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Why you should learn from the crisis that never happened

Every time a crisis breaks you see the armchair PR experts popping up offering their wisdom about what company Y is doing wrong. If the company in trouble just listened to them then every crisis could be turned into an opportunity.

The reality is always somewhat different as what the armchair experts usually fail to take into account adequately are the grim realities of life in a large company or organisation. Most of us don’t work in a perfect environment where directors act on the advice of PR professionals and dedicate the resources needed to protecting their organisation’s reputation.

United’s inexplicably incompetent response to a passenger being dragged off a flight becomes more explicable (although still not forgivable) when you understand why protecting its employees was so important as explained in Standing up for United.

Malaysia Airlines was widely criticised for texting the relatives of the 239 people on board its missing MH370 to tell them it was lost in the Indian Ocean and everyone was presumed dead. Except, if you speak to people who were actually in the crisis command centre at the time that’s not exactly what happened.

And it’s not always the best-known crisis case studies where you can always learn the most. The reason they are high-profile is often that they weren’t as managed as professionally as they could have been. That’s why they became a famous, or infamous, crisis.

Some of the very best crisis communications and issues management is so successful it prevents the initial issue from blowing up into a full-scale crisis and therefore most people never hear about it. That’s why it’s not necessarily the best crisis communications work that wins the crisis communications awards as often the best work can’t even be entered.

And how many of us in our careers are actually going to have to deal with a Deepwater Horizon, a Samsung Note 7 recall or MH370 crash size crisis as a one off let alone a regular basis? It’s far more likely to be the fallout from a disgruntled employee or customer, malpractice by a director, a mistreated patient, a product defect killing a customer, problems with the supply chain or numerous other less dramatic, but potentially damaging issues.

It’s potentially dangerous to try and learn lessons from high profile crises when you don’t actually know what the real story was or you’re unlikely to be dealing with something similar.

That’s why when I’m running PR training courses I like to use examples where I have spoken to the people involved (even the high-profile ones) and got the inside story about what really happened. It’s why I spend time with course participants sharing (safely protected by the Chatham House Rule) our own experiences of the grim realities of crisis communications and helping each other to solve each other’s problems.

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