Friday, 14 November 2014

CEOs are not trusted by the public.  Only 1 in 5 members of the public trust a CEO to tell them the truth.
The results of the annual Edelman Trust Barometer this year were, putting it at best, discouraging.  At worst, as all businesses depend on trust, the findings were alarming.
There is some comfort: these are averages, and there are plenty of examples of CEOs who are great and honest communicators who the public highly trust.
But another finding of the survey should make us pause.   The majority of the public (4 out of 5) expect a CEO to be “front and centre during challenging times”.   The findings should inform our crisis planning.
There is a debate from time to time about who should be the spokesperson in the event of a serious incident.   There are two schools of thought.   One is that it should be the CEO as a matter of leadership and accountability.  The other is that it should be someone in the company with a gift of communicating via the media.  It is said that effectiveness trumps status in a crisis.
At Kenyon, our advice is clear.   If your company is involved in an incident involving human injury or loss of life, the CEO should not only be visible, he or she should be the principal spokesperson.  The absence of the CEO tends to be translated rapidly by the public as “evidence” that the company does not really care.  And in the social media age, the CEO should appear on the media as soon as possible.
The Edelman Trust Barometer’s findings on public expectations supports that view in full.
There are, of course, down sides to this policy.   Media interviews represent high risk.
George Entwistle, the Director-General of the British Broadcasting Corporation, found himself under fire for his handling of a row about a programme on an historic child abuse scandal involving one of the broadcaster’s highest profile presenters. But his performance during an interview on the BBC’s own Today radio programme hastened his resignation after only 54 days in the job.
Gary Southern was the CEO of a chemical company accused of spilling chemicals into West Virginia’s water supply, leaving 300,000 without water.  There is no suggestion that Mr. Southern was anything other than a highly capable leader.   But he was said to be suffering from pneumonia, and understandably tired and under pressure during a media “scrum” interview.  He was heavily criticised for sipping water from a bottle, whilst discussing a water shortage, and he walked away from the cameras, only to be summoned back by the media.
CEOs manage risk every day of their working lives.  Interview risks can be comfortably managed – but only through preparation and training.
Investing time in preparing for a moment when the future of the company and the CEO is at high risk is a no-brainer.   It is part of the mitigation of the risks of a crisis interview.
If you start regarding yourself as a “natural” who doesn’t need this kind of rehearsal, or “too busy,” loud alarm bells should ring.
There’s no time to do it when a crisis hits.

This blog was first published on the First Alert Blog of Kenyon International Emergency Services, where Kenyon's highly experienced crisis communications directors blog regularly on the topic of communicating in a crisis.   You can follow it here.

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Managing Stress in a Crisis

If you are not feeling stressed in a crisis, it's almost certainly not a crisis.

Stress is a normal reaction, and it (in most cases) helps us to respond to the challenge that we're facing.   But managing stress is vital if we are to be effective when trouble hits.  Here are ten tips based on my experience of handling many types of emergencies.

1.  If you already stressed before a crisis hits, it's bad news for you and the company.  Far too many people are in jobs that stress them out.  And that's before a crisis.  If you are stressed in a job, you need to fix it.  Are you approaching the job properly?  Are you too much of a perfectionist?  Or a control freak?  (I plead guilty)  All of these cause harmful stress.   It also may be that your company is asking too much of you.  Targets that are too stretching.  So called "efficiency" savings that mean you are being worked to death.  If it's the first, seek help from a trusted coach, friend or colleague to do things differently.  If it's the second, get a different job as soon as possible.   Prolonged stress leads to very bad health effects, including heart disease, strokes, gastric problems, and early death.  You're selling your skills and time to a company, not your life.   Don't work for companies that exploit you and risk your health.  Earn less and and have a nicer life.

2.   Get enough sleep.   In a crisis, you may be expected to function with less sleep.  This is fine for a couple of days but beyond that your decision making ability will be severely impaired.  Getting enough sleep is the key for success at work in general as well as health.  Your crisis arrangements should ensure that everyone gets enough sleep.   I've found that getting enough sleep means you can get up in the morning a little earlier and feel more relaxed at the beginning of the day instead of rushing around.  It's amazing the difference it makes to your stress level.

