How to weather a crisis comms storm

BBC execs take note, here’s our advice on what we’d recommend following Apprentice Ahktar’s sex tape shame

Not only is The Apprentice compulsive viewing, it is also a prime example of the need for a good/pre-existing crisis management plan. This week’s breaking news story around contestant Solomon Akhtar’s alleged sex tape, which was filmed before his appearance on the show, closely follows another contestant – James Hill – being revealed only a few weeks ago as having a criminal conviction.

BBC executives must be a little miffed about this second negative news story impacting the current series, so I’ve come up with three steps showing what can be done quickly to combat a crisis:

  • Understand what the crisis is and how it’s being reported – for example this story had already appeared as front page news on several tabloids as well as being retweeted and commented on via social media. In fact, the whole story was first divulged via posts (by Solomon’s so-called friends) on Twitter!
  • Create a list of what could happen – for example which media haven’t covered the news yet and can you offer an exclusive comment or interview to encourage the journalists there to put a positive spin on the news?
  • Develop a short, to the point, non-inflammatory message that can be sent out to all media – whether they’ve written about the news or not. Having a comment from you on the situation gives reporters another angle for follow-on coverage but also advises them that you’re aware of the situation and are not taking it lying down. The best crisis comms are having something to say always – even if it’s just a generic holding statement that lets everyone know to expect a more detailed response at a later date.

The key to a good crisis communication plan is to be proactive and, where you are reacting to an unexpected crisis/situation, acting quickly is essential.

Here’s our guide to the three must haves for your crisis plan:

1. Remain calm: even if you’re not entirely sure exactly what’s going on and how the details might unfold, always appear calm and in control when speaking to journalists. Don’t flap as that just makes you look as if you’re not handling the crisis very well. Both the media and your clients will always judge your competence based on how well you perform in the spotlight so try not to look uneasy and, when asked something you can’t answer, simply say “We’re aware of the situation and have already implemented our response plan, which prioritises investigating and dealing with the crisis. As soon as we have any additional information, we’ll provide a statement and post it on our website, and share it via our social media channels.”

In our Apprentice example above, the BBC representative for the show should really have commented on the ‘storm’ by now to maintain credibility, but thankfully Sir Alan Sugar’s right hand man, Nick Hewer, has done so – well kind of. He appeared on Loose Women very quickly after the scandal broke – so kudos to whoever shoe-horned him into that guest spot in such a timely manner. He openly discussed the alleged sex tape and even made a joke about the skills which Mr Akhtar had employed to create the footage potentially proving useful in later rounds if advertising tasks come along.

2. Apologise: Apologies show humility – an admirable trait – not weakness so if it seems like your client is defending himself but doesn’t get what he has done wrong, the public – and media – could well turn against him. It is always better, when in the wrong, to own up to that and apologise sincerely. The public are far more likely to forgive someone who has said sorry than they will of he keeps trying to convince them that he’s right when they think he’s in the wrong. Apologising and moving forward, using the crisis as a lesson learned, will soon mean the crisis is forgotten in the public’s eyeSo far Mr Ahktar has confirmed that the sex tape exists but has not yet apologised for it so only time will tell now – if his conquest decides to share her side of the story – if he’s done the right thing staying shtoom.

3. Communicate commitment: let your stakeholders, the public and media know that you are truly committed to resolving the problem. Explain clearly how you’re handling the situation and what you’re going to do in future to stop it reoccurring.

We’re not convinced that this will be the last sensational story to hit the BBC’s latest series of Apprentice or indeed future ones, but we’re tuned in each week to see what happens next.

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