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Think BR: Managing a crisis

A publicity crisis can strike at any time so it's important for a company to have a response strategy in place, writes Emily Hunt, research director, ICM Research.

Emily Hunt, research director, ICM Research

Emily Hunt, research director, ICM Research

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A few weeks ago we saw Lord Bell deploying his professional arts to the full to rescue a company from a publicity crisis that propelled it into the wrong sort of headlines. 

For once, however, it was not a client that found itself the wrong side of a journalistic ‘sting’ operation, but Bell Pottinger itself. 

It was a fascinating episode which reinforced the uncomfortable fact that if this sort of PR nightmare can afflict leading crisis management experts, it can happen to anyone. 

And this time of year can be one of the most dangerous - just as January ushers in a new year, it can also usher in a crisis.

For example, at ICM, someone will phone - a long-term client perhaps, or someone I’ve met recently or a PR colleague who has just caught wind of an issue.  

That someone will apologise, and then ask if I have a moment to chat.

But what comes next is never the same.

A crisis can be internally-driven such as the need to justify a particular management strategy or expenditure.

As an example, we were recently asked to take last-minute soundings on whether spending a large amount of money on a particular strategy would create a damaging negative perception. 

Or a company might have landed a series of press interviews and realises, worryingly late, that it needs iron-clad data to back up its position.

More frequently, however, the crisis is externally driven, some sort of scandal or negative press story that can leave a company floundering in its wake, paralysed by panic and wondering how - or even whether - to react. 

A key exec could make a horrendous gaffe or, like Bell Pottinger with the fake Azimov Group, be assailed by a media ‘sting’. 

Or you could learn that your product is about to be panned on TV or in the press... how bad will the publicity be? Will it ‘go viral’? How should you gauge your response?

The number and variety of crises hitting companies is definitely on the increase. 

And, as UK plc enters 2012 grappling with an increasingly tough economic climate, we anticipate crises multiplying still further. 

Social media means that issues can ‘go viral’ in a matter of hours - and with resources all too frequently slashed to the bone, too few companies have a strategy in place to deal with the sort of left-field problems that can come out of nowhere and prove catastrophic.

If you get wind of a looming crisis and your company doesn’t have a prepared crisis response strategy, you need to get into the field immediately to get a baseline on public opinion before the crisis hits. 

Then you need to measure the effect of the crisis as it happens and assess whether there is any lasting damage or whether it is best to ignore it. 

Finally, you need to do in-depth message testing to ensure that you use the right language to help you get back ‘on track’ as soon as possible.

Heading into 2012, we all acknowledge the importance of safeguarding the brand. 

Brand is a huge part of surviving the current climate in which people are seeking comfort, trust, reliability. 

The idea of disposable purchases is about as alien to us now as 125% mortgages. 

A bad story can take a brand down more than a few notches - but a good redemption story can help bring it right back up.

Any company which didn’t get a crisis this Christmas should count its blessings. 

And it should make it a New Year’s resolution to get a strategy - or at least some key contact numbers - in place so that, should disaster strike this year, the first steps on the road to successful troubleshooting are already in place.

Emily Hunt, research director, ICM Research


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