Far too often companies are caught off guard when dealing with media interest arising from an incident or crisis, argues FCR Managing Director Anthony Tregoning

The damage to a company’s reputation from a crisis can be just as devastating as the damage to its business operations.

Information management and stakeholder communication are too often forgotten during crises – giving local communities, environmentalists and other groups an opportunity to monopolise media coverage and risking damage to the reputation of those responsible.

With social media and the 24-hour news cycle, opinions are formed very quickly – and once they are formed, they are difficult to change. The media angle is usually settled in the first hours.

In the case of an oil spill, if initial opinions are negative, the reputation of the ship or rig owners, operators, charterers or managers can be affected and there can be pressure on governments, which can have an impact on eventual compensation.

While the company cannot dictate what the media agenda will be, it can certainly take steps to influence how it is represented, by proactively engaging with media – rather than ignoring or avoiding it.

There are multiple key reasons why the media are so interested in maritime or offshore incidents.

  • They often result in dramatic photographs, which attract the attention of readers and viewers – indeed all of us.
  • They provide an opportunity for vested interests to secure publicity.
  • The apparent lack of transparency. When the owner, manager and charterer are different entities in different countries, many assume there is something underhand and those involved are trying to dodge responsibility.

So what should one do to influence media coverage of an incident?

1. Preparation

The most important factor is to have a communication plan so that everyone in the company knows the procedure they should follow when a crisis occurs.With management focused on operational issues, there should be a separate team responsible for stakeholder and media communication and protecting the organisation’s reputation… and it should have authority to act, within agreed parameters.

2. Speed

It is important to determine and communicate your messages before others take control of the agenda so you influence public perceptions before opinions are formed. This requires an agreed protocol, agreed generic messages, an available spokesperson, and immediate access to social, online and broadcast media.

A company needs to be able to contact its communication team directly, without leaving a voicemail message and wondering if it has been received.

3. Social media

Increasingly those affected by a crisis are using social media to pursue their own agendas and to influence government, regulators and other stakeholders.

An organisation, therefore, should ensure it is able to monitor and respond immediately to critical commentary. Social media also provide an opportunity for the company that has caused the spill to seize control of the agenda – provided its protocol allows it to do so. It is vital that a company fully integrates its online platforms into the overall crisis response and ensures consistency of message across every channel.

4. Explain the facts

All communication during a crisis must be based on facts, which should be explained logically in simple language – and possibly pictures or diagrams – so people understand the situation and what you are doing about it.

Steer clear of using technical terms, acronyms or jargon, and explaining the differences between an owner, manager and charterer. Journalists may think you are trying to confuse them and probably will get it wrong anyway.

Importantly, never cover up or speculate. If you try to cover up, you are likely to be found out. And if you speculate and are wrong, you will be branded a liar. Blaming others should be avoided; no one is impressed by a company trying to escape responsibility while people’s lives are being affected.

5. Give your company a human face

Impersonal statements place you at a disadvantage when your company is being attacked passionately by environmentalists and those affected. Always appear human. Concern and sympathy are sentiments that are very real in a crisis and can be communicated without admitting liability.

You should have a least two spokespeople who are fully trained to communicate your messages sympathetically and calmly, without appearing flustered or defensive.

6. Encourage independent commentary

People are often more prepared to listen to commentators they trust – whether journalists or academics – than to the company involved.

7. Be flexible

While you should stick firmly to the agreed strategy and crisis communication procedures, be prepared to change them if the situation changes – which often it does during an ongoing crisis.

In conclusion, as with every business activity, planning and practice are critical. Crises tend to happen when one least expects them, and often at inconvenient times. If you have to handle one, you will be grateful you are well prepared.