Episode 7

Published on:

6th Apr 2023

S2 E7: Navigating a Crisis Situation with Nick Leighton

No company ever wants to experience a crisis, but what should happen when a crisis does occur? In this episode, Nick Leighton discusses what PR and communications professionals should do for their clients in the event of a crisis.

“Crisis” is in the eye of the beholder, and so the first question to ask is, “Are we actually in a crisis?” Various stakeholders will disagree on whether a crisis is occurring or not, and that not all crises are obvious. It is important to discuss crisis management with clients well in advance and to have a plan in place in case of an emergency.

The significance of the crisis, as well as the amount of uncertainty and ambiguity involved, are all important factors to consider when deciding on how to respond. How the crisis is perceived by the public, media, social media, and competitors can all influence the next steps taken to resolve the issue. Ultimately, the way a crisis is handled from the very beginning can have a significant impact on how the situation evolves.

In any crisis situation, speed is essential to prevent a vacuum of information which can lead to inaccurate stories circulating. With no official communication, the media will search for alternate sources and possibly create inaccurate stories about the incident. To prevent this, it is critical to have a plan in place and to act quickly to provide accurate information.

About the Guest

Nick Leighton is the founder and CEO of NettResults International Public Relations, a Middle East-based public relations agency launched in 1999 with offices in Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Jeddah, and California. NettResults is an award-winning, leading PR agency in the Middle East and acts as a gateway for international organizations looking for regional media implementation. He has over 25 years of experience representing the public image of Fortune 500 companies, some of the largest non-profit organizations in the world, political parties, and members of royalty. Nick is co-author of the crisis communications book CRISIS COMMUNICATION: practical PR strategies for reputation management and company survival, which was published by Kogan Page in December 2008.

About the Host

Abbie Fink is vice president/general manager of HMA Public Relations in Phoenix, Arizona and a founding member of PRGN. Her marketing communications background includes skills in media relations, digital communications, social media strategies, special event management, crisis communications, community relations, issues management, and marketing promotions for both the private and public sectors, including such industries as healthcare, financial services, professional services, government affairs and tribal affairs, as well as not-for-profit organizations.

PRGN Presents is brought to you by Public Relations Global Network, the world’s local public relations agency. Our executive producer is Adrian McIntyre.

Follow the Podcast

If you enjoyed this episode, please follow PRGN Presents in Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, or any other podcast app. We publish new episodes every other Thursday. To have them delivered automatically and free of charge, just choose your preferred podcast player from this list, open the app, and click the button to “Follow” or “Subscribe” to the show: https://prgnpodcast.com/listen

Need to hire a PR firm?

Leading a business effectively in today's fast-paced world requires expert guidance and a strong communications strategy. No matter where you do business, PRGN has a member agency in your region with the deep industry expertise, international experience, and local market knowledge you need to connect with your target audience and achieve your goals. Find a PR firm near you »

Adrian McIntyre:

From the Public Relations Global Network, this is PRGN Presents. I'm Adrian McIntyre.

Abbie Fink:

And I'm Abbie Fink, vice president/general manager of HMA Public Relations in Phoenix, Arizona and a founding member of PRGN. With public relations leaders embedded into the fabric of the communities we serve, clients hire our agencies for the local knowledge, expertise, and connections in markets spanning six continents across the world.

Adrian McIntyre:

Our guests on this biweekly podcast series are all members of the Public Relations Global Network. They discuss such topics as the importance of sustainability and Environmental, Social, and Governance programs, crisis communications, content marketing, reputation management, and outside of the box thinking for growing your business.

Abbie Fink:

For more information about PRGN and our members, please visit prgn.com. And now, let's meet our guest for this episode.

Nick Leighton:

Hi everyone, my name is Nick Leighton. I am the owner of NettResults, an agency in the Middle East that happens to be part of the PRGN network. We work with all kinds of international clients, making sure that their reputation is upheld in the Middle East region.

Abbie Fink:

Something we never really want to talk about, but we should always be talking about is what happens in the event of a crisis or an issue that happens to your client. And I always say that a crisis is in the eyes of the beholder. What is a crisis to one organization may not necessarily be one to another, but it is so critically important that we have a plan for crisis and that we have a strategy in place in the event that it will happen because I do believe it's inevitable that at some point it will. Nick, what are we talking about at those initial conversations when we're meeting with clients and saying, look, you got to be talking about this, we need to be planning for it, because it's going to happen and we need to understand, you know, what our various roles are going to be during the time of a crisis. So what do we do?

