Crisis communications – how to be crisis proof

My first brush with crisis communications was in my first public relations job. One of our clients was a manufacturer of garden shredders and BBC Watchdog ran a piece claiming they were dangerous as a child could put their hand inside. It wasn’t true. The reason was that they hadn’t followed the assembly instructions and hadn’t installed a safety component.

That was 30+ years ago and since then I’ve been involved in numerous crises and issues from providing support to more senior people in the team to developing and leading the crisis communication strategy. Arms to Iraq and the Scott Inquiry; community exposure to asbestos; human growth hormone contaminated with CJD (mad cow disease); drug dealing lawyers; global data breaches; consumer technology product recalls; illegal immigrants; pharmaceutical shortages; and political scandals are just some of the crises and issues I’ve worked on.

That’s why I was keen to read Crisis Proof, a new book by Jonathan Hemus on “how to prepare for the worst day of your business life”. Even if you’ve done something for years there is always something new to learn. I’m always hungry to learn new ideas and techniques, but also to get affirmation that what I do know is actually valid. We all suffer partially from imposter syndrome.

Crisis Proof delivers in spades. Jonathan runs through the many aspects of managing in a crisis. One of my favourite sections was ‘Why even smart companies get it wrong’ where he looks at the reasons why big, successful companies often get their crisis response so wrong. Many of them are familiar to me from clients I’ve worked with.

Crisis communications planning

Crisis Proof’s chapters are a step-by-step guide to what you need to think about if you want to prepare your company or organisation to be ready to manage a crisis. It looks at risk and what a crisis is, corporate culture and getting buy-in for preparing for a crisis, developing a crisis communications plan, creating a crisis communications team, running crisis simulations and rehearsals, and responding to a crisis.

What makes the book valuable for me is where Jonathan cites examples and anecdotes from both well known crises and ones he has worked on personally. There is only so much ‘theory’ and all of us who do crisis communications work from the same body of knowledge and principles. However, this is always more valuable when it is supplemented by new examples and case studies. Reading about these is a bit like attending a crisis communciations conference where you can hear from others and share best practice.

The final chapter on how to continuously improve is an important one. One opportunity that every organisation should take from a crisis is to learn how to do it better next time. Even the best organisations at managing crisis communications can always find ways to improve. One reason is that society, the media and the environment we operate in is constantly changing. The principles of excellent crisis communications remain the same but the environment such as the continuing growth of digital and social media is constantly changing.

Crisis Proof is another good book that I will be recommending to delegates on my crisis communications planning, risk and issues management and digital and social media crises training courses that I deliver through Stuart Bruce Associates and on behalf of third parties like the CIPR (Chartered Institute of Public Relations).

One small criticism of Crisis Proof is that it doesn’t have an index. When I was writing this review I wanted to refer back to parts I’d read, but the only way to find them is by looking at the chapter list or flicking through the pages.

I briefly worked with Jonathan Hemus in the late 90s. He is the founder of Insignia, a specialist crisis management consultancy and previously headed crisis and issues management for global PR consultancy Porter Novelli. Some clients he has worked with include Cathay Pacific, Disney, the International Cricket Council, Lidl and Proctor & Gamble.

Disclaimer – I received a print copy of the book to review.