3.   Eat properly.   Part of your crisis arrangements should include giving someone responsibility for feeding you and the team properly.  Not sandwiches and biscuits all day.   You can't function on junk food.  A CEO I worked for caught me eating a chocolate bar in the middle of a crisis.  "I always think over-eating is something to be avoided when you're under pressure",  he told me.  Half an hour later I went into his office and caught him eating a large caramel bar.  "I was advised against overeating by a very trusted authority", I told him (impertinently) as he laughed.  But actually he was right.

4.    Manage your behaviour very carefully in a crisis.  Don't pass your stress on.    Instruct your team to call you out (nicely) for your behaviour.   Don't shout at people and if you do, immediately apologise - and in public.   It's not allowed, unless you are giving a fire warning or saving someone's life.   I have watched people scream at each other continuously during a crisis and it's not going to make a crisis go better.    I worked at the start of my career for neurosurgeons who were performing operations in which they had minutes to save a child's life on the operating table.  They stayed calm.  They were courteous and pleasant.  We adored working for them, and would have done anything for them.   We spent all our time thinking of how we could do better to support them.  I've worked with people who screamed over a bad headline about a TV show that, at best, is there to pass the time of day for bored people.  Go figure.

5.   Have a plan.  A good crisis plan makes sure that everyone knows exactly the job they need to do.  I hope you rehearse your plan regularly.  If you do, your stress when a crisis hits will be reduced.  It's completely pointless having a crisis plan if you don't rehearse it.

6.    Get decent technology.   A lot of the stress I've felt in a crisis has been due to duff technology.  Sometimes you need to explain to your CFO that cheap IT is not going to save the company's reputation in a crisis.   I met someone the other week in quite a senior role who does not even have a smart phone.  In a big company.

7.    Treasure your personal relationships.   The crisis is yours, not your friends or your partners.    Don't use your friends and partners as punch bags for the tough time you are having.  This is especially true in a prolonged crisis.   There's only so much understanding a person can give.   In a crisis that is longer than a few days, ensure you have ring fenced time off when you are not disturbed.  Otherwise you will have no partner and few friends.  And more stress.

8.    Separate the critical from the urgent.   In a crisis, "stuff" hits you from every angle.  Stay strategic, not tactical.   Identify the things that will make the most difference, that will make the most impact in protecting the company's reputation and focus on them.  Delegate the rest to others.  In a crisis, you quickly realise you can't do everything and you certainly can't respond to every request for help.

9.     Keep your team constantly informed and updated.  The more they understand what is happening and what you want, the more they can deal with without passing it up to you.  Then you have less stress.

10.    If you're a manager, one of your key roles (and legal duties) in a crisis is to protect the well-being of your staff.   Make sure the team have proper rest and proper support.  Remove people from duty that are showing signs of undue stress - and ensure this is not seen as a sign of weakness, rather that it's about care.   Make sure you take a little time to tell them they are doing a good job.  One CEO I worked with made a point of coming into the press office in a crisis to say thanks to the team.   It was smart - it gave the team a rocket boost in morale and energy.  One company saw two members of staff suffer breakdowns after a prolonged crisis.  That's a failure of the company not the individuals.  

We don't live in a perfect world.  In a crisis things happen we don't expect.  And it can be tough even for the most emotionally resilient.  Especially when lives are at risk or lost, we want to give our best and give the most we can.   But as Robert Jensen, the CEO of Kenyon International Emergency Services, and one of the world's most experienced crisis managers often says, in a crisis it's not our role to give in to emotions and stress.  If we do that, we're not doing our job.  Our job is to support those who are affected by the crisis, not to indulge our emotions.   It's a great professional lesson.

(Posted from Singapore)

Sunday, 22 December 2013

Ten Tips To Make Your Career Swing Up in 2014

When Sarah Stimson approached me for some quotes for her great new book (above), it got me thinking about what I would do differently in my career if I knew what I know now.   As an experienced recruiter, as well as PR practitioner, Sarah wanted to get the thoughts of a wide range of people who've made all the career mistakes, so you don't have to.

