Crisis and Reputation Management – A New Book

Bolt From the Blue – navigating the new world of corporate crises  by Mike Pullen and John Brodie Donald

I heard John Donald give a talk about the themes of his book Bolt From the Blue on Friday and I was impressed by his thoughtful presentation and the book does not disappoint.

It suggests that there are five principles for handling a corporate crisis:

  1. Do not deny anything before you are in full possession of the facts
  2. Your response time must be faster than the speed of the story
  3. When a crisis happens, bring in external consultants
  4. To prevent recurrence, change the culture as well as the policies
  5. You can’t clear your own name; only other people can do this for you

I particularly like number three….

The early part of the book explains these themes in a practical handbook sort of way  and I was particularly struck by the points made about Donald Rumsfeld’s famous “unknown unknowns” speech which is often and wrongly derided.

It’s not that Rumsfeld was talking gibberish (although as John observes, basing a strategy on “unknown unknowns” is a justification for doing anything) the authors argue that it wasn’t “known knowns” or “known unknowns” or even “unknown unknowns” that brought Rumsfeld down, it was the fourth category that he didn’t mention “unknown knowns”.

These are the events that arguably you should have foreseen – they were knowable but you failed to spot them. For Rumsfeld it was the behaviour of US troops at Abu Ghraib “on his watch” that were fatal to his reputation.

This thought informs much of the book, how to balance control of and responsiveness to events.

In corporate life the idea that executives are omniscient and omnipotent, whilst obvious nonsense, is persistent and there is an interesting debate to be had about whether the attitude to risk required of a CEO also makes it inevitable that CEOs must believe they can defy events. The seeds of their destruction etc..

The book, having laid out the five principles begins an exploration of case studies which illustrate how organisations have faced crises and what kind of crises can emerge.

Here the book is perhaps less sure in tone and the section on health and safety culture is more a bit of a Telegraph reader’s grumble than a discussion of how changing attitudes to corporate responsibility in global supply chains for example can and do affect susceptibility to crisis, as say Primark have discovered.

Likewise the section on social media is rather short and to my mind doesn’t really examine whether it is as much as benefit as a threat if organisations are prepared to act quickly and be transparent. The emergence at the back end of 2013 of reputation as the top strategic risk (largely related to the growth of social media) was perhaps unfortunate timing for the authors as it might have been the platform for deeper discussion of something that is clearly more than just worrying to a great many CEOs.

Special praise is required for the range of examples which include some which were new to me and for the others, the authors’ intelligent and witty style with its thread of references from the Classics gives new perspectives on some of the ‘classic’ crisis case studies. Special bonus points for not going over the well trodden ground of Tylenol…..

The five principles are as useful and as sound a set as any I have read and the depth and intelligence of the examination of corporate crises over the years is a distinct cut above the norm.

Recommended reading.

Peston Versus the PRCA – missing the point

The BBC’s Robert Peston fired some broadsides at the PR industry last week in the Charles Wheeler lecture which have somewhat overshadowed his more important message about the value of real journalism in age of commercially driven content marketing.

This has prompted a fairly hot blooded response from Francis Ingham, CEO of the PRCA (whom I know and like and will always have my admiration for pursuing an ultimately successful battle against the NLA, when others capitulated).

As always there is some truth in what both say but where both parties come unstuck is on the question of the extent to which journalism needs PR and who has the whip hand in this relationship.

What is most depressing though is that the two contributions to the ‘debate’ are so antagonistic and in denial of the truth. PR is not the enemy of journalism and nor does journalism rely on PR.

One of the things that I believe undermined the validity of the NLA’s position in its attempt to secure more fees from the PR industry was the implicit denial in their argument that the PR industry was the only beneficiary of their efforts (and should therefore recompense the publishers) when it is obvious that newspaper publishers derive huge financial benefit from the supply of content to them, against which they sell advertising.

The evidence here is abundant and it is surprising that Mr Peston when preparing his lecture did not become aware of initiatives like which shows which articles are cut and pasted from PR material, or the popular hashtag #journorequest where reporters seek input from PRs. (There is a special place in Hell by the way for stupid PR people who spam this with offers of products). There are even commercial ventures like Response Source where PR companies can pay to be fed a series of requests from reporters for information and stories.

