Inside a PR crisis war room

Roleplaying a disaster could save your brand from one, says RFI

Two and a half years after the launch of Ruder Finn's crisis simulation system, Sonar, in July 2015 (and later supplemented in 2017 with Beacon, a real-time social listening tool, and RiskStat, a crisis-response playbook), the agency is still trying to melt the rigid, defensive mindsets of brands when it comes to containing crises.

A recent case whereby a child was poisoned at a food facility—a simulated scenario—revealed such a mindset, shared David Ko (pictured above), SVP of Ruder Finn Innovation Studios Asia (RFI). 

Senior management of that company were all engineers and scientists, so according to their logical line of reasoning, they initially decided not to post any statement, since "it was only one baby who was poisoned", making that an isolated incident statistically, said Ko.

Seeing the client's crisis team not taking this as seriously as they should was "so interesting" to Ko. "To be an effective communicator, I advised them not to think like a computer, but think like a mother or father." 

"It was great because we were able to uncover this way of thinking in a training scenario," he said. "Imagine if this happened for real and that was their actual reaction, they would be in deep trouble."

This case, among others, underlines the value of going through pretend crises as an exercise in "marketing from human to human", he added. "You have to empathise; I think that's really the key. And sometimes companies forget to empathise because they are companies."

Defend and conquer? Not really

Brands that are constantly attacked on social media, especially consumer-facing enterprises, tend to get defensive in their crisis communications. "These brands are quite worn down and exhausted as they may have experienced the same situation a hundred times," said Ko. What's forgotten here is that every 'old' crisis is happening for the first time in the eyes of a customer, reminded Ko, so he or she expects to be treated with respect instead of resignation.

What usually happens inside a 'war room' set up to train clients in crisis roleplay is a funny scene, described Ko: "In the first 15 minutes of the crisis when the attacks on social media start, people just sit there and they are frozen and they don't know what to do".

That is funny to watch, but is also telling of the client's state of crisis readiness as they take (too much) time to gather their wits. 

Ko's favourite advice for brands during his one-day simulation 'bootcamps' is to be like Broadway actors. "Actors have it drilled into them to maintain their performance for every show so that each performance is fresh for a new audience. Don't take each performance for granted."

Ruder Finn sees it fit to apply the same instruction to its own agency when conjuring up all possible worst-case scenarios that could potentially occur.

"We have to be very imaginative," said Ko. "We use our imagination in consultation with the client and the business environment they are in, so we are not building something that's unrealistic. Charles (Charles Lankester, Ruder Finn's ‎EVP of global reputation and risk management) likes to say, you have to think like a Hollywood script writer." 

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