I've just finished a year working with some very talented young PR professionals on a fast-track course which included thinking a lot about personal career development.

Here are my own top ten tips to follow if you want to go places in your PR career in 2014.

1.  First of all, subscribe to the following rule.  I would prefer it if you had it tattooed on your wrist, but as some employers don't like tattoos, perhaps not.   Life is not fair, there is no justice in this world.  There is nothing you can do about it.  Don't spend a second being preoccupied by it.  Get on with your life.  People who are less able than you get promoted before you. The lazy get rewarded. The guilty don't get caught.  You don't get the recognition you deserve. People take credit for the things you do.  Focus on the things you can change and you can do something about.  They are almost all things about you.   It was the most important lesson I learned from the management guru Sue Aherne when I became a manager.  Set yourself free from a life of worrying about fairness.  I can give you the answer now.  It's not fair.

2.  Take charge of your career.  Don't wait for jobs to fall into your lap.   Don't wait for your dream job to come along.  Make plans.   Not all will come about, so have a range of plans.

3.  Don't look for emotional fulfilment through your work.  Work is for earning money to live.  It's great to enjoy your job, to feel you are doing something worthwhile, and to have great colleagues.  But your emotional fulfilment should come from elsewhere.   You often see people expressing hurt at the way they have been treated at work, passed over, made redundant, "after all I've done for that company".  Your job is just business, it's not personal.  Your company is not your family. Do a great job.  And have a great life.  Outside of work.

4.  Whatever your current job is, do your best in it.   Work hard.   Don't be a clockwatcher.   Be the person that stays late because an important job needs to be done.  But not every night.  Otherwise you will be taken for granted.  People who can't stay late because they have to pick up children often add value by working on something at home that's urgent or coming up with a new way of tackling a task because they used the journey to focus on it.  Make sure your manager knows about it.

5.  Be loyal to your manager.  Look out for how you can support their goals.  There is nothing more appealing for a manager than feeling they have the support of the team.  And by the way, never bitch about your manager to colleagues.  It doesn't reflect well on you, and a lot of it gets back to the manager.   If you really don't like your manager, get another job.  Most managers love seeing younger people get on in their career.  They love to recommend you for a higher position. You may not even know they have done it.

6.  Be strategic.  Be strategic.  Be strategic.  The default position of PR people is to be tactical.  As you rise up the ladder, companies are looking for strategic players.  Practice being strategic in everything you do.  Know your company's strategy and your department's strategy.  If you don't have it, ask your manager.

7.  Be as physically fit as you can.    Lose weight.   Get enough sleep.  A lot of PR jobs are really demanding, and the fitter you are, the better able you'll be to perform in them.  I wish I had paid attention to this years ago.  

8.  Don't stay in a job for too long.  After two years, you should be thinking about where to go next, particularly at the start of your career.  If you are great in a job a company will want to keep you there.  The problem is that you will get pigeon-holed for the thing you do best and you'll also be taken for granted.   Take jobs that are different from the one you are doing.  Get a wide range of experience.  Don't keep taking jobs that are more of the same, they add nothing to your CV.

9.  Network.  Network.  Network.   You should be using every phone call to network.  But you need to find ways of networking beyond your current job.  Join a professional body.  Go to events.  If you are invited to something, accept the invitation and be grateful you're on someone's list.  Go to the event.  Meet people.  Become known.  It is more likely your next job will come through networking than a job ad.  And if you are not socially confident, ask a colleague who is to teach you the simple tricks of working a room.  I run a course on networking and I know how many people lack confidence in working a room.  I used to be the same and a former boss helped me.

10.  Finally, be on social media.  But you have to understand that employers may look at your activity on Twitter or Facebook if it is open to them.  Prospective employers definitely will.   And people who want to spike your chances will draw attention to your social media to your employer.   And employers will judge you.  (See rule 1).  I don't think what you do in your private life (provided it is lawful) is any of your employer's business.  If they want to make it their business, find another job. They are buying your time during work hours.  They are not buying you or your life, unless you are taking Holy Orders.    However, the clue is in the word "private".  It ceases to be private if you publish it.  A friend in a big American company told me recently they fire people for discreditable behaviour on social media even where the company was not identified and it caused no public issue.  Many companies are very risk averse.  (Again see rule 1).  

