Managing a crisis means getting professional advice before, not after

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Most public relations practitioners have come across senior executives who think they know more than them about media relations or handling an issue.

Dealing with a CEO who has journalism and public relations experience must therefore be doubly fraught.

So I feel for whoever was looking after the public relations – if there was someone – at Ardent Leisure leading up to the media conference that followed the terrible tragedy at Dreamworld on the Gold Coast. It certainly looks as if any advice that was given wasn’t taken.

A quick check of the “Media Centre” page of the Ardent Leisure website displays a “coming soon” notice – so perhaps they didn’t have anyone in the public relations role before the awful accident.

Hopefully the company has learned from its mistakes, although it is now on the back-foot and has to make up even more lost ground in repairing reputation and trust.

Media criticism

When the Financial Review’s leading columnist covers the way the crisis has been handled, and metropolitan newspaper editorials are also among a range of critical media coverage, the size of the problem cannot be downplayed.

Of course it is easy to jump on the band wagon and join the critics when there is an apparent mishandling of communications and we can only guess at the reasons behind the company’s poor response.

But if a media conference is mismanaged, it always looks as if executives are trying to hide something, prompting journalists to find out what it is, search for anything else the organisation might be trying to cover up, and generally examine information more critically.

One outcome is always that sympathy is diminished, there is an appearance of poor management, and a mood of mistrust to overcome.

Sadly, this also affects the victims’ families who must now deal with the speculation, suspicion and ongoing media interest that the mismanagement has caused.

Crisis management rules

It’s easy to be wise after the event, but Ardent Leisure seems to have ignored most of the rules of crisis management. These range from paying attention to small, almost trivial, details to the major steps needed to create a credible and satisfactory response appropriate to the circumstances while appearing competent as well as sympathetic.

Major steps include being prepared with a communications plan including a Q&A that covers all possible scenarios, which unfortunately didn’t seem apparent at the media conference.

It also showed the difficulties that are caused when it is implied something has happened (such as contact with the families) when the real story is more complex.

There is always a temptation for unprepared executives to make comments off the top of the head, but it’s nearly always a mistake to do so. Having measured, thought-out, logical explanations, based on fact, is always preferable and more persuasive.

Of course it’s easy on the outside to comment when you don’t know all the details and what was happening in the background, but why have a media conference if you haven’t thought out exactly what you want to say, what the reaction is likely to be, and how perceptions  might be managed?

A good Q&A is needed for just about any media conference, thinking through the potential issues beforehand, and having a clear outline of what will or won’t be covered with journalists. Such an approach seems to have been missing and perhaps could have kept the company on the front foot.

Relying on legal advice

Too often the executive and board rely solely on legal advice and overlook that a crisis is also a moral, ethical and reputational concern – issues which have separate priorities and needs.

Legal advice was clearly essential for company obligations around the Ardent Leisure Annual General Meeting and its agenda items in the circumstances, as well as its obligations to the victims and families, but much more than this is required.

Being seen as doing the right thing and – more importantly – actually doing the right thing from the outset, and not after the organisation has been criticised, is vital for everyone impacted by this crisis.

More than any other time, a crisis is a time when any organisation needs outside advice that comes with fresh eyes and an objective approach not cluttered by the past, prejudice, or other self-interest.