Honest and open media strategies play a crucial part in successful crisis and risk management, stresses former police spokesman Matt Tapp.

The continued success of many organisations and, in some cases, their actual future existence, may depend on how they handle the media in moments of crises. Within just 24 hours, a poor media strategy can cost a fortune – and the necks of those involved in the crisis.

There need not be an inevitable correlation between a bundle of dirty washing lying in the company utility room and a very public washing line that causes a long and lasting stink. What is essential is having the right philosophical approach to the laundry and having the right person in charge on washing day.

Take a recent example. Finding himself short-staffed, a dairy manager rang one of his milkman in the early hours to see if he could cover a round on one of the floats. The milkman, who was due to be on a day's leave and had anyway consumed too much alcohol the night before, initially declined the offer of overtime in favour of a lie-in. But after some persuasion, he agreed to cover, provided the manager collected him from home and drove him to the dairy. A few hours later, he set off in his electric float. The inevitable happened. Some way into his round, the milkman was stopped by police, breathalysed and charged with drink-driving.

At the subsequent court case, magistrates expressed bewilderment that the dairy's manager was not sitting beside the hapless milkman in the dock to explain why he encouraged his member of his staff to break the law. In response to calls from the media, dairy bosses refused to comment. Instead of implementing a proactive media strategy to minimise damaging publicity, they encouraged it by saying nothing to reporters. As a result, the media made hay, ridiculing the manager, mocking the dairy's draconian attitude towards its staff and highlighting its reckless disregard for the law of the road.

Two individuals created this situation – the manager by putting business before common sense and the milkman by mixing business with pleasure. But it was the organisation's response after the court case - adopting an ostrich approach – that turned a minor, relatively self-contained embarrassment into a national news story.

Every day, the media report stories like this. Mostly, such incidents remain the diet of local newspapers. But some generate national media interest, becoming protracted causes célèbres and leading to all manner of crises for the individuals and organisations involved.

For the nine years that I worked as the corporate information head of two shire police forces, I dealt with many of these types of crises, preparing and implementing strategies for handling the media interest they might – and did - elicit. An honest, quick and proactive approach usually meant that my time in the eye of that storm was brief and left little, if any, devastation in its wake.

And, despite some high profile and damaging police stories that have featured in the last 15-20 years, I would argue that the police service is streets ahead of much of the public and most of the private sector in its strategic and tactical approach to crisis management. It may be that it has had more experience of it!

Risk factors
Too many companies concentrate on the financial implications of risk, assessing their public health by the account sheet and by the size of the claims budget, at the expense of the reputational risk factors associated with their business.

All organisations face risks to their reputation quite simply by existing, whether they are a multinational retailer or a police force. In the case of the latter, its raison d'être is to reduce crime and make our communities safer places. If the crime rate rises, so too does the temperature of the media and the potential for damaging publicity.

Additionally, we all face risks by employing human beings. These most fallible of resources, by design or accident, can bring our reputation into disrepute and spark unwanted publicity. Last year, a police officer was imprisoned for 18 years after a jury convicted him of serial rape and other sexual offences. Less extreme and more commonly, employees have accidents while at work. The damaging findings of investigations by the Health and Safety Executive or other statutory bodies may be made public, raising questions about procedures, integrity, attentiveness to staff safety and credibility.

People's private lives have an unfortunate habit of haunting the workplace. The media love nothing more than incidents involving a senior executive caught in a brothel, a local councillor in court for fiddling expenses claims or a police officer breaking the law.

Technology poses threats as well as opportunities. The business that relies exclusively on computers has a high risk strategy, as the passport agency found when it introduced a system which left thousands of would-be holiday makers unable to travel because of passport issue delays.

Recruiting journalists
Most police forces now employ former journalists to head their corporate communication departments. This is not because journalists necessarily make excellent managers, or internal communicators, but because they do tend to make good crisis managers.

A former journalist will know instinctively what will and what will not make for a damaging headline. They will tend to ferret out information from the most reserved of colleagues, equipping themselves with the detailed knowledge of incidents before they become public knowledge. They will also know the law as it relates to libel, defamation, and contempt of court, providing them with a framework within which to operate.

Perhaps most importantly, an energetic former journalist who commands the respect of his or her managers, is more likely to become a trusted and official source to the news media than the non-journalist. He or she will be seen as 'one of our own' by reporters.

Business, be it private or public, needs to ensure that the generic and specific reputational risks it faces are identified in advance and that all staff understand the part they can play in minimising them. But it is the specific role of the press officer, the corporate communicator, to plan for and tackle the issues as they arise.

He or she should monitor any themes or trends in the media which could suddenly increase the threat. He or she must spread the gospel of reputational risk, making as many as possible aware of the effect of their actions, through effective internal communications.

The single most critical issue which will dictate whether your time in the damaging spotlight is a blip or a lasting criticism from which you never fully recover is your company's stance towards the media. And, depending on your media strategy, there will be times when you can spin those moments of negative publicity into positive, long-lasting benefits. Handling them badly may result in enduring damage to the company left behind.

Damage reductionWithin a policy of openness and honesty, a good crisis manager will deploy a range of tactics to reduce damage.

  • He may persuade his organisation to admit it has made a duff decision and to announce that it is changing tack.
  • There are times when an organisation can simply change its name to distance itself from the brush that once tarnished it (New Labour?).
  • It may be sufficient to be seen to be taking immediate action to address a problem, for example, by suspending a member of staff or initiating one's own enquiry.
  • A good crisis manager will ensure that what is said about the crisis in public is plausible.
In managing crises, the best press officers are those who appear to be proactive - even if in reality they are holding back. The most successful are constantly wheeling and dealing, engaging on and off-the-record, and negotiating the timing of stories as well as their content.
--Matt Tapp, former head of corporate information for Cambridgeshire Constabulary, is the managing partner of communications consultancy Talking Heads, Tel: 01223 568222, E-mail: matt.tapp@talking-heads.co.uk

Reputation and share price
Reputation is one of the most important contributors to a company's value and needs to be protected with an effective risk strategy, according to Dr Deborah Pretty, principal of Oxford Metrica. Looking at the policy implications for crisis management, she said there is a clear financial value in

  • immediacy of response
  • honesty and compassion
  • personal involvement by the ceo
  • transparency of management
  • timely and relevant communication
Key issue
Loss of reputation is the greatest risk facing the UK's largest organisations, according to a recent survey published by Aon. 'It is often not what happens, but how an issue is managed or perceived by customers, stakeholders and the media that makes the difference between success and failure.' Other findings include
  • only 21% of organisations have quantified their brand value and reputation in financial terms
  • physical assets now represent 25% of an organisation's worth - down from 75% a decade ago
  • loss of reputation and brand protection are also causing the greatest concern as regards buying adequate insurance.