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Sun 5 Jun 2005 04:00 AM

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Troubled times

When most firms in the Middle East think about PR they think about press releases. Yet for the educated client, the real value of PR consultants is in times of trouble.

|~|Mullan,-James_m.jpg|~|“Every company should invest in a crisis package,” says James Mullan, regional client director at Gulf Hill & Knowlton.|~|Here’s the situation: You’re the marketing director of a large company with business in Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Egypt, the UAE and Syria. You’re on holiday in Europe and it’s five in the morning. You’re woken by your mobile phone. The press is about to report that your company is responsible for causing a major environmental disaster. In 12 hours its reputation will be in tatters and sales will be down the pan. You have no idea what’s going on. What do you do?

That’s the sort of scenario a company somewhere faces virtually every day. For the lucky ones, the answer to the question is straightforward — you ring your PR consultant and ask them to sort it for you while you book yourself on the first plane home.

But for many — and in the Middle East the majority — things will not be so simple. They’ll have no crisis plan in place and probably do not even have a retained PR firm.
It is one of the reasons that Sadri Barrage, the chairman of the Middle East Public Relations Association (MEPRA), is organising an event for his members later this month to focus on crisis PR. “Our members want to learn from case studies and discussions, and that is what we’ll do,” he says.

“In crisis management, prevention is far better than cure. When you can identify any issue of potential crisis you must try to control it from the beginning. You will work with your client to weigh it up properly. It takes you ages to build up a reputation, and you can destroy it in a few seconds,” Barrage, who is also managing director of Headline PR in Dubai, adds.

But persuading potential clients of the value of preparing for a crisis is hard work, says Barrage. “Nobody wants to listen until it hits. There are some businesses that are high risk that don’t have a crisis manual — financial institutions, food businesses, and airlines. But you cannot just think ‘We’re not going to have a crisis’,” he explains. “How do you become a good fire fighter? You have constant drills. You create situations and see how you respond.”

Mazen Hayek, managing director of PR firm Manning Selvage & Lee (MS&L), also argues that good preparation might save a company’s reputation. “For existing clients, anticipation is key. Some clients are very sophisticated and they have large systems and dedicated crisis managers. But some do not. Preparation is a lengthy process. You need to start way before the crisis stage,” he says. “Multinationals take this very seriously. On the whole, clients are smart. They know what causes harm to their reputation.”

To help its clients understand the importance of crisis management, and create a starting point for crisis management plans, MS&L compiles information on its clients through a PR audit.

“We give prospective clients a form so we have in-depth information about their issues, objectives, competitors, business situation, the consumer base — age, income. However, we also go beyond the demographics into the psychographics so we can understand the consumer and how they may react to any given situation,” Hayek explains. “If you do all this, you should have anticipated whatever occurs. But of course, despite that, there will always be a last minute flag raised that you have to deal with,” he adds.

Hayek also urges clients not to wait until disaster strikes before calling in PR people. “You need PR consultants in good times and in challenging times,” he says. “Your clients should be able to contact you day and night — that’s what consultants are for.”
But how good are this region’s clients at preparing for PR crises before they strike?

Before answering, Hayek hesitates, as he appears to struggle for a diplomatic answer. In the end he settles for: “I’m the wrong person to ask on behalf of everyone.” But he does concede: “There are going to be real issues for this part of the world. There will always be room to learn more, but so far the delivery has been fairly positive. But as a community we have not faced anything as a major issue. Yes war, but not a major issue that was not dealt with properly so far.”||**|||~|Baker,-David_m.jpg|~|“I can count on one hand the number of companies that have gone through a full blown exercise that evaluates how good both sides — client and PR — are,” says David Baker, who in January launched PR consultancy Four Middle East.|~|Large PR firms often have specific departments dedicated to helping clients prepare for crises. This includes going through role-plays, where clients react to scripted telephone calls coming in, and act out what they would do.

