Managing your Brexit Crisis

Brexit is not a seven day crisis; nor even seven week or seven month.

In fact, in a long career of crisis management, I have never seen its like. Yes, of course, there are immediate issues to be addressed.  In an utterly changed landscape, issues of confidence have suddenly been unleashed.  Previously solid, secure, safe enterprises now find their very futures   questioned.  Staff look for reassurance on job security; lenders want to know that their exposure is still without risk; clients and customers need to be sure that delivery will in no way be impaired.  But in a time of churning, opaque uncertainty, messages of reassurance can easily sound more like whistling in the dark. As ever, credibility is king, and reassurance based on wishful thinking can do more harm than good.

But for many organisations, this will be merely the beginning.  Ahead lies the likelihood that a changed professional, societal, political and commercial universe will demand hard decisions and painful measures.  And each of these will need to be managed in such a way that they do not, in themselves, spread further uncertainty and alarm.

These days, most well-run organisations have their Crisis Management plans in place, but fewer have strategies for Acute Issues Management, and this is what will be needed now. Systems and strategies for issues monitoring and early identification, scenario planning, access to informed, objective external counsel, especially in areas such as legal risk, government affairs, and indeed, strategic crisis management can all be hugely important.

Stakeholder communications will also be uniquely difficult.  In most Crisis Management these can be planned in terms of the crisis event, and the management of a projected, intended future.  But here we are looking at the probability of wave after wave of unexpected events, each with the capability to shock, destabilise and re-direct.   Future uncertainty is a critical part of the crisis we now need to manage, and many of the usual tropes of management, control and direction will be wholly inadequate in this context.

Experience and well-honed judgement will be at a premium now. But there is a danger, too, that experience will become its own trap. For many organisations, the challenges that lie ahead will be unprecedented, and application of rules, procedures and responses that worked in more normal times will be simply inadequate.  Good management now will need more than at any time to show the ability to think outside the box; to move beyond immediate experience   Crisis is also a time when management teams can slip into Group Think, developing rigid, single-view, sclerotic positions and responses, hardening with each new challenge.  This, again, is a time when a knowledgeable, independent, sympathetic source of advice and comment can be of real value.  This may be a non-executive chairman.  It may be a trusted legal or strategic public relations advisor.  It may be a respected former colleague, perhaps retired but still current, close enough to advise with authority and understanding, but not so close as to become part of any settled internal perspective.

Difficult, challenging times.  But, change can bring opportunity too, and those organisations with effective Acute Issues Management strategies may find that they not only limit potential damage, but that they actually create areas of fresh opportunity.

Terence Fane-Saunders
June 2016

Witch Hunt Season

Earlier this week, before the “Witch Hunt” fuss, I had written this on my Facebook page:
“Treading on eggshells here, but I’m growing increasingly uneasy about the post-Savile paedophile witch hunt. Yes, I am sure there are vile and powerful individuals who have managed to avoid detection, and they must be found, exposed and properly punished. But we seem to be edging into a world of Guilt By Accusation. Almost every allegation now is being treated as ex cathedra unquestionable truth. BBC presenters ask why abusers’ names should not be published , as they are “all over the Internet”, without any thought that, just perhaps, they are not in fact all guilty. The grim and squalid truth of these situations is that, in addition to horrible truth and tragic victims, there can be mischief, fantasy, greed and even mass hysteria adding dangerous and false dimensions. True victims and true justice deserve careful, measured and painstaking investigation, not a witch hunt. Perhaps it’s time to re-stage The Crucible in the West End?”
The next day, Philip Schofield “ambushed” David Cameron on TV with a list of “top Tories” plucked off the Internet where the Twitterati had been claiming they were paedophiles. Cameron’s response, and his warning about the danger of a witch hunt, were a powerful echo of what I had written.
For those of us working in issues and crisis management, the paedophile frenzy of the past week or two has been a stark reminder of the way things have changed. Quite simply, you cannot rely on the law any more to protect the reputations of the innocent. Yes, of course, someone who defames you online is just as much legally liable as the journalist who does so in print. But there is often much less you can do about it.
One well-known gutter blogger who regularly publishes wild and defamatory stories on his blog truly relishes his position. “Come and get me!” is his message,pointing out that he has next to no assets, next to no income. ”So, are you going to waste your time and money pursuing me for damages?”

