Crisis management is one of the most unpredictable elements to Public Relations; there is no set process for reacting quickly to events and managing corporate reputation. Crisis management is usually the responsibility of an external communicator; but to forget your employees during a crisis can create risks to engagement and your response to customers and stakeholders.
I was responsible for communications at XL Leisure Group when the business went into administration in September 2008. The business was the unfortunate victim of an economic downturn and high oil prices.
Throughout a two month window at XL I was responsible for managing the communications both internally and externally as the business was undertaking refinancing discussions. As the 3rd largest tour operator in the country there was high profile media interest in the discussions; with a number of national newspapers providing commentary on the progress.
It was evident that the business was experiencing financial difficulty; and within XL the administrators had been working in the business for a period of time as part of a corporate restructuring process. With 3rd party stakeholders such as the regulator and lenders having an active role in discussions there were differing agendas in briefing media.
My role was to manage communications for XL; providing a co-ordinated response for internal and external stakeholders. For the business to have any opportunity to survive it was essential that consumer confidence remained strong. So, it was essential that our response to media coverage and internal rhetoric was pitched in the right tone.
My approach to managing the issue was to manage from within. It was important that employees retained confidence in the business; as employees were the people talking to customer’s every day. By co-ordinating a series of management briefings and providing a regular weekly update from the CEO on progress in the re-financing and corporate restructuring we were able to take control of the message internally.
Despite media coverage; we maintained a sense of normality during the refinancing process as the approach we took was to be pro-active in managing the issue. We put into place employee feedback channels and we responded to media reports.
I also took a very pro-active approach with the media. I worked closely with the CEO and Leadership team to draft holding statements and I spoke regularly to journalists. By being open we were able to manage the issue; and up until the point of administration the story was confined to the business pages and trade media, with a balanced coverage.
In the build-up to administration the issue became critical both internally and externally. In the days building up to the administration plans were put into place for a press conference and for an employee briefing. The communications plans were well prepared and ready to be executed should the business be unsuccessful in securing new finance.
The first stage of the administration process was the grounding of all XL aircraft; meaning that the media found out before the official announcement had been made. As the sole person within the business responsible for communications; it was my role to manage the media fallout that involved dealing with every national title both in print and broadcast.
On the day of administration the XL CEO fronted up a press conference to the national media: and at the XL offices the administrators briefed employees with the difficult news that the business was in administration, and that with immediate affect everybody was redundant. As I had been retained for a short time to work with the administrators on PR I briefed SKY and the BBC who were waiting outside the building on what was happening, and asked that they respect that people would likely be upset when leaving the building.
Whilst this was an intense situation to manage; it is also a really good case study from a communications perspective. By managing the situation from within; and being pro-active in managing the issue with the media, we were able to maintain consumer and employee confidence to give the business the best chance of achieving the right outcome.
Not every crisis situation is the same, and there will be times when ‘no comment’ is the right approach. But the key thing I learnt in this situation is that it is essential you take ownership of your message: by saying nothing, speculation and rumour will fill in the blanks and taken as fact by your publics and stakeholders.