The evolution of crisis management in p.r

Stuart Tan

Stuart Tan, Executive Director, Core Pro PR Services Sdn. Bhd gives Marketing magazing an overview on crisis management public relations and its evolution in the Q & A session below:

Can you start by telling us what prompted you to transition from traditional PR into the niche ‘Crises’ role that you’re in now

“Well when I started out in PR, my first five years was with a small up-and-coming firm and I started at absolutely entry level. It was almost intern work, faxing, photocopying, then moved on to collating monthly reports and as part of these monthly reports there was a section on ‘Anticipated Next Actions By Competitors’.

Its this section of the report that helped me see possible scenarios and outcomes which, was a monumental component of ‘Issues and Crisis’ PR I do now. Whenever the agency received a call from a client about their crisis, I was the natural go to person to see possible scenarios and outcomes and prepare a threat assessment.

I had two great bosses at the time, Angela Tan and the late Guy Chaplin, who taught me how to pivot threat assessments and create strategies.

Over the next five years and three agencies, it just seemed that whenever a crisis came in, it was automatically handed over to me.

In the last agency I was with, I spent one year in the consumer team and two years in the corporate team. Again every crisis that came through the door, was handed to me.

Eventually the MD of the agency asked me to cherry pick from our internal team resources and put together a ‘Special Crisis Unit teams’. All together there were nine of us in the team, which picked-up almost all the Industry Crisis PR Awards going.

That role then expanded to an Asia Pacific Crisis Lead role. However after five years with that agency, I decided the time was right for me to branch out on my own and at the time I wasn’t aware of any other Malaysian ‘Dedicated Issues and Crisis’ company – so it seemed like a good choice – take a niche market while it was in its infancy!

You’ve heard of the 10 Year challenge? It’s a comparison of what something or someone was like 10 years ago compared to now. What has changed in the last 10 years of Crisis Management?

That’s both an easy question and a difficult question to answer. The overarching answer the question is ‘Speed’ and the emotion it brings with it. Today from the moment an incident or a crisis happens, it is photographed or videoed and shared within five seconds. That can then become a social media post with full narrative and posted, shared and viral within five minutes.

In most cases, a company’s senior management isn’t even notified of the crisis within the first ten minutes. Emergency response teams and the authorities will be onsite within another few minutes.

By the time the company has declared it a crisis and convened their crisis team, up to an hour has past (especially if it’s a weekend or a public holiday and you have to pull people back from home and holidays).

That means that the first holding statement or message from the company could be anything up to one and a half hours after the incident had happened. And this is where the emotion part comes into it that I talked about earlier.

By the time the company’s first statement comes out, the media will have a whole line up of eyewitnesses and subject matter experts subverting their views and opinions.

The longer the company take to correct the story and add their narrative, the court of public perception is already in full swing. Right or wrong, speculation becomes rumour, rumour becomes perception and perception becomes perceived reality, making it nearly impossible for the company to retrieve the situation.

To handle a crisis in today’s day and age, you have to tackle the crisis on three fronts, 1) clarifying what actually happened, 2) restoring the crisis back to status-quo and 3) addressing the needs of not just the effected but also the netizens that have become embroiled in the situation and now feel they are part of the fight or the cause.

The advice here is don’t try to rush out a response – you have just over an hour to get your story out. Take your time to tell your side of the story and elaborate on it by explaining what you are going to do to protect the people, the assets and the environment.

Then showcase what you are going to do to bring the status-quo back and finally, go to great lengths to show your empathy and sympathy and that you care about making it better than it was before the crisis. But remember this, walk-the-talk, whatever you say you are going to do, you must do it!

You can no longer ‘comms’ your way out of a crisis. Your actions must be tangible, long lasting and life improving for all those involved. You have to be able to answer two questions before you adjourn the crisis meeting before you can say your work is done 1) have I done everything I can? and 2) is there anything more I can do?

What is the definition of a crisis?

Again, we live in changing times. A crisis used to be defined as an unplanned for or unexpected incident that, jeaopardises the lives of your employees or immediately disrupts your ‘License To Operate’ (in other words) immediately stops your business.

Today you have two types of crisis, the traditional ‘incident-based crisis’ and since the advent of social media you now have ‘issues based crisis’.

