diminished share price.

In another ship-related incident during the early days of the H1N1 – swine flu – epidemic in 2009, a cruise was cut short and 2000 passengers and 750 crew members were kept on board Carnival Australia’s P&O Cruises Pacific Dawn for 72 hours, while authorities decided how to handle two unwell passengers. "Our main commitment was to keep passengers on board updated," says Sandy Olsen, the company’s corporate affairs director. When the cruise ship finally docked in Sydney, the media struggled to find passengers who would talk about being treated badly. "The headlines went from, ‘P&O Misses the Boat on Swine Flu’ to ‘Passengers Full of Praise’," says Olsen. It ended up that no one on board had the virus.

Contrast the management of Shell’s and Carnival’s incidents with last year’s media circus following Tiger Woods’ low-speed car accident outside his house on November 29 at 2am. Tiger went to ground and rumours circulated about sex scandals and his wife hitting him with a golf club. Fifty-two days later, with his reputation in tatters and rumour mills working overtime, he reappeared in public via a televised, scripted apology to close friends. "It was death by a thousand cuts," according to Anthony McClellan, director of AMC Media, who says Woods and his advisers made two major mistakes. "Firstly, he should have gone out early to take control of the narrative, express contrition, and then say he was off to a rehabilitation program. Secondly, his performance in front of the cameras when he finally emerged was wooden and came over as insincere. He seemed over-media-trained," says McClellan who most recently has been appointed to manage the media by lawyers representing Kristy Fraser-Kirk, the publicist at retailer David Jones’ following her sexual harassment complaint against the company’s former chief executive, Mark McInnes. Fraser-Kirk’s claim for A$37 million damages is Australia’s largest sexual harassment claim.

Immediately after his appointment, McClellan took control of Fraser-Kirk’s narrative when specific media outlets asked questions about incidents that had allegedly occurred at her previous employers by issuing a media release to all covering speculation on her work history.

Counteraction Plan

​All companies should have a crisis plan that includes a media element, says John Wells, chief executive of Sydney-based public relations company Jackson Wells. "If you create an information vacuum, the media will always fill it up with speculation and you’ll lose control of the agenda," he warns. "The goal of a crisis management plan should be containment and positive counteraction."

As corporate communications consultants, McClellan’s and Wells’ crisis philosophies are similar. They agree all organisations should have a written plan, which includes identifying who is in the crisis management team and a well-resourced, technologically enabled location from which the team will work. The plan must also outline the crisis strategy, nominate prepared media spokespeople and determine who communicates to which stakeholders throughout the crisis.

Preparation for a crisis involves media training for company spokespeople. McClellan says whoever is chosen needs to be mentally agile, and have a calm temperament. As a general rule, it should be the best media spokesperson in the company – ideally, the chief executive or communications director. Media training includes the mechanics of the media, as well as the "bullying pack" mentality that can take over press conferences. McClellan also focuses on teaching the spokesperson to communicate without jargon and in a simple way. "People aren’t interested in complicated messages like what happened to your IT system," he says. "They just need to know it’s broken and will be back up in three hours." Wells says it’s important to conduct rehearsals or simulations as close to full-scale as possible. Both consultants use dummy media conferences in the initial training phase of company spokespeople.

The False Economy of Lying

​The nature of the industry often defines the types of crises likely to be faced, but all organisations could have an IT system collapse, be the victim of a natural disaster or the defendant in a sexual harassment lawsuit, while all manufacturers might face a large-scale product recall or a fatal industrial accident. "Try to share as much as you can that is not sensitive information, such as the names of injured people. Lying is not only wrong, but false economy and bad business," says McClellan. Inevitably, the bad news always gets out, he adds.

Paul Zennaro, senior media adviser for Shell Australia, says that the first communication his company releases in a crisis is a generic statement confirming that an event has occurred. "We have good relationships with media outlets and specific journalists who we can get information to as soon as possible," he says. "Oil is a fast-moving commodity which requires good media access and we provide that access. The goals are to inform the public, manage reputational impact and shine a light on the company and its actions. The government might look at how quickly we reacted before calling in the emergency services, whereas public perception will be formed through media reporting."

Both Shell and Carnival Australia understand the value of communicating with all stakeholders, not just the media, through a crisis. Each has global communications strategies that outline general policies. During the swine flu issue, Olsen says specialists within the crisis team dealt with health authorities, tourism bodies, passengers’ families and friends, key suppliers, port authorities, police, travel agents, the company’s US head office and Australian-based staff, as well as the captain, passengers and crew on board. It kept passengers informed with regular broadcasts from the captain as well as cabin letters. The public was updated through regular media releases, comment and postings on Facebook, along with three video messages from chief executive, Ann Sherry, delivered via YouTube. "The YouTube videos were roughly done with a handheld camera," says Olsen. "They won’t get an award for filmmaking, but they were part of our commitment to letting people know what we were doing. We were determined to make sure there was no information vacuum."

"Sorry" Is Not the Hardest Word

Most large organisations will include in-house legal counsel in the crisis team. However, McClellan believes that too many crises reflect the over-influence of lawyers. "Old-school lawyers prefer you say nothing and don’t understand that there is a difference between an apology and an admission of legal liability," he says. "The new breed is much more tuned in to providing advice that helps protect the reputation of the company, not just some black-and-white legal position."

Olsen says at Carnival Australia, chief executive Ann Sherry sets the culture. Although the Pacific Dawn cruise was cut short through no fault of the company, all passengers received the equivalent of a full refund, repaying them 75% of the cruise cost, plus a 25% discount on any future cruise. "We’ve always taken the view that we own our own problems and will fight for our business," says Olsen.​

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