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MH370 - Three important crisis communication lessons

Look, there are very few people out there that really think that Malaysian Airlines have handled this crisis well. And even fewer who are PR or Crisis Communications experts.

Three very important lessons can be learned – which can be applied to most companies, whether or not you are flying 660,000 lb mission critical device with 239 souls. 

1 – Speed

Your plane goes missing… you need to come out and say it.  Speed to react is one of the most important things in a crisis communication situation. 

First up, how long do you think it takes for you to realize that you have a plane missing?  I’m not a commercial pilot, but I would guess that if you own a Boeing 777 (which incidentally costs between US$ 205 - 231 million) you want to keep pretty tight tabs on where it is at all times.

For sure, you know it is about to land (within a few hours), hopefully at your scheduled destination.  You also know that there will be a number of people meeting your arriving passengers. 

You have exactly the delta between loosing contact and scheduled arrival time to have a plan in place and then to start communicating.

Why is speed so important?  Because of a medium vacuum. 

A media vacuum is when the media are looking for answers, and the company that is supposed to be taking control (in this case, Malaysian Airlines) is not available for a contact.

If you were a journalist and you heard a plane had gone missing, what would you do?  My guess is that you would contact the airline.  If the airline does not respond, you still have a story, but now you need to speak to someone else.  You’ll try and speak to relatives of passengers, anyone connected to the airline, and then pretty much any ‘expert’ you can find.

‘Experts’ are just one hairline away from ‘fanatics’ in whatever they spend their livelihood peddling. If you ask the UFO expert what happened to the plane, you’re pretty sure they are going to say it was abducted by aliens.

The airline has now lost control of the story and worse still don’t have a seat at the table.  They created a media vacuum, the media filled it, all control is lost.


2 – Communication Medium

Let’s just assume you’re single.  You start dating someone and after a few dates you decide this is not something you want to continue.  Do you:

  1. meet with them to explain the situation
  2. call them up and explain the situation
  3. send a text message

Time is important, and cultural differences aside, it is best not to text people information that is pertinent to their or other people’s well being. 

I mean, come on, even the most positive text messages can be miss-interpreted.

Use a step method.  Send a text (simplest, quickest medium) to reach people, to let them know there is a recorded message update, or a meeting going to happen (if logistically suitable), but don’t send the text message to communicate the information.

3 – Proactive Crisis Communication Plan

No company that has ever been in the media should be without a proactive crisis communication plan. Here’s why…

First off, most media coverage is of companies that have already been in the media.  If your company has not previously appeared in the media, then you’re not immediately news worthy.  The more you have been in the media, the more news-worthy you become.  People are interested and thus the story continues. For the most news-worthy people / organizations, just try sneezing.

Second, is risk assessment.  If you deal with thousands of customers, control any devises that could cause harm, are subject to uncontrollable forces (natural or otherwise) then you have to know that adverse things will happen – it’s just a matter of time. Maybe you should take that into consideration and get ready now.

Third, we’re back to time.  Those precious minutes between the plane being lost and expected arrival time is about enough time to contact the key people and find the proactive crisis communication plan. It is NOT enough time to think of a strategy, get consensus, train your team, produce media tools, reach out to media, etc etc.

Producing a proactive crisis communication plan today will pay dividends in the future.  Crisis Communication training now is the same. 

You know if you’re news-worthy, you know if you are at risk and you know what to do to save yourself – so take the appropriate actions now.

While our thoughts are with the passengers and their families – we’re not shedding a tear for the communications of Malaysian Airlines.  As an organization they did know what they should have done, they had the opportunity to do it, but someone decided that they didn’t have the time or money to get a proactive crisis communications plan in place and train staff accordingly.  That was a very costly decision. 

We just hope others benefit from it.


Learning Crisis Communication the Justin Bieber way

Justin Bieber wants you to know he's not the next Lindsay Lohan, Britney Spears or Corey Feldman. Even though these celebs probably achieved less than Justin and probably get far more publicity. 

The 19-year-old pop star has been making headlines with erratic behavior that includes showing up late to concerts, passing out backstage, threatening paparazzi, wearing gas masks, going shirtless in freezing temperatures and allegedly spitting on a neighbor during an argument.

Bieber hasn't taken the negative press sitting down, and has fought back via Twitter and Instagram rants about fake stories and "countless lies." Now, after being accused of battery, the pop star is striking back again, telling Us Weekly that he's not on the verge of a breakdown, as reports suggest.

Crisis 101 in today’s social media world – the right place to fight negative press is in the same place/medium that it appeared. It’s the simple things that are easily forgotten.  Each newspaper, blog author, social media platform, etc have a following.  If I hear something bad in the LA Times, then I’m an LA Times reader. If I hear it on Twitter, then I clearly use Twitter to get my news.  Justin, mate, only fight negative press where you see it (despite your youth and obvious social media prowess), don’t take the fight to the social media airwaves if it’s not there already.