Nick Leighton:

Right. Great point. Let's just assume you haven't turned on this blog because you think you're in a crisis, but let's just hope we're not in the media because we might need five more minutes before we're going to get to the real tactics. But the first question we always ask is, are you in a crisis? And as you said, that is in the eye of the beholder. So let's break that down a little bit. First of all, is the organization—I want to take this from an organizational point of view or a brand point of view, not from a country point of view. Is your organization newsworthy to start with? We have clients, we have organizations that come to us and they say, we think we're in a crisis for whatever reason, and they may be in a crisis. But if they weren't newsworthy to start with, that doesn't mean they're suddenly going to become newsworthy necessarily. Let's get into that a little bit more. Are there going to be negative questions asked about your organization or your brand? What kind of questions can you expect? Many times are people going to come to you and request this. So that's the beginning of thinking you might be in a crisis. But not all crises are actually obvious. They're not all easy to recognize. And actually, your stakeholders will disagree on whether you're in a crisis or not. That's often a large communication that goes on. Let's break down the types of crisis you could be in. If you did something wrong … pretty obvious, normally. Let's say you put our product which is faulty let's say a driver caused a crash a pilot caused a crash fraud by an employee these are things where an organization has actually done something wrong. Another type of crisis which is when something bad happens to you. A bad actor gets involved in your organization. You didn't do anything wrong yourself, but it's affected you adversely. Think cyber-attacks. That's a crisis for an organization, but they didn't do anything wrong to start with. Then the third thing is you didn't do anything wrong, but some people have perceived that something went wrong. Sometimes you could be completely by the book, law-abiding, but you just made a decision, or the organization made a decision where someone else perceived that. Let me give you an example of that. And about 2016, there was an incident where there was a terror attack in Southern California. And the forces that were trying to deal with that situation went to the manufacturer of a mobile phone—many people listening to this will own that brand of phone—and said, can you unlock the phone so we can get information from it so we can solve an investigation? And the manufacturer of that phone said, we're not going to do that. At that time, they were totally legitimate. They were within the law. They said, we're not going to crack our own phones for you. At that point in time, they didn't do anything wrong, but it was perceived negatively. That story has many twists and turns, so let's not go into it. There are three different types of crisis you could be in. We like to think of three areas to decide if you're going to be in a crisis and if you need to act upon it. The perceived importance, that's the impact, the likelihood that you are actually in a crisis. Immediate this is going to hit? Is it something that's a slow burning crisis or something that's just happened? It's going to happen right now. And also we look at how much uncertainty there is, how much ambiguity there is. Because if it's clear cut, we can often deal with something very simply. But if there is ambiguity, then we have a lot of work as far as messaging.

Abbie Fink:

Well, I think that's the interesting part. In crisis, when we are in the midst of a crisis, how perception is happening, what is the world around us saying, what is the media saying, what is social media saying, what is our competitor saying, all of these things, change really what and how we advise next steps. An item rises to a different level of crisis, I think, in how we choose to handle it from the very beginning. As you said, if we recognize a slip and fall in a restaurant or a food poisoning at one location of a restaurant is a crisis for that location, it is not so much for the brand or for other restaurants in the community. It happened to that one particular instant, still bad, still needs to be fixed, still needs a, you know, a communication strategy of some sort around it. But it's a, it is, as you said, it doesn't necessarily elevate to that newsworthiness that requires a bigger, a bigger statement. I find that so much of our conversations when they come and say we're in crisis is a calming effect on, let's take a step back for just a minute and really, as you said, analyze the situation before we go all in with a plan. And with that comes then prioritizing the types of things that we need to do, right? Where, you know, who along the food chain needs to be communicated with? How do we do that? You know, what are our list of priorities? And so thinking about some of the work that you've done and some of the clients that you've advised, you know, what are those first, you know, handful of hours really look like when you're sitting across from the CEO or the marketing communications manager who says help? What do those conversations look like?

