Personal Touch Still Key in a Crisis

10 years, 4 months ago


Does online reputation management signal the end of the company spokesperson? Jonathan Hemus believes otherwise.

Online reputation management is now a fundamental part of reputation protection and crisis communication. Online chatter, mobile phone footage from the scenes of incidents and the instantaneous impact of Twitter all provide fuel to escalate and spread crises with remarkable ferocity and speed. Equally, savvy organisations are geared up to use digital tools to prevent and manage crises. From thorough online monitoring to pre-established Twitter accounts and an ability to begin blogging quickly in the event of an incident, there are many online tools available to an organisation seeking to influence the course of a crisis.

So, does this render a traditional media relations approach to crisis management superfluous? Not if recent experiences are anything to go by. The appearance – or sometimes non-appearance – and performance of an organisation at the heart of a crisis is still of major significance in how the crisis plays out. Online activity is like an orchestra providing the background music to an opera. It’s essential, but ultimately the audience is waiting for the tenor to sing: only then will judgements be made about the overall performance.

Observing the contrasting fortunes of two US stars, Tiger Woods and David Letterman as they sought to manage damaging revelations serves to illustrate this point. Whilst Tiger kept his face out of the media for months, Letterman seized the initiative and made an immediate on air statement about what had happened. When Tiger finally took to the airwaves (months too late), he did so in such a stage-managed way that he failed to significantly improve his credibility. Their media performances have proved to be highly influential elements of their crisis communication strategy.

Business woes

Moving to the world of business, we witness the troubles of Toyota and Eurostar over the last few months. Again, the role of spokespeople was central in the way the crises played out. Toyota President Akio Toyoda’s non-appearance for a fortnight after the crisis emerged was taken to imply a lack of concern or an unwillingness to take responsibility. The faltering media appearances of Eurostar’s CEO Richard Brown in the aftermath of its Christmas breakdowns did nothing to portray the company as being in control of a highly emotive situation.

The performance of these two business heads calls into question one of the golden rules of crisis management: that the chief executive should always be the media spokesperson. Over the last year I’ve seen too many examples of chief executives making situations worse via their media appearance to be able to cling to this principle any longer.

There’s no doubt that it can be an incredibly powerful way of communicating the right messages and showing leadership when the business needs it most. But when the chief executive takes to the airwaves, high expectations are set: this most senior business person will surely come across as credible, confident and reassuring, the ultimate professional? So long as the CEO has the ability to match these expectations, then the strategy is sound: the sight of a business head demonstrating leadership and responsibility at a time of crisis can even enhance an organisation’s reputation.

Epitome of compassion and control

When Christopher Garnett, formerly CEO of GNER and recently joint chairman of the independent review of Eurostar’s recent incident, led GNER’s crisis communication efforts following two fatal rail crashes, he epitomised the qualities of compassion and control that are so essential in a crisis. As a by-product he also reinforced the values of customer care and professionalism that underpinned the organisation’s overall reputation.

But what if the CEO fails to meet the mark? What if he comes across as pompous or cold or nervous or defensive or uncaring? What if he seems incapable of speaking in clear, simple down to earth language, free of jargon? What if his body language is so distracting that no one actually listens to the words he is saying? In any of these circumstances, one has to question whether the company is doing the right thing in offering up the CEO for interview. The conclusion may well be that doing so is likely to further damage the organisation’s reputation.

In my view, this outcome would be in the best interests not just of the organisation in question, but also of stakeholders affected by the crisis. At a time of heightened concern, especially when safety or health may be a concern, it is vital that people receive clear, accurate information so that they can respond in the appropriate way.

From bad to worse

When Toyota UK’s managing director Miguel Fonseca appeared on BBC Breakfast at the height of its recall crisis, his inept performance not only caused further harm to Toyota’s credibility, it also left concerned owners none the wiser as to the safety of their vehicles or what they should do.

A successful media interview during a crisis requires a combination of factors. Insignia Communications commissioned Wolverhampton University to conduct a research study into the effectiveness of spokespeople during last year’s swine flu outbreak, and the reasons for their success. The study identified five factors which define the effectiveness of a spokesperson at a time of risk or uncertainty. They are:

Credibility – this means having a background or position that confers a right to speak, an appearance that implies seriousness and gravitas, and an ability to communicate which reinforces the first two elements.

Content – spin will not work in a crisis. Spokespeople must deliver clear, practical information in order to reassure or stimulate the right behaviours by those affected. This lack of clarity or actionable advice was one of the key reasons why the performance of Toyota’s Miguel Fonseca was so unsuccessful.

Body language – the principles of strong body language come into sharper focus during a crisis. Poise, strong eye contact and positive gesticulations communicate trust and confidence, both of which are essential qualities when a reputation is on the line.

Environment – where possible, communicators should seek to control the interview environment to ensure that it is communicating the right messages. When Eurostar CEO Richard Brown appeared in a YouTube clip wearing what looked like a gardening jumper, hunched in an apparent broom cupboard with a coat stand behind him, he was already starting from a disadvantageous position.

Personal style – it was clear from the research that the most effective spokespeople were those that demonstrated personality, style and charisma. A crisis is no time for showboating, but an engaging spokesperson is much more likely to be a memorable spokesperson, and in the battle to get messages across this is a golden quality.

The internet and in particular social media will play an ever increasing role in successful crisis communication: any organisation unprepared to manage its reputation online is taking a mighty gamble. Nevertheless, I believe that the role of the company spokesperson in a crisis remains a vital one: indeed it is capable of being the defining factor in how the organisation is perceived. So, knowing who your star performers are and providing them with the skills, confidence and structure to succeed continues to be an essential task for communications professionals.



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The Author

Jonathan Hemus

Jonathan Hemus is the managing director of Insignia Communications, a UK-based reputation management consultancy specialising in crisis management. He is a sought after trainer, coach and speaker on crisis and reputation management.

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