HOW TO…. Manage your Crisis Communication

A crisis is an event that disrupts normal operations of a company and/or organisation and if badly managed, can ruin hard-earned and won reputations.  Crisis Communications and management is very important within Public Relations. As a PR practitioner, it is important to be aware of what a crisis is, how a crisis occurs and how to deal with a crisis effectively and rapidly. It is one of the most critical aspects of modern communications. Dealing with a crisis properly protects a company and their reputation and can at times protect their very existence. The key to Crisis management is to be prepared and to have the skills to deal with a crisis as soon as they occur. It is also important to identify a crisis before it happens and when it does to know what to do.

For sake of argument, I have chosen to use the fashion industry as a case study in Crisis Communication.

So what is a fashion crisis? It is important in a crisis to analyse the trends and analyse other peoples crises, so keeping up to date with case studies such as the ones below are important.

  1. Christian Dior designer John Galliano was fired this year after it was revealed he harassed a couple in a Paris bar using anti-Semitic and racist comments.
  2. The British Fashion Council appealed for the use of size 0 models to be stopped. The controversy surrounding zero-sized models has intensified over the past few months, with the fashion industry in Milan and Madrid banning them during their high-profile fashion weeks. Some well-known high-street chains, such as John Lewis, have said they will use “normal” sized women to advertise their clothes. Last September, Spain introduced rules banning models with a Body Mass Index (BMI) under 18 appearing on the catwalk in Madrid. Milan followed Madrid’s lead while Paris described it as a “non-issue”, but despite pressure from politicians and physicians, ultra-thin models will not be prohibited from appearing during London Fashion Week. Instead, a task force will draw up a voluntary code of practice to promote the use of models larger than the American size zero (British size four), who are aged 16 or over.
  3. The use of fur in fashion has sparked the development of anti-fur campaigns ever since the 1980’s, where it reached a peak. PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) and other animal rights organizations, celebrities, and animal rights ethicists, have called attention to fur farming. Whilst other organizations and celebrities have promoted the use of fur. Some animal rights groups have disrupted fur fashion shows with protests while others sponsor anti-fur poster contests and fashion shows featuring faux furs or other alternatives to fur clothing. These groups sponsor “Compassionate Fashion Day” on the third Saturday of August to promote their anti-fur message. Other groups participate in “Fur Free Friday”, an event held annually on the Friday after Thanksgiving (Black Friday) that occurs globally with the intent to bring the issue of fur to light through educational displays, protests and other methods of campaigning.

Lerbinger (1997) categorised eight types of crisis that he attributed to two causes: management failures of environmental causes. The eight categories are:

  1. Natural – For example, a natural disaster such as Japanese tsunami. If your organisation, stakeholders or businesses you are in conjunction with are based anywhere a natural disaster occurs this can affect your entire infrastructure. You may have a fashion house or models who are based in a certain country who may get harmed this is a huge crisis.
  2. Technological – Your manufacturer for your clothes may experience a fault with their technology; meaning a delay in your new clothing line being produced for your fashion show or for your stores. This will evoke huge anger amongst your consumers and will damage your reputation.
  3. ConfrontationIf your fashion house is revealed to be using real fur in your clothing lines, you may receive huge confrontation from the public, anti-fur campaigns and animal rights organisations.
  4. Malevolence This could also include direct action by animal rights campaigners, such as boycotting a fashion show, or throwing paint on models. This can also include product tampering on your clothing line.
  5. Skewed management values This is a more internal issue and may include managers and other high employees causing crisis, such as the John Galliano incident.
  6. Deception Deceiving employees, colleagues and members of the public
  7. Management misconduct
  8. Business and economicDuring the recession consumers may be cutting down on luxury items such as high end clothing.

So if faced with such a crisis; what should you do?  Fearn-Banks (2006) defines five stages of a crisis:

  1. Detection: The organisation is watching for warning signs or what Barton (2006) would call prodromes (warning signs)
  2. Preparation/prevention: Your organisation should begin to take note of the warning signs and prepare plans to proactively avoid the crisis, or reactive ones to cope with the crisis if it comes
  3. Containment: Taking steps to limit the length of the crisis or its effects
  4. Recovery: This is the stage where effort is made to get back to the normal operational conditions or effectiveness of the organisation
  5. Learning: This is when the organisation reflects and evaluates the experience to consider the negative impacts for the organisation, any possible positive benefits for the future, what was done well and what could be done better next time.

What is a crisis?

It is important to know the characteristics of a crisis and where a crisis can arise from. So what are the characteristics of a crisis?

  • Surprise
  • Insufficient Information
  • Loss of Control
  • Panic
  • Short term focus
  • Intense scrutiny from outside

Where does a crisis arise from?

  • Products of processes – Health and Safety
  • Corporate issues – Lawsuits, takeovers, boycotts
  • Life threatening incidents
  • Employees – strikes
  • Environment e.g. BP Oil Spill
  • Finance – Fraud, Recession
  • Terrorism
  • IT failure – Computer crashes, viruses

Examples of a crisis within the fashion industry:

When faced with a crisis in Fashion such as an anti fur campaign, an employee scandal or issues surrounding size zero; there are certain measures you need to take to ensure you deal with the crisis effectively. The first thing you must determine are the messages you are going to send out to your audiences:

  • Messages:
  1. Details: Make sure you offer as much information about the incident as possible. It is important that you sympathise with your audience. For example, if your clothing line was under discrimination for using real fur; you must send out a press release offering as much information about the situation as possible, making sure to note that you are aware of the various organisations who tried to protect the use of fur and that you are sympathising with their work.
  2. What we are doing about it – especially a thorough (independent) investigation.
  3. Reassurance: No further incidents like this will happen again.
  4. Track record – and the good your company/product does.
  5. Further information: When and where further information will be available. Numbers for information hotline or helpline.
  6. Background briefs: Details of products, processes, chemicals, company etc.

 When preparing a background brief, you are preparing briefing notes for the media and other audiences;

  1. Company details: size, products, operations, history, financial figures, numbers employed etc.
  2. Product details: How was the product manufactured or produced?
  3. Materials: What materials were used and why?
  4. Safety, environment and quality: track record, investment, how the company achieves high standards
  5. Location
  6. Anything else relevant to your company/organisation
  • Produce them in such a way that a busy journalist can quickly assimilate the important information (e.g. one page bullet-point summaries)
  1. Take holding action
  2. Issue a holding statement
  3. Assemble and isolate the crisis team
  4. Assess the situation
  5. Decide on the strategy and identify the audiences
  6. Decide on the messages
  7. Prepare and effect a plan and brief relevant people
  8. Centralise information
  9. Understand your audiences
  10. Give information
  11. Resist combat
  12. Be flexible
  13. Think long term

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