So are you approach 2014, make it the year that sees your career go in the right direction.  Don't tread water.  And if you are just starting out, think about getting some agency experience, even if you want ultimately to be in-house.   You will learn a lot in a short space of time.

(Posted from San Francisco)

Sunday, 1 December 2013

"Citizen Journalist" lessons from the Glasgow Helicopter Crash

Air crashes are statistically rare.   They are even rarer in cities.   When a Scottish Police helicopter fell from the sky on Friday evening, the Clutha Bar, a popular music venue, was packed with 100 people enjoying a local band.  The aircraft plunged through the roof of the bar creating a scene of devastation.  Eight people were killed and 14 remain in hospital with serious injuries.

The authorities responded by enacting a major incident plan which they had rehearsed many times.  But this was different.  This time, Scottish Police would respond to an incident involving the potential deaths of their own officers, and caused by their own aircraft.   They responded with public statements which were calm and measured, and I am pleased to say, unemotional.

There was a slip when Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond issues a statement warning that Scotland must prepare for fatalities, which broke the absolute rule that crisis statements must never, ever, be speculative.  You either have something to announce, or you don't.   Less is more, and it was enough to say that the situation was very grave.

There are two reasons for this.  Firstly, there were many families with loved ones missing.  They had the agony of waiting for news.  It was unnecessary to increase the pressure on them for no real purpose.  Secondly, it is extremely important that you become the authoritative voice in a crisis. You want people to look to you for information, not to the social media speculators.  You are the voice that deals with accurate facts.  To my knowledge this mistake was not repeated.

As each crisis unfolds across the world we are seeing the same trend.  The reporting of news is being transferred to social media.  We saw this in the crash of a Boeing777 aircraft at San Francisco airport (SFO) in July.  It is clear that news is now not broken on the conventional news channels.   Within 60 seconds of the crash at SFO, a passenger on another aircraft being boarded had broken the news, with pictures.  This was quickly followed by video footage taken by passengers on the crashed aircraft as they stood on the runway having escaped death.   TV news channels took a long time to catch up, and struggled to add any value to what the public already knew through social media.

In Glasgow on Friday night, the streets were crowded, and people got out their camera phones in a now familiar routine, taking pictures and posting them on Twitter and Facebook.  These were dramatic and quickly retweeted and picked up by the conventional media who used them until they could get cameras and reporters to the scene.

However, two things arose. Stuart Hughes (@stuartdhughes) summed it up in his tweet: "Awful incident takes place on a Friday night surrounded by digitally savvy people with smartphones.  Trad news sources now irrelevant".  Sitting in a hotel room in Singapore, I was watching the news unfold on social media and on the international news channels.  I was alerted to the story on social media.  I turned on the TV hoping for something extra.  I didn't get it.

But a second and important issue arose.  We often call people in this situation "citizen journalists".  They are, of course, not journalists.  They are individuals doing an activity which can form part of journalism, but that doesn't make them journalists.   You may bring your partner a cup of tea and wipe his brow when he has a fever.  These are activities which form part of the act of nursing.  They do not make you a trained nurse.

As people lay trapped and dying in the Clutha Bar, people took pictures on their smart phones and posted them.  There followed an officious discussion online about the importance of asserting the copyright of these pictures and in some cases of getting payment for them when reused.  There was encouragement to make sure that news organisations were paying up for them.

It's time for attitudes and, I believe, copyright law, to change if we are to continue down this road.  If it is to be the case that social media is to be the major source for news, it cannot be right that opportunists are allowed to use the fact that they happened to be passing by a tragedy to profit from it.  They do not make their living from news photography.  They have incurred no expenses in taking the picture.  They were by luck (or otherwise) passing by.   In essence, at the moment, they are allowed to (and by far not everyone does) profit from the deaths and injuries of others.   The practice of asserting copyright on pictures like this stifles the act of making the public aware of important and tragic events that concern overtone.   The law should be changed to enable those, including news organisations, who reuse these pictures to inform others to have a "public interest" defence in using them for free.

