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Lessons learned from managing crises on a global scale across time zones in this digital age

11 Nov 2015 by Kate Sheikh.

Jonathan Refoy shared some of his issues-rich experience at our recent Thought Leaders Connected breakfast debate at The Club at The Ivy.  With 25 senior communications and PR professionals in attendance, we had the pleasure of hearing Jonathan speak about the valuable lessons he has learned in the industry. 

Having spent several years at BAA, Walmart and Tesco prior to CH2M, he definitely knows a thing or two to consider in times of crisis. 

His presentation was supported by Imogen Allen-Back, Solicitor at Pinsent Masons, who provided practical advice on how to involve a legal team and lawyers in a media crisis.

These are Jonathan’s top five lessons learned from managing a crisis on a global scale:

1. First and foremost – always be prepared 

Do you know the ins and outs of everything that could possibly go wrong in regard to likely operational challenges and have modelled a communications response for these scenarios? 

Make sure the company Risk Committee accurately reflects the communications challenges your organisation may face and these are understood at board level. The best way to do this is ensure that there is representation from the communications function on the Risk Committee so that they have a say in steering the direction and reporting. 

2. Don’t get distracted by ‘Twitter and Co’

It is important to remember that social media has its limitations. LinkedIn and Twitter can be extremely useful tools to profile senior leadership and the companies’ values in peace times. In times of a crisis, however, it is important to not get overly distracted by these channels. Focus on the day-to-day news channels that reach the target audience you want and that will lead and form opinions of regulators, clients etc. 

In some cases, it might even be necessary to shut down certain channels like LinkedIn profiles or Twitter accounts and direct all communications through one channel – for example, the company Webpage – to help avoid inconsistent messaging and to help control dialogue with stakeholders. 

3. Get the legal and operations team on board

Imogen Allen-Back advises that it is vital to ensure your communications team develops a communications-led solution in partnership with Legal/Operations in peace time. This will ensure that there is slick and immediate communication approved by the legal team, providing cover on all bases and an official response line. In times of crises, the legal team can quickly carry out a forensic investigation, which can in turn inform the PR narrative and communications response, with minimum delay in response time. 

Imogen’s top 3 reasons to involve the lawyers are: 

• To investigate and establish the facts – it is incredibly important to establish quickly what the true position is, which will inform the response

• To understand which legal remedies might be available to enable some legal pressure to be applied

• To maintain legal privilege in the event of a dispute

4. Know and overly engage with NGOs as critical friends

NGOs or Not-For-Profit organisations have a high influence on public opinion and their support can help establishing facts. This will not only help in the public eye, but also with your own staff. In a crisis, your own employees can quickly become influenced by outside opinion against a company position, which makes it critical to have a clear strategy for your internal communications – and the support of NGOs here can be a vital tool. 

5. Plan for multi-jurisdiction/-region communications response

Put a plan in place to ensure consistent messaging across regions and countries – make sure the key messages are communicated across the business so everybody knows what they should and should not be saying. 

In situations where there is a communications issue with involves more than one country it is important to define protocols that enable local corporate affairs teams to respond to issues when the group HQ may not be engaged to being in a different time zone. So determine which country or office ‘owns’ what. Another key measure is to carry out through and regular media training for CEOs, COOs and other who will be the public face of a crisis response. This investment will always pay off.

And lastly – have a strategy in place for handover across time zones – for example ensure that Australia will hand over to London and London will hand over to the US to avoid sleepless nights. 

The points raised by Jonathan and Imogen sparked a lively and thought-provoking debate around the table, particularly regarding the use of social media and how it can both support and hinder your communications strategy – a topic many of the attendees mentioned would make an interesting theme for a future event. 

What topics would you like to hear more about?  Who in the industry would you like to hear from

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