The response by Francis Ingham to what is in many ways an emotionally driven but fairly inaccurate picture of the PR industry is regrettable. If anything the language of conflict begun by Robert Peston has been ratcheted up. Worse, it is a missed opportunity to offer dialogue on the ways that well prepared, well targeted content adds value to the newsroom . In other words, it was a PR open goal that has gone begging.

Instead we have an equally if not more emotionally driven attack on Peston’s words (and to a degree the man himself) which seems to assert PR’s moral superiority over journalism. I’m not sure who would be interested in the outcome of that debate.

Both journalism and PR need to realise that far from being enemies they have common goals – both want accurate material distributed to the largest audience with the minimum of effort. Both also need the value of earned media to be at the highest possible premium over paid media. The real enemy is the commoditisation of content. That really is a race to the bottom.

That is a solid foundation for a conversation that would benefit both parties and how life can be made better for everyone, but right now that seems further away than it was a week ago.

North West Photography Courses Opens for Business

North West Photography Courses

The rural setting for the courses

North West Photography Courses offers beginners to advanced workshops and is a new venture I am involved in, assisting in the marketing, PR, web development and social media for the company.

It is based in Birtle where I live, a place not that well known but which really is where the furthest outskirts of Greater Manchester meet the Lancashire hills. It is highly accessible for Mancherster, Cheshire and Lancashire.

We want the photography courses that we offer to reflect the location, so as well positioning the company as offering friendly, expert tuition, we want to celebrate our location where the natural landscape mixes with the man made.

We offer Beginners Photography Courses Intermediate Photography Courses and Advanced Photography Courses

To this end we offer photography courses which embrace the remains of some of the oldest mills in the world, high in the Cheesden Valley and the industrial power of the famous East Lancashire Steam Railway which is a gift for any photographer.

The new company is the idea of a friend of mine, Tony Holt, who became a professional photographer after a career in the Police and Civil Service. “There is an amazing range of inspiring subjects on our doorstep and we are unique in combining natural and industrial landscapes in our courses” he says.

Joining Tony in teaching the courses is Bury photographer Barry Kellie who specialises in bird photography and whose work has been featured in publications worldwide.

“Our motto: ‘nothing is stopping you taking great photographs’ applies as much to someone starting out as to the most skilled photographer and we want to make it enjoyable and relaxed whilst discovering new skills and techniques”.

We are using a wide range of marketing channels and we are pleased with our site which has been designed on a Genesis WordPress responsive theme by Adam Walker.

We are running a trial ad campaign across Facebook, promoted Tweets and PPC. It’s very early days yet but I will report back on channel success. Off-line channels include print and liaison with tourist centres locally.

Finally I would be missing a trick if I didn’t invite you take advantage of special introductory offers on our discounted photography courses so please click away.

Public Access Barrister Manchester Welcomes Justice News

The news about a partial but significant U-turn on changes to the legal aid system and criminal justice system more widely are welcome news for one of my clients a Manchester Public  Access Barrister

The changes to the legal system which have brought about the advent of the Public Access Barrister are part of a wider set of changes to the criminal justice system.

As the Guardian reports “Plans to award legal aid contracts to the lowest bidders following criticisms it would reduce justice to a “factory mentality” have been scrapped.

The justice secretary, Chris Grayling, ditched the proposals after drawing up the government’s latest legal aid reforms with the support of the Law Society”

MPs and others had been raising fears tendering for legal aid based principally on cost would allow multinational firms to provide justice with quality of service a distant second.

Discussions have been going on throughout the summer between the Law Society, which represents solicitors in England and Wales, and Ministry of Justice officials in an attempt to modify the proposals.

The Ministry will begin a fresh consultation on a redesigned set of proposals. These will carry the same savings of £220m, which will be achieved via cuts to fees and other measures for example reducing pre-trial hearings that could be carried out by email or videolink.

Many barristers will welcome this latter move which will make their jobs and the running of the Courts more efficient.

It has been reported by The Times that  Christopher Grayling will announce the removal of legal aid in 11,000 cases brought by prisoners each year and an end to automatic legal aid for defendants with a combined annual disposable income of £37,500 a year and at least £3,000 in the bank each month after essential bills.