Should you disagree with this, let me give you another example of passers-by at this incident.  Many, including a brilliant local MP Jim Murphy (@jimmurphymp) risked their lives to go into the wrecked building to help survivors until the rescue services arrived.  None, to my knowledge, have so far sent in a bill for their services or made any statement asserting their rights to their personal story.  I am a (long lapsed) Registered General Nurse.   Registered nurses have a professional duty to render assistance in these situations, when they happen to be passing.  They may not, and do not, simply pass by.  I have never heard of a nurse in these circumstances asking for a fee, sending in a bill, or even claiming for damaged clothing.  They do it for humanity.

We must be motivated by humanity on social media.

If social media is to be a democratising source of news, this nonsense about copyright of pictures in a human disaster must stop.  It is a disgrace that anyone would seek to assert their own rights from a moment in which others have lost their lives.   The law should be changed.

(Posted from Singapore)

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Crisis communications lessons from an aircraft crash in San Francisco

Travelling by air last year was the safest it's ever been.   It's said, statistically, that it is safer to fly than to get into your car to go to the airport.

There are many reasons for this, and they are all to do with a focus on safety over decades - including the design and manufacture of aircraft, and the training of flight crew and flight attendants.

Asiana 214, a Boeing 777 aircraft flying from Shanghai via Seoul, approached the runway at San Francisco International Airport on 6th July, and as this chilling video (taken by chance by a member of the public) shows, a disaster was about to happen.  The aircraft failed to make it to the runway, the tail was ruptured away and the remainder of the aircraft bounced down the runway, out of control.  Other videos show passengers jumping down the evacuation slides, as smoke begins to come from the wreckage, and finally the plane is engulfed in flames.

There were 307 people on board.   Early reports of scores feared dead, were rapidly changed as it emerged that to date, 2 had died - 2 young girls from China - with a number with very serious injuries, including likely permanent paralysis.  That several hundred people emerged from this catastrophe still alive and with survivable injuries is a testament to design and training and the determination of the aviation industry to learn and apply lessons from every incident.  It's also testament to the efforts and discipline over decades at San Francisco International Airport and the local emergency services and hospitals to have emergency plans and procedures in place and for them to be carefully rehearsed, all for an event they hoped would never happen.

I'm currently in San Francisco, and have been able to look at the media management of this very serious incident at close hand, and want to look at some aspects of this in a few blog posts, as I think there are some great lessons we can all learn.

The Asiana crash exhibits all the criteria which enables us to classify this incident as a crisis.  It was sudden, without warning and catastrophic in nature.   It placed the lives and safety of large numbers of people under serious and immediate threat.   The survival of the people on board would depend on the response of the authorities at the airport, when their own plans and training would be put under a severe test.  One firefighter said he had never attended an aircraft fire, but it was the moment he had spent years training for.

The second feature common in every crisis is the initial shortage of facts.    An emergency is typically characterised by initial shock and confusion, and the purpose of crisis communications is to bring order to this situation by delivering facts and information as quickly and as accurately as possible to interested parties (such as survivors and relatives of those on board) and to the public via the news media, by now clearing news channel schedules in the US to focus exclusively on the crash.

The golden rule in crisis communications is: timely, accurate and clear information.    Authorities avoid estimating casualties for very good reason.   Estimates often turn out to be wrong.   Accuracy will help you build a reputation as the trusted source of information in an emergency.

In the initial press conferences which must be held after an air crash, there is a loud and urgent clamour for facts, but this is a dangerous moment, and enormous care is required when giving out facts in the early hours after a major event involving death and injury.

It's also essential, however, that you work hard to provide accurate facts as quickly as possible.  The friends and families of those involved in the incident are desperate for further information, and the news media have a legitimate interest in reporting as fully as they can.

An early press conference at San Francisco International Airport appeared unscripted and was unclear in the way casualty figures were presented, with the fact there had been confirmed fatalities having to be be prompted by a journalist.  Casualty figures are the most important piece of information you have to give in these circumstances and you should give them very slowly and very clearly indeed, and you should be reading from a script when you do so.   In the San Francisco press conference, the lack of clarity led to anchors and reporters on CNN having to try to decipher the figures for some time afterwards, adding up numbers live on air trying to make sense of them. Figures need to be clear, and the categories you are using need to be explained very clearly. For example, what do you mean when you say people are "unaccounted for"?  (This does not mean that you think those missing are necessarily in the burning aircraft.  Injured passengers are taken away as quickly as possible by a wide range of people and means and it takes time to check where they are and their condition).