Nick Leighton:

Once we decide there's a crisis, the most important thing in a crisis situation is speed. We do need to make sure that we have the right message sent to the right people and as quickly as possible. If we don't have speed, then we create a medium vacuum. The media will ask questions if this is a newsworthy event. And if you do not have answers, they will go and find the answers. Let's give an example of an Asian airline where the plane went down. There were many people on that plane, the airline did not come out with a statement. In fact, they waited 48 hours before they came to the press. In that 48 hours, because the plane was missing, the media went to whoever they could. They went to an aviation expert. They went beyond experts because there's no one else to speak to. They were telling stories about whether it's possible a UFO would come down and taken the plane. They will find a news angle anywhere, so we have to be ready. And as part of preparation, we'll maybe talk about preparation a little bit later. But first of all, you realize you're in a crisis, who needs to be involved in the organization? Now, it's not a yes or no, it's not a binary thing. We like to use a RACI chart to decide what's going on. So the first thing is who? A RACI chart talks about responsibility, accountability, who's going to be consulted, who's going to be informed. There are four different areas of people and we try and put people in that matrix. So your CEO is probably going to be part of it. Your head of communications or marketing is probably going to be part of that. Then we have this thorny question of how do we take on any legal advice? Now they may not be driving the crisis, but they certainly need to be informed in what's going on. They do have a say, but they may not be driving when we send out communications. Some people need to be informed, some people need to be consulted, some people are accountable for doing the work, that's normally a crisis team, and some people are very responsible as well. So the who is important. Make sure everyone in your organization or part of that brand is identified. The prep for that before a crisis would be to know who they are, people, contact information, how do we get hold of them even if a crisis happens in the middle of the night, that kind of stuff. Okay, so then we need to decide who we're trying to reach who are feel like the stakeholders, where's the message go because a financial message is very different from different type of message that might be about human life. Who are our stakeholders? And what message do they need to get? For example, internal employees for a large organization may need to know about a crisis situation. We've got who's going to do it, who's going to receive the message. And now we need to think about what are our messages. The prep can be quite simple for that because if you get the key people around a table and you brainstorm what crisis could happen to an organization and I've yet to find an organization that can't be affected by any crisis, you probably will come up with 20 or 30 possible crises. You could then put them into buckets, you could sort them and go, well, this is a financial crisis. This is a human life crisis. And then once you've got four or five buckets of possible crisis, you could then start doing holding statements. You could start without knowing what the crisis is going to be. If we take, let's say human life. Someone is affected, injured, due to an event. It doesn't matter if it's lightning striking the building or a bomb went off in the next neighborhood. It doesn't matter how it happened. your holding statement is going to be pretty similar. So the who's going to get involved internally, who are your stakeholders? And then what are the messages we want to send out? Those are the three key things we need to work on immediately. At the same time, if you have a crisis team, we need to know what people are talking about out in the media. So the media monitoring part of that is also vital and all these things have to happen at the same time.

Abbie Fink:

Well, you know, one of the things that we regularly do and you alluded to it is the if-then scenarios, right? If this happens, this is what we're doing, these are the statements. What possible outcomes do we want and how do we direct ourselves to getting there? And some of them, the scenarios that you create can feel so out of left field and impossible, but those are the ones you need to plan for even more so. As we do know, to some extent, if we're in that business for the long haul, we kind of know what we can expect. It's the unexpected that really becomes the crisis, right? And so, you know, practicing those scenarios. And I really, and I think that the stakeholder statement is, is one worth repeating, because there are, especially in today's world, where anyone with a smartphone and a Twitter handle can become the news media, right? I mean, that the way information is exchange now is so much different than when, you know, five years, 10 years ago, in terms of how information was pushed out. And we have to recognize that as crisis communicators we may not have complete control over all of the things that are being said about us, but we can certainly control how we distribute that information. And we need to take into account all aspects of our business and all those individuals that are part of our team. The person that's responsible for answering the telephone, who very much wants to be helpful, needs to have the same kind of information as the CEO who's standing up in front of the press because you never know when that point of information exchange is going to happen. And I think we forget sometimes that it's not always the most senior person on the team that is the one dispersing information. There are lots of places. A customer calls their sales manager. They need to know the same message points that we're speaking out publicly and so that that internal audience I think is a very critical part of our communication strategy and oftentimes is one that may not be on that top list of priorities because we're always thinking externally when it comes to crisis.

