Crises inside and out

About the author

Richard Bailey Hon FCIPR is editor of PR Academy's PR Place Insights. He teaches and assesses undergraduate, postgraduate and professional students.

Not long ago we revisited a 2004 book by Michael Bland.  Some of the case studies from this book have been made available as an educational resource in memory of the author who died just over a year ago.

2004 is two decades ago. The book was written during what we used to call Web 1.0, the era before the emergence and rise of social media. The media the author was focused on was the mass media.

So one obvious change in the crisis communication literature since then has been the shift to a focus on social media crises.

Another, less obvious, change has been the shift in focus from external audiences and influencers (such as the media) to internal stakeholders.

These two trends came together in a 2014 book called BrandJack by Quentin Langley. He created the word brandjack to describe how brands could be hijacked. The book’s subtitle is: ‘How your reputation is at risk from brand pirates, and what to do about it.’

‘To be classified as a brandjack, something needs to be both a crisis and, specifically, one that plays out significantly in digital media’ he wote.

Quentin Langley identified nine categories of brandjack, but he’s clear where most originate. ‘The most common are those that focus on the ethics of the organization, those that start with a strategic error by the organization, and those that begin with the organization’s staff.’

Case study

To pick just one example (the book contains 140 case study examples of brandjacking), let’s review the April 2012 ‘staff brandjack’ incident involving the insurer Aviva.

In this case, an email intended for one departing member of staff reminding them to clear their desk before leaving the building for the last time was sent in error to 1,300 employees.

Within five minutes, HR had apologised for the mistake and the company treated follow-up media enquiries with good humour.

It was a bad breach of confidence, but Aviva corrected the mistake quickly and accepted the inevitable media teasing with good grace.


‘Seventy-five percent of crisis management work is done before the crisis begins. To make a transparency strategy work you need to engage with your staff first.’

‘It is not just PR that is changing. It is the whole nature of organizations. It is about building glass walls, and letting people see inside,’ writes Langley.

The author gives 11 steps for managing brandjacking – an inside-out plan for managing crises:

  1. Listen: Find out where the conversation is taking place. Who are the influential people discussing your issues?
  2. Research: Talk to your staff and other key publics. Find out who is engaging in social media. Do they know your story? Do they follow you?
  3. Share: Share rules and share responsibilities. Develop a reasonable policy about what your staff can discuss in public. Train your staff. Develop a culture of transparency.
  4. Plan: Think about the most obvious issues that could impact your business.
  5. Speed kills: You will probably need an abbreviated command-and-control procedure to implement if a crisis arises.
  6. Train: Identify people who combine a broad understanding of the organisation with the ability to communicate.
  7. Turn your organisation inside out: Involve people at all levels in sharing message development and communicating to their networks.
  8. Cultivate humour: An appropriate light-hearted approach can be effective in dissipating hostility. But a light-heared approach is not always appropriate.
  9. Tell a story: Be the source of your own story.
  10. Engage: Be transparent and reach out to conversation participants.
  11. Review: Measure how your messages are being received and repeated.
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