The Chair of the National Transportation Safety Board, Deborah Hersman, could write the textbook on clarity and measured response.  She has given hours of interviews and press conferences so far, and her appearances should be studied by anyone who may have to hold a press conference in an emergency.

Your guiding principles for giving out information in an emergency should be:

1.  Timely.   Relatives and survivors as well as the public have a legitimate need for information about what has happened as quickly as possible.

2.  Accurate.    It's vital that you are the trusted source of all information.

3.  Clear.  You must be very clear about the meaning of information you give.  Anticipate how the information might be misinterpreted, and be very clear about what you mean.

One other feature of the early media management of the accident was that both San Francisco Airport and the San Francisco General Hospital held press conferences at exactly the same time.   This led to news outlets trying to juggle between two very important briefings and meant that some of the content of the events was missed.  The airport press conference had precedence in the early hours.   Authorities must co-ordinate the timings of press conference in this live media age.  It's easy to adjust timings so that events follow on from each other.  This was corrected the next day.

None of this is intended to detract from outstanding work at the airport and hospitals in dealing with this sudden catastrophe.  It is the kind of event that may happen only once in your professional lifetime.  The emergency services reacted quickly and there is no doubt that many risked their lives to enter the burning aircraft to save survivors.  Many owe their lives to them, and to the brave flight attendants who survived the crash and despite their own injuries remained on the aircraft helping passengers get off.  There's always much to learn after an air crash, but those who are on the front line deserve our respect and admiration.

And despite a sense of relief here that the casualty figures are surprisingly low,  the sight of devastated parents beginning the sad journey from China to San Francisco to bring the bodies of their daughters home is a stark reminder of how accidents change lives forever.

(Posted from San Francisco)

Friday, 5 July 2013

Offenbach in San Francisco and a TV Cook in trouble

In the opulent San Francisco Opera House last week, I looked around at my fellow patrons in a packed house for a cast which included the soprano Natalie Dessay, a name which guarantees a sell-out.  I pondered on the total worth of the audience in the theatre.  Certainly, billions of dollars.

After the matinee performance, they stepped out on to the streets around the Opera House, which is in a district close to one of the poorest areas of the city, the Tenderloin.   It's necessary to walk past a shocking number of psychotically ill people walking or lying in the streets to get to one's parked car, or the MUNI underground train.  It's unavoidable, as the streets are littered with the bodies of people whose faces are twisted with mental pain and torment and they struggle with the voices in their head tormenting them as they shout back at them.  Many pace up and down, unable to find relief.  I'm told quite a number of them are veterans who have struggled to come to terms with what they saw during service on behalf of the United States.   Their presence in the streets of US cities (I'm told by people here) followed a policy of President Reagan of closing the large mental hospitals in the US.  The problem is that there doesn't seem to be any care put in their place.  If there is, it isn't working, as a stroll along these streets would tell you.

There was another thing I noticed.  All of the people on the streets I saw were African American.  It's not that there are not others who are untreated and psychotic.  It's just that none of the people I saw were white. The picture of them in the street stayed in my mind and troubled me afterwards.  I couldn't see what hope they had of a better life, and I felt it was hard not to conclude that race did not play a part in the cards they were dealt.

I was reminded of my visit a few days later when I had half an ear on a bulletin on TV which reported a crisis involving a well-known celebrity cook and restaurant chain owner in the US, Paula Deen.  The report alleged she had used the "N" word (the most offensive of the racial slurs), and I, half listening, assumed it had slipped out on air.  I thought she must either be very stupid or very ignorant.

