Donald Steel: All Crisis Are Predictable

November 01, 2016

How to prepare for crisis situations? Who in your company should be involved in the crisis management process? How should have Volkswagen handled the emissions scandal?

There are only some of the questions that our CEO, Kosta Petrov, recently discussed with Donald Steel, one of the world’s biggest experts on crisis communications and regular contributor to our Global PR Summits around the world. 

A specialist in reputation and issues and crisis management Donald works with companies in the UK, Europe, Middle East and Asia Pacific. He was previously the BBC’s Chief Communications Adviser and was for 11 years the Corporation’s Chief Media Spokesman.

He is widely regarded as an expert in the reputation and crisis communications fields and is a frequent speaker on the the topics, including at the London School of Economics.

In addition to his own practice, Donald is Associate Director of Crisis Communications at Kenyon International Emergency Services, the world’s largest commercial disaster responder and a director at Johnston Associates, a leading aviation PR company based at London Heathrow.

Drawing back from your 20 years of experience in crisis communications, what do you think are the biggest mistakes that companies make when it comes to crisis management?

Firstly, a failure to respond quickly enough. This is even more true in the instant social media age, where a crisis can be played out live on applications like Periscope. It allows others to seize the agenda. Once you lose you control, it’s hard to get it back. Secondly, a failure to tell the truth. Lying is a very bad strategy in a crisis, if it’s discovered.

What was your most challenging experience in your long career as a communications expert?

Two months after I began as head of the BBC Press Office in London, the most popular TV presenter in Britain was shot dead on her doorstep one morning. Jill Dando was about to get married and she had just presented a charity appeal for the people of Kosovo. Initially, terrorism couldn’t be ruled out. We began to receive a huge number of threats against individuals at the BBC. It plunged the BBC into a crisis. Jill’s fiance, family, friends and colleagues ended that day with a terrible new reality that did not include someone the whole nation adored. There was real and justifiable fear amongst many prominent artists, many of whom I spoke to. I learned that the most important impact of a crisis is on human beings. When you lose money, it’s important, but you can work hard and make some more. When someone dies, they cannot be replaced. It’s all about the victims.

All communicators claim that preparing for crisis situations is key to effective crisis management but it seems that when the crisis actually happen many companies still seem unprepared. What is key when it comes to preparing for crisis situations? What scenarios should companies look into?

With rehearsal and training, a crisis plan is worthless. In a crisis, people will not be familiar with their roles and your plan in untested. A good crisis plan will focus on what’s known as consequence management. The range of actions it describes should cover the wide range of things that can happen in your company, from an inability to trade to loss of life. All crisis are predictable. If they are predictable, then they can be planned for.

One of the things that is widely misunderstood about crisis management and communications is how it should be evaluated. Too much weight is placed on the howl round of comment and criticism on social media and the mainstream media in the midst of a crisis, much of which is time-filling until something more interesting happens. The real test for a business is whether the actions taken were successful in protecting the company’s value and ability to make profit in the future.

Who in the company should be involved in the crisis management process?

A good crisis plan defines different levels of crisis - often three, and outlines the roles and responsibilities for key individuals within the company. The CEO’s role, for example, will not usually be to manage the crisis, but to set the strategy and where appropriate to focus on communicating the company’s position. This is, for example, what would happen in most major airlines after a serious accident. Other key roles need to be identified, and importantly you need to work out how how you can mobilise these individuals very quickly indeed. I haven’t dealt with too many crises that began during office hours. In the middle of the night, when they are called, the key personnel need to know exactly what their roles and responsibilities are - these may differ from their day jobs in a crisis.

What are the most important things that every company should consider when doing media interviews during crisis situations?

It is too late to undertake crisis media training when the BBC and CNN are outside. Invest in it now. Where people are affected in a crisis, your interview responses should be focussed on them, and with them in mind. I still find myself occasionally shouting at the television “It’s not about you!” when I see someone talking about the impact of a crisis on their well-remunerated existence, when people have been killed or injured or consumers affected. You may be faced with an aggressive interview, and you need to be prepared for it.

In times of crisis CEOs are usually the ones that should take the responsibility. In what cases should a CEO of a company resign?

There are many factors in whether there should be a change at the top in a crisis. One is the culture where the company is based. It may be that it is going to be best for the CEO to stay and manage the company through a period of great instability. Sometimes that is just untenable. A good example of this is the resignation of VW CEO Martin Winterkorn. There’s no suggestion he knew about what was going on at VW, but in a crisis which is threatening the entire future of the company, and damaging the image of German manufacturing, he could not have survived for many more days in the role. Robert Jensen, the highly experienced CEO of Kenyon International Emergency Services, the world’s leading commercial responder to incidents involving death or injury, believes that if it’s clear you should go, you are better to resign quickly than be pushed. That way, you retain some sense of personal integrity.