An issues-based crisis can start off as one voice and gains traction or support at a viral level, to the point where it now impacts your reputation, your brand, your employee loyalty / satisfaction and most crucially your customers’ / shareholders trust. When that happens, you lose.

Issues based crises are usually emotive, political and sensitive. Issues based crises are relatable and personable and resonate with the larger audiences. When someone says “I feel”, they can never be wrong because their feelings are their own and they are true.

All you can do is slowly show them your side of the story and convince them that either the reality they perceive is flawed or that they are right, and you will do better and earn their trust, respect and patronage back.

What are the toughest crises that you have ever had to handle?

Wow that is a tough one, given the NDA’s I’ve signed! It’s a double-barrelled answer I’m afraid.

There are two that were tough that I am proud of. I will settle for the shorter one so as not to bore your readers. We had a client that was reclaiming land from the sea for a property development.

The communities in the surrounding areas complained that their livelihoods such as eco-tourism and fisheries were being irreparably destroyed, jeopardising their ability to put food on their families’ tables.

We had to convince the client to look from an outside in perspective. See what the outside world thinks and feels about you.

Understand their pain – then do everything in your power to not only restore the status-quo but also leave the communities in a better situation tomorrow than when you first arrived on scene.

It could have been easy just to pay them off, but the client went above and beyond, they planted specific plants and trees whose roots trap soil and sediment, stopping river erosion.

They went on to plant mangrove trees to encourage the indigenous species to return. They reintroduced seagrass for the marine wildlife. Most importantly they created fish farms full of all the indigenous fish, letting them grow to an age where they could be released and breed on their own.

This not only replaced the fish stocks but replenished them, putting them in a position where they could thrive, feeding generations to come.

It was tough because we had to make the client see that trust is the long game! But I am so proud they did it.

A pr consultant’s job used to be in the top three of the most stressful jobs, although it is still in the top 10. I am sure ‘Crisis PR Consultant’ would be off the charts on the stress meter. How do you deal with the stress?

Wherever possible I try to compartmentalise. I absorb every possible detail of the crisis so that I can recall them as and when I need them. Some of the things we see are gruesome, harrowing and disturbing.

You feel sick for the heartbreak the families are feeling. You feel empathy and sadness for what’s going on. You feel all of it at the time. There is no such thing as switching off and not feeling it but, the moment the crisis is over, I purge it completely.

Never thinking about it again, not even a nightmare. It is totally out of the system. That then leaves a space ready for the next crisis. Its cheaper than a psychiatrist!

Is it tough to get the client’s buy in?

When they are in crisis mode, no. They want the crisis to be over and their reputation brought back so there is no trust deficit.

The hard part to get them to buy into is ironically the activity we sell most of at Core Pro. Getting clients who are not in a crisis to go through a crisis training and simulation in preparation for a crisis.

People must remember that the moment you open your doors for business, you open your doors for a potential crisis. Most companies have a crisis plan and unfortunately that crisis plan is 50 to 100 pages long.

Too long for people to read and digest. If its too long to read and digest, it will never get enacted when the crisis happens. So, the hardest part of our job is to convince the clients to do the trainings, learn the processes in handling a crisis and then throwing away the 100 page manual and replacing it with a 20 page document that is made-up of flow charts and action plans, not words.

You talked about the irony that the toughest thing to convince clients to do are the trainings yet that is what you sell and do the most of. How many trainings do you do per year?

In 2017 and 2018 I think we did around 70 trainings. The majority being in Malaysia. Core Pro has also conducted trainings in UK, Amsterdam, Egypt, Pakistan, India, Singapore, Indonesia, Australia, Korea, Japan, Myanmar, Thailand and even Tunisia.

The most popular training programme is the Spokesperson Training where we teach participants about body language, colours, vocal pitch and tone, backdrops, settings and messaging.

One day Crisis Communications training is the next most popular one and ultimately the full three day crisis process and crisis simulation training programmes are also popular – but they do take a lot of commitment from the client and take a long time to prepare for.

Any pearls of wisdom for our readers?

Preparation is key. Train for it. When the day comes. Be ready for it. Always remember that people are generally the forgiving type, they will forgive you for making a mistake but they will never forgive you for trying to hide it or sweep it under the table.

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