Managing a PR crisis – facing-up, prioritising open communication and the importance of the corporate apologyManaging your business’ reputation is a vital component of success and consistent growth. Every organisation has a trust profile and downward movement on the barometer can have huge impact on both top and bottom lines.

Company credibility is undoubtedly impacted by large scale, very visible crises, although we shouldn’t dismiss the seemingly insignificant events – a negative company tweet can snowball equally as fast. But if the worst does happen, what is the ideal communications approach?

Alton Towers: Well-handled communications in tragic circumstances

We can learn some important lessons from Alton Towers, which, following an accident on one of its rides which resulted in serious, life-changing injuries to a number of customers, had to respond quickly but tread very carefully. Parent company Merlin Entertainment immediately accepted responsibility and said it would be paying compensation to the victims. As a result, the story focused largely on the human aspect of the accident, on the people it had affected, rather than solely on errors the company had made.

Alton Towers received a host of praise for the way in which it has responded to the accident. Though it wasn’t a perfect performance, overall, the company’s response drew plaudits, being described by one commentator as ‘textbook’ and generally putting out the negative flames before they had really gotten going by taking control and – rightfully - accepting criticism where it was due.

Few companies have come off so well in a major crisis. So what made the difference?

Saying sorry and accepting responsibility – This is the crucial rule to follow. Alton Towers stood up and took its share of the blame from the get-go. Consumers or those affected by a crisis want to hear the word ‘sorry’. They don’t want buck-passing or excuses.

The performances of the CEO - Merlin’s CEO Nick Varney, Alton Tower’s owner, looked and sounded like one of us. He spoke naturally, had mussed hair and wore his shirt collar unbuttoned. In his voice, you could hear the weight of the world was upon his shoulders and empathy and apology came across clearly. Nick Varney came across as human. During a crisis, you’re talking to the general public you must be prepared to make a direct connection with them. If you look like a high-flying executive, you’re removing yourself from your audience – erecting a barrier between you and them.

Plan, plan and plan some moreWhile the underlying message here is that transparency and owning up to error is absolutely key, the real lesson is to have a robust crisis management process in place to minimise any damage to reputation should a crisis occur. The first few hours of any crisis are the ‘golden’ hours and it is this time that can make or break a business and its brand. By being prepared and knowing how to react you can avoid any serious long term issues, even if you are at fault.You can’t predict the exact crisis that you might face, but most business leaders will have a good idea of the sorts of situations that could go wrong for them which can help in the planning process. This might be easier said than done, especially for smaller businesses that do not have dedicated PR support, but there are a few processes you can put in place:

• Map crises based on likelihood and risk• Prepare crisis response protocol• Develop a bank of rapid response statements and company spokespeople Q&As• Ensure your CEOs and leadership teams are crisis and issues management scenario trained• Understand your internal communications support system to safeguard reputations from the outside in

Re-building trust quickly is crucial to weathering any storm, and our advice to high risk businesses is to ensure that you have a dedicated resource for crisis management. If you can’t afford professional help, preparation for a crisis needs to be a key part of your growth strategy.

By Laura Tallett, business & corporate director, Speed Communications