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Toyota and BP highlight the importance of effective crisis spokespeople

October 7, 2010 Jonathan Hemus

BP and Toyota suffered 2010’s most damaging crises, and it’s tempting to think that these were very modern crises played out online in the Twitterverse.  But there was a common problem that afflicted both organisations which shows that 21st century crisis management is not just about online communication: ineffective media spokespeople make bad situations worse

“I’d like my life back” will live on as a crisis media blunder for many years and was the defining gaffe of Tony Hayward’s period in the media spotlight.  But he was not alone.  Scott Brownlee, Toyota’s UK PR chief, talking about his UK MD Miguel Fonseca, revealed to PR Week that “we received letters from people saying they had lost confidence after seeing him on TV”.  President Akio Toyoda fared little better.

Actions for communicators to avoid this:

Review, select and train – you need a trusted team of spokespeople to safeguard your reputation in a crisis.  Regular and intensive media training will identify and enhance the skills of these people.  Have tough conversations with those that don’t fit the bill.

Recognise the demands of the role – choose your spokesperson knowing that this will be their main role in the crisis: it’s a big enough job on its own. Assign them a PR minder to brief and coach them as they undertake their media encounters.

The irony is that a very traditional requirement of crisis communication – an effective media spokesperson – has become even more important in an online age.  No longer is an ill-judged press comment tomorrow’s fish and chip paper: a permanent record via Google has put paid to that convenient get out clause.  And an inept TV performance is seen not just by the thousands of viewers who see it at the time, but also by the millions of others who view it on YouTube or BBC iPlayer, made aware of its existence by a torrent of Tweets.

Communication is not a silver bullet in a crisis, but it can have an enormous influence over how the organisation is seen both during the event and afterwards.  Understanding the key learnings from BP and Toyota, and acting on them will help to ensure that other reputations can be better protected.

Jonathan Hemus

  • Jonathan Hemus, Insignia Communications
  • Follow Jonathan on Twitter @jhemusinsignia

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