As I watched later bulletins more closely, it turned out that Mrs Deen was being sued by a former employee of her restaurant chain, who was making numerous allegations about her, including that she had used racist language.   In a deposition for the case, Mrs Deen accepted she had used in the "N" word in the past, although she did say "that's just not a word that we use as time has gone on".  There were other allegations that Mrs Deen had said she liked the idea of a Southern style wedding with only African American waiters dressed in white just like the old days (Mrs Deen is Southern).   The issue was leaked to an American magazine.  It took a while to take off, but take off it did, as general outrage ensued, stoked by the media and social media.   She was suspended from the Food Network and lucrative sponsorship deals fell one by one.

Mrs Deen appeared to make it worse with a video apology that wasn't an apology.  Then she was to appear on the Today show.  Then she cancelled it.  Then she appeared on it.  Her tearful sort-of apology was described by a commentator on CNN as the "worst mea culpa ever" and "sentiment towards Paula Deen was worse after the Today interview".  "I is what I is", she said, and what she is, isn't much liked apparently.

Mrs Deen was portraying the worst kind of crisis management.  Because she is a famous TV personality, she did not appear to have taken the right advice before appearing and her apology was at best late and equivocal, depending on an emotional performance, and appeared to be driven by her loss of sponsorship, not genuine regret at the hurt she had caused.

But I was less interested in Mrs Deen's gifts of media management than the apparent outrage at what she had done.  Let me be clear: racist language hurts deeply and causes damage.  It is not OK, and where it is used, we need to correct it and help those who use it understand the damage it causes.  When language like this is used, it is the moment for an unequivocal apology - and most of the public require to know that you understand fully why what you did was wrong.

But here was a situation where across America people and companies were outraged at the use of a racist slur against African Americans.  Well, except several hundred thousand Paula Deen fans who took to Facebook and queued up at Mrs Deen's restaurants to show their support.

What I couldn't understand was this.  Were some of the outraged the same people who stepped over untreated psychotically ill African American people outside the Opera?   Where was that same outrage at that point?

I asked a wise American friend about it.   He explained.  This story is not really about racism any longer, he said.  It's the usual.  It started with genuine anger that this word is still being used in America today, a country with an African American President.   But now, it's about money and the fall of a celebrity.  That is what is driving the news coverage and the crisis.   It's not that anyone is saying racist language isn't unacceptable.  It's just that they are more interested in the consequences.  And people are always more interested in money.

I felt muddled that a nation apparently outraged at the use of a word was not outraged that African Americans are lying on US streets in torment and if anyone cares, I didn't see it.  If that isn't racism I don't known what is.  And it's a far worse kind of racism than Mrs Deen, once seen as a wholesome woman, and now regarded as rather silly, appeared to exhibit.

It was a reminder to me that a crisis is not always at its core what is appears at first to be about.  Of course, the root cause (the use of racist language) must be addressed.   But once the consequences start to roll, you're in trouble, because you can't address consequences.

But what causes sudden and widespread offence sometimes surprises us.   Social media, frequently a vehicle for sudden and emotional expression, accentuates this sense of overwhelming offence.   In this case the offence was real and it needed to be recognised and accepted - and addressed directly.  But there's no rule of human behaviour that says that offence must be logical.

Mrs Deen will bounce back from this.  She's a popular woman who made a terrible mistake, and hopefully she's learned something.  I hope she realises why it was wrong, and that she will get some good advice on restoring her reputation, and she'll listen to it.  But when the public reacts strongly to something you do (and I understand in this case why they did), you have to address the emotion and hurt that they feel, whether you like it or not.

Here is my advice if you ever get into Mrs Deen's situation:

1.  When you are involved in litigation, scenario plan on all the negative aspects of the case, and try to pre-empt them.  Don't hand your pursuers a PR gift.

2.  React quickly and sincerely.  Don't assume because you work in the media that you know how to deal with a public relations emergency.  In my experience media people almost never do.

3.  Make sure your apology is sincere and is accompanied by action.  For example, Mrs Deen could have announced she was meeting with an organisation that fights racism so that she could better understand the issues.   It's my own view that emotion (including crying) during TV interviews isn't a good thing and tends to be viewed as insincere.  However, I accept that the American market is different.  I know you can be over composed but sobbing I think is treated with scepticism in Britain, particularly when it is from performers.  In Mrs Deen's case some viewers felt she was crying because she had lost all the deals and her business was falling apart.