Steve Hynes, the director of the Legal Action Group, commented: “If the government backs down on competitive tendering, that’s a victory for the Law Society, but I would be extremely surprised if they back down on the volume of fee cuts.

“They will keep the existing number of suppliers in the system at a time when there’s a decreasing volume of work. You will get the same number of providers scrambling for a lower volume of cases.

The Guardian says that “the dropping of price-competitive tendering is the MoJ’s second climbdown over changes to legal aid. It has already abandoned proposals that would have prevented defendants from choosing which solicitor represents them.”

Defending the need for savings, the MoJ said: “At around £2bn a year we have one of the most expensive legal aid systems in the world. At a time when everyone is having to tighten their belts we cannot close our eyes to the fact legal aid is costing too much and has mushroomed into something far bigger than it was intended to be.

Sadiq Khan, the shadow justice secretary, commented: “Although I welcome reports the Tory-led government is about to abandon parts of its half-baked plans for criminal legal aid, I fear mark two will still deny access to justice to millions whilst reducing our justice system to a two-tier one with only the wealthy being able to secure a fair trial.

For more information about the Public Access Barrister system visit

Twitter’s Self-Centred Response to Trolling

(This is a re-posting of the opinion piece I was asked to write for The Drum magazine. It can be viewed here)

This isn’t is a set of suggestions for how Twitter solves trolling. There are people with serious experience of designing systems to deal with this who have offered thoughtful suggestions.

The excellent Martin Belam is one, his blog is here. Another good piece by Sharon O’Dea is here and Charles Arthur and Jemima Kiss at the Guardian have summarised the pros and cons of different suggestions here. There are many others.

What seems common ground (and is not at all surprising) is that no easy answers exist and that a determined bedsit hardman will use all his ingenuity to defeat filters.

This consensus between experts is at the heart of Twitter’s PR problem.

Twitter knows that dealing with abuse is exceptionally difficult to automate reliably and after a poor response where their US head of news responded to criticisms by locking his account the company had the opportunity get ahead of the story by making a very clear statement saying three things:

1.       To acknowledge the seriousness of what had happened to Caroline Criado-Perez and others

2.       To explain clearly why problem is exceptionally hard to crack

3.       To announce what it was doing to bring experts together to share insights and move as rapidly as possible to the most robust solution

Instead the statement finally issued by Twitter late on Monday was disappointingly self-centred and didn’t really acknowledge recent events.

 The first paragraph reads like it came from the marketing department: “At Twitter, we work every day to create products that can reach every person on the planet…We want Twitter to work whether you are trying to follow your favourite musician, talk to others about shared interests, or raise the visibility of a human rights issue.” That will be a comfort to people being threatened with rape.

The next two paragraphs are just noise and it isn’t until paragraphs four that we get some sense that this isn’t a quick fix, wrapped in the excuse that there are a lot of tweets out there. Who knew?

This frames a universal problem as Twitter’s problem, ie that it could solve it if they put more effort in. This seems very unwise.

We also learn that iPhone users are able to report from the app, but not from Android or desktop. Note to Twitter – there are a LOT more Android devices out there than iOS. Are they second rate users?

It ends by saying “We are constantly talking with our users, advocacy groups, and government officials to see how we can improve Twitter” and they hope we can understand the ‘balances’ they have to make.

Three days to come up with something this lame and arguably counter-productive isn’t good, especially after the account locking by senior executives nonsense; the exciting new social way of saying ‘no comment’.

So Twitter, I’d suggest four things;

1)      1. Announce a meeting of all the experts in designing systems for dealing with online abuse and invite the media. Call it today and hold it this week. Make Twitter the meeting place for the best brains on this.

2)       2. Explain in mind-numbing detail as many times as you can what makes this a difficult problem, because at the moment your statement makes it an issue of Twitter’s willingness to commit resources.

(If you don’t do 1 you will find 2 is a long slog)

3)      3 Have a word with Mark Luckie

4)      4 Respond faster (right now if I go to your blog item one is from 22nd July about the Royal baby)

Good luck.