A $49.95 answer to the Census fiasco

The Australian Bureau of Statistics paid a PR company $395,000, according to Mumbrella, to create and implement a media and PR strategy for the recent Census. They also paid an ad agency $2.8 million to create the advertising campaign. Yet an FOI request revealed the government had no crisis communications plan.

Given how badly things went they might have been better off paying $49.95 (or less, if they wanted to save some pennies, on the eBook version) for Dr Tony Jaques’ new book Crisis Planning: How to save your company from disaster.

The book is a remarkably useful text not only for practitioners but also to private and public sector CEOs and executives. Indeed, it is one of the best integrations of issues management and crisis management principles and practices the blog has read.

The book centres of the need for organisations to be ‘crisis prepared’ in terms of resistance (reducing the risk of crisis thus making an organisation less vulnerable) and resilience (increasing an organisation’s capacity to survive or minimise damage.)

Over the years the blog has heard many people pontificate about crisis management with old saws about Chinese characters denoting crisis and opportunity and how to respond to crises but this book is different – it focuses on practical actions which can be taken to avoid damage when crises occur and the role of leadership culture, rather than tools, in crisis preparedness. In other words strategic as opposed to tactical management.

One very illuminating section of the book details, through case studies, how many crises came with warnings (what Tony calls ‘red flags’) and even crisis management rehearsals. The examples of this range across Hurricane Katrina, The World Trade Centre and the Deep Water Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. In the WTC context the book provides a moving example of crisis preparedness and response with Morgan Stanley’s evacuation of most of their staff from the WTC. Tragically the person who organised it, Rick Rescoria, died going back into the building to save others.

There is a brilliantly insightful chapter on the differences between issues, problems, emergencies, crises and disasters. It delineates how very clear thinking about the way we use language about these things helps us to develop and implement issues and crisis management plans better. The chapter is followed by one on a succinct crisis management model encompassing crisis prevention, crisis incident management, crisis preparedness and post-crisis management.

In terms of issues management Tony adds to his previous book on the subject (also published by OUP and previously reviewed by the blog) by discussing various issues management models. He is not enamoured of the probability/impact model which many of us including the blog, have used and discusses in some detail an alternative model focussed on impact, salience/legitimacy, visibility, affectability, proximity/timing, profile – summing it up in the very useful formula PROBLEM+IMPACT=ISSUE.

There are excellent sections on preparing for the ‘obvious’ crises with a perceptive analysis of what goes wrong with crisis plans at the management level; the role of the CEO as spokesperson and on the spot leader (who can forget Exxon Valdez?); and, how to recover from, and more importantly, learn from crises. As the Denver Colorado Institute for Crisis management found “more than half of all corporate crises are caused by management – either management action of inaction.”

In a post-truth world a chapter outlines that while facts and data are important they are not a solution to a crisis communication problem and exemplify why behavioural psychology is critical to communicators and how confirmation bias and its flipside, information rejection, can play havoc with the crisis manager’s attempts to explain things. “While the facts and data are critically important, most issues and crises also revolve around human qualities and empathy” he writes.

The book also includes probably the best discussion the blog has read on the respective roles of lawyers and PR people in crises. While it stresses that research indicates that generally the relationships between the disciplines in crises are more co-operative and mutually supportive than often thought there are some good examples of feral lawyers: such as the McLibel case, the Pringles potato chip disaster and the Mountain Dew and the dissolving rodent defence. Equally there is a well-balanced discussion of the argument about apologies providing evidence of reduced liability or likelihood of legal action in cases such as whether British patients would sue doctors for malpractice; The Catholic Diocese of Dallas and child abuse damages awarded; and, US perinatal medical malpractice claims.

There are too many great apology anecdotes supporting Tony’s analysis to single out but a few – however the blog loved the Tony Abbott, Alan Jones and Hawker Britton examples. Read the book and alternate between laughter and despair. The comparison between Exxon Valdez and the BP American Trader 1990 cases are well known to older practitioners but ought to be compulsory reading for students and young practitioners – just as the Deepwater case reflects some very significant cultural changes at BP which highlight the importance of Tony’s emphasis on leadership culture.

The blog is hardly an expert on social media and crises having retired when it was an emerging rather than a massive problem. But it was struck by a social media apology which bridged the cyber world, the legal/PR divide and the brand protection areas. A junior employee at the appliance-maker KitchenAid posted a ‘funny’ tweet about Obama’s grandmother which went to about 25,000 followers on the corporate account. Who knows where else it went? The KitchenAid brand manager, Cynthia Soledad, said: “A member of our Twitter team mistakenly posted an offensive tweet from the KitchenAid handle instead of a personal handle. The tasteless joke in no way represents our values at KitchenAid and that person won’t be tweeting for us anymore. That said, I lead the KitchenAid brand and take full responsibility for the whole team. I personally apologise to President Barack Obama, his family and the Twitter community for his careless error.” Tony Jaques’ verdict: “Genuine, heartfelt brief and personal.”

Ultimately Tony suggests – it’s all about leadership. Not whether the CEO is the crisis spokesperson or not but the leadership culture within an organisation.

This is a book which communicators should persuade managers at many levels to read. And if they are too busy reading spreadsheets to pay attention to the narrative and analysis get them to read pages 227-228 which are the ideal introduction to crisis-proofing any organisation.