Nick Leighton:

Absolutely, yes. Speed, speed, speed. As you said, if the speed can go around the world, the news can go around the world at the top of a button. We need to be prepared for that. We could easily come up, spend 10-15 minutes to decide what the internal policy is going to be. But you haven't got time. You haven't got those 15 minutes when a crisis hits. And I know across the PRGN network in pretty much every country around the world for roughly the cost of a monthly PR full retainer, you can get a whole crisis plan planned and organized, because the risk is so much greater than the cost of putting a plan together. So I think what's really important is how quickly can you react at the time? And if you prepare in advance, everything's going to be ready for you.

Adrian McIntyre:

News moves fast and the nature of journalism itself has changed. How important are your relationships with the newsmakers in a specific market? In other words, waiting until you can monitor what's published in the media is sometimes waiting too long. Is there any way that an agency can work with clients to help develop these relationships? They may get a friendly phone call from somebody saying, I'm working on this story, heads up. How is that human interaction part of the mix whereby they still need an official statement. They still need to put something in, whether it's “did not respond for comment” or this is what they said in the early phase. But knowing the people who are making the news can help in a way not, it won't put them off the scent of something important. It won't mislead people, but a friendly working relationship with the actual journalists can go a long way towards making sure you're not getting slighted in the story. How do you manage that in an age of digital everything and where a story can kick off in any number of markets in any one time? It's not a tight geographical area necessarily. But what are your thoughts on this, Nick?

Nick Leighton:

I think that's absolutely great. Before crisis occurs, we need to demonstrate leadership as far as an organization does. We need to establish credibility. We need to have and build those relationships with the media. That all happens beforehand. So when we are brought into a crisis, that's one of the first things we look at. Where are the relationships already? Now, as you said, the crisis could be anywhere in the world. And PR is often considered a local game. That's the beauty of PRGN because if a crisis happens to one of my companies that I'm representing in the Middle East, and if it's a big enough crisis, it'll be picked up by an international media. Anyone you work with has got to have the relationship locally, but also in any potential country that may want to cover that news element. So that means you're going to work with someone like a PRGN where we could pick up the phone and speak to people we know in a different country and say, do you know this journalist? There are a couple of things when we're working with our journalists, and we've seen this happen so many times. First of all, I mean, there is a code of ethics that journalists live by. So understanding what that is, because professional journalists, and I know there's plenty of media out there who aren’t professional journalists, because we already talked about it. Anyone could be the media today. But professional journalists live by this code, and knowing that, you know how to communicate with them. Now, in the time of a crisis, and I could give you so many examples, it's so much easier to speak to someone you know and have a relationship with, that you've seen face to face and go, look, I know you know this news story is out there, but I want to have a sensible conversation so we can either prove to you it's not real, or for whatever reason it's not as big as we think it might be. And we've had that conversation so many times, but the fact that we know the journalist to start with is great, because they know they're not trying to be hoodwinkled in some way. That doesn't sound very good, hoodwinkled. Is that a real word? I don't think it is. Working with a journalist that you have a relationship with means you can have an honest and open communication. Now we say to everyone who we work with who's gonna be a spokesperson, never tell anything but the truth in a crisis situation. The caveat is you haven't got to say everything that is happening. But never tell a lie because that does catch up on you. But whatever the crisis, the messaging is going to be simple. Your overall message is showing concern that something's happened, showing relief is not as bad as it could be, and then giving reassurances that you won't happen again. So that message arc is the same every time.

Abbie Fink:

And I think it's coming back to the media when you know more, right? Based on that relationship that you have that, “Look, I'm giving you what I can give you right now because this is all that's verifiable and confirmed. But trust me that you will be notified when I have more information.” And then we do what we say we're going to do and come back. And in these large-scale kinds of crises that might be days and weeks long where the information flow is consistently needs to be consistent and ongoing. Those relationships become so important because if they trust you from the beginning that you are an honest and forthright and provide them with good information that you will continue to do that. Professional journalists want a good story, and they want it to be factual. And they also recognize in real time that things are changing. It's up to us as the communicators to recognize that we have, you know, this information flow has to go somewhere. And if we create this sense of trust between the two, you know, we end up in a much better situation. And what I look for as well in the crisis situations that we've been involved with is, we've prepped and we've prepared and we've done what we need to do. And then what do we do now? We have resolved and come out on the other side in however that's going to play out. I hate to use the word successfully, but we've successfully navigated the particular situation. There has to be learning lessons in each one of those things. What did we do well, what do we need to improve upon, and what are we doing to make sure that this particular incident doesn't happen again? And what learning lessons can we apply in the event that something presents itself again? So crisis is an ongoing element of any communication strategy, would you agree?