"The biggest misconception about me is that I'm a bad person," Bieber told US Weekly. Well, no one was saying that (actually), and do you know any bad people that admit to being bad people?  This seems to be one of the worst quotes I have heard in a long time.

It's clear that Bieber (or his team) has grown very uncomfortable with the amount of negative attention that he's been receiving lately, and though he's on the defensive he does admit that he's far from perfect. "I'm young and I make mistakes. That's part of growing up," he told Us Weekly. "I mess up sometimes. It's part of growing up."

I love this!  I think I will use it in my next press interview. 

Yes Mr Business Editor, I know my company did wrong, but you know what, we’re a young company and we messed up – that’s part of our company growing up.

Perhaps the bigger PR question should be – can Justin continue to get quality media coverage without causing problems?  It’s clearly difficult to continue to attract positive media coverage. Lindsay Lohan, Britney Spears et al know the problem and went the ‘all publicity is good publicity’ route… even if it includes unflatering pictures, drunk driving and theft.  What will Justin do and how will that effect his still intact ‘good boy’ image.


p.s. If anyone has any tickets for Justin’s upcoming tour my 5-year-old daughter wants to know!


The Science of Persuasion in Crisis Communications

If you’re in the business of crisis communications, then you’re in the business of persuading people.

This happens at two levels:

- the wider crisis practice – the reason for media interaction and coverage is so we can reach an organization’s PR goals. In essence we’re persuading the target audience to act in a way that is congruent with our objectives.  Most often for the clients we represent this is persuading a group of people in a set geography to purchase a given product or service.  Of course, when we move into crisis communications, then this objective is often to change the perceived values a group of people have about an organization.

- at the day-to-day level, if we’re a PR pro that interacts with the media to gain coverage, then we are simply trying to persuade reputable journalist to listen to our message and include it in their reporting.

Either way, we’re in the business of persuading.

So, wouldn’t it be great if we could increase our persuasiveness?

As it turns out, there is quite a considerable amount of scientific research that can make us more effective atpersuading others.  It is scientifically validated and often doesn’t cost us any money to implement. 

Want to know what the 6 main drivers to increased persuasiveness are?

To sum up – they are:

  • Reciprocity
  • Scarcity
  • Authority
  • Consistency
  • Liking
  • Consensus

I could write about them for a long time, but better still, watch this fantastic video and in under 12 minutes you’ll have mastered how to ethically increase your persuasiveness.  A much needed skill in the world of PR.

How good are you at persuading?



The number one thing to learn before a press interview!

We see a lot of interviews, as consumers of the media, by working in the industry and because we represent companies - speaking for them, or supporting them.  

An interview is one of the most powerful PR tools available to us.

If done correctly interviews can build brands, educate the target audience and lend credibility. If it’s not carried out successfully it can bring a shudder to those involved and will likely want to be forgotten about as soon as possible.  Of course in today’s media scene that is going to be hard.

So what is the one most important thing to achieve in an interview?  Quite simply - to get your message across.  Sounds easy and if messages and sound bites are practiced, it can be.  But wait, what if the interviewer isn’t going to pitch up the questions that allow you to stay on topic?  As any good PR pro will tell you, the interviewee needs to master the art of bridging.

Bridging used to be a more advanced technique taught to the experienced interviewer, but due to the changing media landscape, we’ve recently changed our stance of this and require all our spokes people to understand, practice and gain experience in bridging.

Bridging is a simple technique that allow you to effectively transition a questions to deliver your key message, while moving away from sensitive or other questions you don’t want to answer.

It entails listening to the interviewer, acknowledging the question and then before answering the question, ‘bridging’ to an on target topic.  The words or phrase used to bridge are easily learnt, and if used interchangeably, will come across as fluid:

  • I’m very glad you asked me that…
  • That’s a very important question, but even more important is…
  • Before I answer that question I think I should say that…
  • That’s a very good question I think I should say that…
  • That’s a very good question, and I will answer it in a minute, but before I do…
  • I think what you meant by that question is…
  • I don’t have the exact details, but what I can say is…
  • You might say that, but… 

A new practitioner will often think that bridging will come across as staged. If rehearsed before trying it for real it rarely will.

The one thing to beware of is using this technique too hard and coming across as a politician… but then again, it’s pretty easy to not act as a politician.

Happy Bridging.


An early look at Super Bowl XLVII Commercials

Every year the Super Bowl brings commercial excitement.  This year spots are selling (30 seconds) for $4m.  Lets take the opportunity to watch what happens at Super Bowl time, which brands can communicate effectively and what crises arise.

It’s early yet, but there are two stories to follow:

1 – Taco Bell (headquartered in Irvine) have already pulled their Anti-Vegetarian commercial due to pressure groups.

News story here

A copy of the commercial here


2 – VW have a solid history of winning ads at the Super Bowl – you’ll remember the Star Wars commercial from 2011 - here.

Here is what looks like the new hit for 2013.


What do you think?

What is your favorite past Super Bowl ad?