How to become a crisis comms guru

About the author

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

I was recently contacted by a bright final year student (she’s at a Russell Group university studying international relations) who wanted to ask me about careers in our discipline.

Having answered her questions, I then posed an obvious one of my own. Which aspects of public relations and communication interested her most?

The answer surprised me. She aspires to work in crisis comms.

Public relations teams are full of twenty-something graduates (and non-graduates), but I’ve never seen an entry-level job description that required expertise in crisis comms.

When we think of crisis management and crisis comms experts, we think of older and hopefully wiser people with a calm manner who have a lifetime of experience to draw on when offering advice on what leaders should do next when faced with a crisis.

Which leads to the classic paradox: if you need lived experience to be a trusted crisis comms adviser, how can you first gain that experience? Where are the L plates and driving instructors for trainee crisis comms gurus?

Part of the answer comes down to training and education: academics and practitioners have published their perspectives on crisis comms, and this is one field where there is mutual respect between both parties. You can learn from others’ experience. You can use models and theories to inform your advice.

Am I right to use the term guru, though? It suggests a priestly elite and is far from an inclusive term.

I do so because a 2004 book by Michael Bland is sitting on my desk as I write this and the photograph matches my recollection of this respected adviser, trainer and author. The word seems appropriate in his case: he had the discipline and fitness of a former army officer who’d specialised in winter survival. He also had a strong spiritual side and had trained in complementary healing.

Michael Bland died a year ago and the anniversary of his death was marked by an online gathering to remember him and some teaching resources being made available on LinkedIn under the banner of Bland’s Law. The resources are case studies drawn from this book.

The case studies, based on experience, have dated well. Each case study gives you three options, and each option comes with a woman’s magazine-style rating.

Let’s try one to test our crisis skills.

Scenario: You sell baby care products nationwide and a lone scientist claims to have discovered that a chemical in cot mattresses is the cause of mystery cot deaths. A national consumer television programme tells you they are going to broadcast a documentary profiling the scientist’s claims and your mattresses. You are certain the scientist’s research is flawed and that your mattresses are safe – but it could take months to prove it.

Do you:

a) robustly argue against the scientist’s claims on the programme and elsewhere – and run a customer reassurance programme.

b) say and do nothing, as the scientist is a lone wolf and the programme is only a one-off – so the fuss will all die down soon.

c) withdraw all your cot mattresses from sale at a huge cost to yourselves, announcing you are certain they are safe but will leave absolutely nothing to chance.

This was a real case study experienced by Boots the Chemist and Michael Bland gives most marks to option c, which was chosen by Boots. Option a was next best and option b was to be avoided. There are more cases like this in the book and in the Bland’s Law resources published online.

The author is keen to note that ‘there are seldom any right or wrong answers in crisis management’ but he argues for the choice that leaves you ‘smelling of roses’.

 

That’s because Bland’s Law is expressed as ‘in every crisis an opportunity’ and it’s there in the subtitle of the book on my desk: ‘When it Hits the Fan: turning crisis into opportunity’.

He writes: ‘In most crises the seemingly unwelcome glare of publicity is also an opportunity that you would not have had.’ The you in this sentence refers to the senior management team, but could equally refer to the public relations adviser who finds themselves listened to more attentively during a crisis.

‘Look at it this way,’ he continues. ‘We spend large amounts of money and whole PR departments on constantly trying to get into the media spotlight – and now suddenly we’re in it for free!’

Out of crisis, opportunity.

Despite the joke embedded in the book title and the uniquely punchy writing style of the former boxing champion, When it Hits the Fan follows a conventional structure (preparing for and dealing with crises; crisis checklists). But the last chapter is distinctive: Handling the stress.

Here Michael Bland explores stress and our evolutionary ‘fight or flight’ instincts. ‘Stress, what stress?’ he asks. ‘Macho managements expect everyone to appear strong and positive. This is even worse in Britain where macho style meets stiff upper lip. The first response to feeling like you want to explode is to ‘be calm’.’

What lessons can I suggest for the graduating student ambitious to work in crisis comms? I should have told her to gather current examples to analyse. In every crisis that happens to others, there’s an opportunity to learn. (In recent weeks, football has given us two talking points involving the decision, since reversed, by Raith Rovers to sign a player convicted of rape in a civil trial and the of Kurt Zouma’s treatment of his cats and the decisions of his employer West Ham United. Both cases have shone a bright spotlight on management decision making in the glare of public attention. In both cases sponsors have played an important part.) 

Not that there’s a simple, immutable formula she should be seeking to uncover. Some organisations wilfully bring on social media crises knowing that this is their best ploy to gain scarce attention and valuable links (or simply to discover who their true friends are). Michael Bland had anticipated this when speculating about there being no such thing as bad publicity, but it’s become more of a phenomenon since he wrote his book given the frontline in crisis comms is less about media relations and more about the social media mob.

‘Crisis is about a balance of judgement’ according to Michael Bland.

So how can you test and improve your judgement? Bland’s Law is one resource.

There have also been some milestone texts from academics and practitioners in the two decades since When it Hits the Fan. Here’s our pick of them:

Timothy Coombs is the highly respected US scholar of crisis communication who has proposed the Situational Crisis Communication Theory. A sixth edition of his Ongoing Crisis Communication: Planning, Managing, Responding is to be published in April 2022.

Andrew Griffin’s 2017 book Crisis, Issues and Reputation Management is strong on analysis of types of crises and for exploring the whole risk-issues-crisis-reputation lifecycle.

Jonathan Hemus also focuses on the broader discipline of crisis management, within which crisis communication plays its part. We have reviewed his recent book Crisis Proof.

Kate Hartley is strong on how consumers and markets respond to a crisis (here’s our review of Communicate in a Crisis) and Amanda Coleman is strong on the recovery phase after a crisis (here’s our review of her book Crisis Communication Strategies).

Professional qualification: You can study towards the CIPR Crisis Communication Diploma with PR Academy (next course starts this month). The course leader is crisis expert Chris Tucker.

Further resources: Join PR Academy’s Crisis Communication hub for regular crisis-related content including webinars with experts.

Join the Crisis Communication Hub