Nick Leighton:

I would totally agree. And you're right to say that the media have this professional job. They want to seek the truth. They want to report on that. They want to minimize harm while they do that. They need to be accountable and they need to act independently. That's the role of a journalist. So once we know that as professional communicators, we then take the situation, which is the crisis, And as you just identified, every crisis starts when we're information poor. We don't really know what's going on, but we need to act quickly. We put in those holding statements. We let the media know when we're going to come back to them. And then our job is to get that information as it increases and to prioritize and organize that information so we can correctly get that out to the media. Now, making it meaningful is part of our jobs as a crisis communicator. Is like, okay, what has happened? What is meaningful about this? And how do we now show our organization in the best light? And we need to understand as we go through that process, there's a lot of information processing problems that could occur. We don't know everything as we get it. If it's factual, if it's not factual, if it's timely. So that information understanding and creating the story on the fly as we get going in a crisis, knowing that speed is the most important thing, knowing that if we don't communicate, that that media vacuum is gonna be created and the media will find the story from somewhere else. That's what's so critical in that crisis situation.

Abbie Fink:

And the ongoing and regular updates and providing that information on a consistent basis and, you know, correcting any information that might have been shared earlier that has now been updated. We have different facts. We know more information now than we knew yesterday when we sat with you and told you this information. A good journalist is going to ask the question, “what you do now, now that you've had this particular incident occur?” And we have to be that those first hours of a crisis are so critical, but so are those timeframes immediately following when we bring the crisis team back together and evaluate and you know, look at what we've done and, and, you know, what, what did we learn and what action steps can we take to ensure we don't do this again? And what now appears in our crisis communications plan as a result of what we just went through. It's not over just because it's over. There's still plenty of preparing and planning and evaluating and learning that can be done as you move out of that particular crisis situation.

Nick Leighton:

Absolutely right. And it's important to understand the difference between what the crisis communication has done and performed and the lessons learned and the crisis. They're two separate things. And often people model the two together. As PR professionals, we need to know that it's the crisis communication that we're learning from, not the crisis.

Adrian McIntyre:

Thanks for listening to this episode of PRGN Presents, brought to you by the Public Relations Global Network.

Abbie Fink:

We publish new episodes every other week, so follow PRGN Presents in your favorite podcast app. Episodes are also available on our website—along with more information about PRGN and our members—at prgn.com.

Show artwork for PRGN Presents: News & Views from the Public Relations Global Network

About the Podcast

PRGN Presents: News & Views from the Public Relations Global Network
Leading a business effectively in today's fast-paced and interconnected world requires expert guidance and a strong communications strategy. The Public Relations Global Network is here to help.
PRGN Presents is the essential podcast for international business leaders, non-profit executives, and those who hire public relations, marketing, and communications firms. It provides an exclusive look into the ever-evolving world of PR and communications, featuring experts from the Public Relations Global Network, “the world’s local public relations agency.”

Is your message winning hearts and minds? No matter where you do business, there is a PRGN member agency in your region with the deep industry expertise, international experience, and local market knowledge you need to connect with your target audience and achieve your goals.

Whether you're an executive looking to improve your organization's communication strategy or an in-house marketing professional looking to bring in an outside firm to support a specific campaign, this podcast will provide valuable insights on how to communicate effectively and build lasting relationships with customers, staff, and communities around the world.

In each episode, you’ll hear PR professionals and industry experts share valuable insights and perspectives on the latest trends in public relations, Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG), media relations, crisis management, investor relations, stakeholder engagement, executive thought leadership, and strategic communications.

About your host

Profile picture for Abbie S. Fink

Abbie S. Fink

Abbie S. Fink is president of HMA Public Relations in Phoenix, Arizona and a founding member of the Public Relations Global Network. Her marketing communications background includes skills in media relations, digital communications, social media strategies, special event management, community relations, issues management, and marketing promotions for both the private and public sectors, including such industries as healthcare, financial services, professional services, government affairs and tribal affairs, as well as not-for-profit organizations. Abbie is often invited to present to a wide variety of business and civic organizations on such topics as media relations, social media and digital communications strategies, crisis communications, and special events management.