I love the United States and I love Americans (well most of them), but as a British person, I still don't completely understand them.  Trust me, there are untreated psychotically ill people on the streets of London, but not in the quantity one sees in US cities. I wish American people would be as outraged about the people they step over as they leave the Opera as they are about a terrible word a TV cook said in her office.   Then something might be done.

In the meantime, Happy 4th July!

(Posted from San Francisco)

Wednesday, 20 February 2013


Passengers fastened their seatbelts on an internal Tianjin Airlines flight at Hotan Airport in the far west of China at lunchtime on 29 June last year.  They had no idea they were minutes away from a mid-air drama with an attempted hijacking which would leave two hijackers mortally wounded and passengers and crew injured.

As the Embraer190 aircraft, with 101 passengers and crew on board, climbed to cruising altitude, six passengers - three at the rear of the cabin and three at the front - stood up and announced their intention to take control of the plane. The crutches brought on board by one of the men were split up to be used to try to break the cockpit door open.  One reportedly held a bottle in his hand with a fuse.

The hijackers didn’t expect the degree of resistance they met from an energetic crew, quick-thinking passengers and two policemen who were on board - the six were pinned to the floor, two of them sustaining injuries so serious that they died a short while later.

22 minutes after take-off, the Embraer landed safely back at Hotan, with police waiting to storm the plane - with little more to do than arrest the hijackers who were reported to be Uighurs, a Muslim Turkic ethnic minority in this area beset by racial tension.

Within minutes of landing what has become a familiar routine in the West hit the Chinese version of Twitter, Sina Weibo.  Pictures of the hijackers being restrained on board were posted to a potential 300 million users.  They had been taken by another passenger on a cellphone.

The authorities may have been caught by surprise, but news agencies such as Reuters reported that agencies such as the police were not even picking up the phone to respond to the media.  It was some time before the local authorities (this is a long way from Beijing) and the Chinese Civil Aviation Authority began to make statements.  Once Beijing became aware of the seriousness of what had happened, definitive statements followed.

This allowed speculation to develop, and in the absence of any official statements, agencies carried a statement from the German based World Uighur Congress, who said that the incident had not been a hijacking but a dispute on board about seating arrangements which got out of control, and that they suspected China would use it as an excuse for a “crackdown” in the region.  Given that the Congress spokesman at this stage could not possibly have known what had happened on board, this statement lacked credibility, but in the information vacuum was reported unquestioningly.

The Chinese authorities felt a sense of enormous relief that the attempt had been unsuccessful, perhaps fearing the global damage this could have done for the country’s reputation for safety in the economically important and expanding aviation market.

The authorities showered gifts of large amounts of cash, cars and even apartments on the crew, the police and the passengers who overpowered the hijackers.  This was followed by honours for the police and additional rewards from Tianjin Airlines.

This may have been well intentioned, but the generosity raised questions amongst Chinese people.  Some felt it left no room for a debate on whether the deaths on board were nothing more than the result of “frontier justice” (although there is little if any sympathy for the hijackers to be found) and may have been an attempt to deflect attention over whether the incident was the result of failures in the airport security process.   A premature statement from the national aviation authority in China saying no-one was to blame for letting the hijackers on board did nothing to inspire confidence in the investigation.

But most of all, commentators were critical of the message the lavish gifts and rewards for the passengers would send.   The incident could lead to passengers being quick to intervene in incidents best left to the crew, and could have unforeseen and dangerous consequences.

This very serious incident is a reminder of the importance of some of the basics of crisis communications - being prepared for the unimaginable, responding quickly with a carefully rehearsed plan, and communicating rapidly to build and maintain trust. 

It is not enough to manage an incident effectively.  Immediate and competent communication by staff dedicated to this task is critical.

It also demonstrates that no country is immune to the power of social media in an emergency.

When a crisis hits, if your company does not provide rapid information, your critics will.

First published in the magazine of Kenyon International Emergency Services

Donald Steel is an Associate Director, Crisis Communications, at Kenyon International Emergency Services and a regular guest lecturer and workshop leader at the China Media Centre of the University of Westminster, London.