Social media has changed the game for many companies and has made them more prone to crisis than ever before. What is the key to effective crisis management online?

I’m not sure I agree that social media has made companies more prone to crises. In fact, I do not believe there is any such thing as a “social media crisis”. The impact of an event determines whether it is a crisis, not where it is being discussed. We’ve seen that social media can draw attention to something that becomes a crisis and can amplify it. Social media also presents companies with a terrific way to reach consumers directly. What social media has changed is the speed and intensity with which a crisis develops. The ability to send pictures and video is extraordinarily powerful. And now Periscope, and other apps, allow us to view the situation live. It means that companies must respond very rapidly in an emergency. The so-called “Golden Hour”, in which you have time to get your first statement together, is completely finished. We recommend clients respond on social media within 15 minutes of an incident involving death, human injury, or threat to life and safety. That’s very challenging. You can only do that if you plan, prepare and rehearse. And make sure your social media team are in the first wave of call-outs in a crisis.

Throughout your 30 years career you have seen many crisis. What company do you think has the best example of effective crisis management?

Richard Branson, of course, in almost any situation. He brings a huge reservoir of trust, carefully built up over many years, to every situation. But more recently, Tony Fernandes, the charismatic CEO of Air Asia brought the crisis communications playbook to life after one of his aircraft was lost last December. Quick, clear, sincere and human, almost all of his communication was directed towards the families who had lost loved ones. He was highly visible, and his lack of polish made him seem all the more genuine. Throughout the crisis, he never forgot his staff, who were also grieving. They had an airline to run and he used Twitter to bolster up his team (or Air Asia All-Stars, as he calls them). “Stay strong”, he told them, redolent of the phrase “Keep calm and carry on” used by the British Government during the Second World War when the public began to show signs of damaging fear in the midst of repeated bombing. Mr Fernandes later said that while he had rehearsed for such an event, “nothing can prepared you for this”. But behind him were a team who were clearly carefully practised and ready for this terrible moment.

You are currently advising many airlines on crisis management. How well do you think Malaysia Airlines managed the crisis after the disappearance of their place?

Malaysia Airlines is a reputable company. Clearly there are things that now, the airline will do differently. And they showed in the second, tragic, loss of MH17 how much they had learned. But there was a great deal of uninformed and superficial criticism after MH370, a great deal of it on social media, too. In the early part of the crisis, it seems clear that they believed they might be dealing with a hijacking, and in these circumstances you will avoid communicating and take the advice of the security services. Secondly, the Malaysian Government took over the communications and led the press conferences. These are very tough events. You have to be ready for them. My work in Asia-Pacific includes helping CEOs and other senior figures prepare for the aggression and discourtesy they will face from the Western media. They just don’t ever see it in their day-to-day lives. Aggression is a journalistic technique. You can train anyone to use it. You can also be trained in how to respond in a calm and assured way. It’s just business, it’s not personal.

Hillary Clinton’s email incident has been on the news frequently. How well do you think she managed this crisis situation? If you were on her team what would you have advised her?

I’m a regular visitor to the United States and I am loving every minute of the whole circus. I brought a Hillary figure back from my last trip to San Francisco. You can make her point at you with a thrilled expression. But I’ve been trying for years to understand American politics and I still don’t. One of the challenges of modern popular journalism is to get beyond just reporting events. It’s becoming more difficult as social media reduces attention spans. A previous boss at the BBC, Lord Birt, said BBC News should be on a “mission to explain”. Go on the BBC website and you’ll still see them doing it.

If you were on Volskwagen’s communications team, what would you advise them? Do you think they are managing the recent scandal effectively?

The problem for VW is that the crisis is complex and involves many countries and agencies and potentially huge civil and criminal liability. Clearly VW is not in control. All of its efforts will now be directed to regaining control. This will be challenging, will take time, and will be very, very expensive. Once you lose control in a crisis, it’s extremely difficult to get it back. However, there is massive trust and affection for the VW brand. How many brands have starred in a series of movies, in the way VW did with Herbie? Of course, that trust has been severely dented, but not extinguished. There will be few people taking any pleasure in the situation VW is in.

Donald is speaking next at our Global PR Summit New York from 8-9 June in New York.


crisis communications reptuation management crisis malaysia airlines volkswagen crisis