But even if you can swat a defamatory blog here, or trash a libellous Tweet there, it may do you very little good. The story, if it’s juicy enough, will be off and running, across Twitter, Facebook, Youtube and the blogosphere. You can’t pull it back. Pandora’s box is open. The evil is out.
Yes, of course, there are things you can do. But it’s much harder now, and most people simply don’t know where to begin. For businesses, the message is quite straightforward: make sure you have a strategy. If you are hit by an online reputation firestorm, that isn’t the moment to begin thinking about what to do. For private individuals, it’s much harder. Most people won’t have personal crisis management plans in place. Their lawyer may not have the answers they need. And yet, it’s private individuals who are perhaps most at risk from this brave new world of online character assassination. And that’s probably why Chelgate’s crisis management work for private individuals has jumped from just one or two cases a year to become a significant part of our business. That’s good for our bottom line. But it’s not good or fair or just. The innocent deserve protection, and even the guilty have the right to be judged by a court of law, rather than by a swivel-eyed mob of on-line fanatics carrying burning torches.

Terence Fane-Saunders

In Confidence

I have just been reading a blog by PR exec George Snell. He was giving the inside story on an assignment a few years back, when he was asked to set up interviews for Saif al-Islam, Colonel Gadaffi’s son, to talk about the release of the Bulgarian nurses who had been held in Libya on charges that they had infected Libyan children with HIV.
An interesting little blog, but it made me feel very uneasy. A large part of our business in Chelgate is devoted to issues and crisis management and I do believe that in this area especially, certain codes have to apply. If professional, high level strategic PR is to be taken seriously, and if it is to play its proper role in shaping and managing sensitive and troubling situations, then clients should expect rigorous standards of confidentiality from their advisers. There should be no conceivable risk that a few months (or even years) later, some PR gun-for-hire will emerge from the shadows with his (or her) “inside story” .
Many of our clients ask us to sign Non Disclosure Agreements, and that’s fine with us. But it shouldn’t need an NDA . If you claim to be a professional in this business, then you should act like one. Nobody forces you to work for the client in the first place. And if , once you are working for them, you decide that they are unacceptable for any reason, then you give notice. But you don’t take their money, and then betray their confidence.
Some years ago I left a firm where I had worked on a number of very sensitive crises. A few months after I left, one of my former team appeared in the media, plastered all over a national magazine, talking about his crisis management skills. When I read his accounts of assignments that we had worked on together – assignments that I had always considered to be confidential and private, I felt , literally, physically sick. I felt, somehow, that I had been party to a betrayal of trust.
Of course, there may be times when overwhelming moral or legal imperatives make some degree of disclosure necessary. And then you must do what you have to do. But if strategic PR is to be treated as a serious and important discipline, then it’s time its practitioners behaved like grown-up professionals.

Rotten fish

I heard somebody on the radio yesterday trying to talk down the impact of negative media coverage. So, of course, the old chestnut was hauled out: “Today’s newspaper headlines are tomorrow’s fish and chip wrappers”.
Yes, of course, that used to be the case. Time buried most scandals. And the strategy for crisis and issues management took good account of that. “This time next year”, we’d say to a troubled client, “will anyone really remember this?”.
But no longer. The arrival of the Internet age means that the media storm that breaks about your ears will be still rumbling on for years into the future. Any time that anyone researches you or your business, there it all will be, stinking like rotten fish, but never disappearing down the waste disposal chute.
This makes it much more important than ever that negative media coverage is challenged, countered and corrected at once, as soon as it appears. Yes, there are things you can do about old, inaccurate and damaging stories if they keep popping up on the web. But this can be difficult, messy and not 100 % effective. The time to fight back is when you are under attack. Keeping your head down and hoping for the “fish and chip wrapper” effect just won’t work any longer. Here’s the new rule to remember: “What the media hook today will be rotten fish tomorrow”.
Terence Fane-Saunders