Among the biggest PR operations is that of Gulf Hill & Knowlton. As well as large resources across the UAE, it has worldwide resources to call upon during a major crisis. James Mullan, regional client director for the WPP-affiliated agency, is among those who warn not every company is currently doing the right thing. “Every company should invest in a crisis package — a book that when something goes wrong you can open it up. Certain large organisations — both multinational and local — have heavily invested in this area. But there are a surprising number of significant organisations which have not,” he says.

“Every company has a crisis waiting to happen, if not several areas where they can be attacked. It’s very important ahead of time for you to look at the issues you may face and see how you would handle them. An issue can become a crisis very quickly,” Mullan adds.

“It can come from anywhere — it could be related to a labour issue, for example a strike or an accident, it could be a disgruntled employee setting up a website spilling the secrets of the company, information could be stolen, or it could be a financial issue like Enron. If you’re in the food business, it could be contaminated goods. No company is immune to the possibility of crisis,” he says.

David Baker, who in January launched PR consultancy Four Middle East, believes there are three types of crisis. “The first is the crisis the company has that nobody knows about because it’s handled in the correct way. The second is the type that gets coverage but is controlled because you’ve done the right thing. And the third is the full-blown crisis,” he explains.

“There are a lot of good PR practitioners here who have the skills to take clients through the scenarios. But just how much preparation is there among clients? I don’t think there is enough time and effort put into it on the clients’ side. You can have all the theory in the world, but not enough companies do a full case scenario. I can count on one hand the number of companies that have gone through a full blown exercise that evaluates how good both sides — client and PR — are.”

Baker accepts that training can’t make a client ready for everything. “A crisis is never going to go the way you want it to. And it takes a lot of time and effort — and money — to make sure everything possible is in place,” he says. “The people who have done this the best are the oil industry. I’ve done three full-scale exercises with exploration companies. That means bringing in medical teams, the chief exec and ops people for a full day.”

Former UK Prime Minister James Callaghan once commented “A lie can be halfway round the world before the truth has got its boots on.” And that’s certainly true for PR. “You have to respond immediately. These days the word can get out so quickly. It can be round the world in seconds — reining it in can be increasingly difficult,” Baker says.

So say you’ve made your plan, you’ve tried to head off the problem, but it hits the public domain anyway. What are the rules of handling the crisis once it does hit?

According to Mullan: “At the beginning of your crisis the facts are unclear. You should acknowledge there has been an incident and say you will be communicating further shortly. As you get the facts, you should begin to share them. If a journalist cannot get a proper statement and they’ve got an eyewitness they will use that instead, and then you’ve lost control.”||**|||~|Barnfield,-Edward_m.jpg|~|“In crisis management, prevention is far better than cure,” says Sadri Barrage, the chairman of the Middle East Public Relations Association.|~|It’s important to work with the reporters, Mullan says. “Journalists will be very keen to get the official statement because they will be under pressure to get that from their bosses,” he explains. “With a very serious crisis, it’s incumbent on the top man to get involved. For instance, if it’s a plane crash it should be the chief executive of the company who’s going on television. To put out a PR flunky is not acceptable. In any crisis management, it’s important all the senior management are involved and roles are established beforehand. Everyone’s responsibilities should be clear, and they should tell it straight,” Mullan adds.

MEPRA’s Barrage agrees: “The golden rule is be transparent, be honest to the best of your knowledge.”

Mullan also says companies should have a PR firm on a retainer, as ahead of disaster this can be a major money saver. “Here, it’s the same as the rest of the world — there’s a basic human feeling that it’s not going to happen to me. But if you don’t buy your insurance policy, it’s a bit similar to when the accident happens — you will be paying a lot more,” he explains. “When people get into this situation, a PR agency will be billing on time sheets on an hourly rate, for senior people, 16, 20 hours a day. It can end up costing a lot of money.”

And that’s if they’ll help at all. Barrage reveals: “The problem is, clients don’t want maintenance PR. The may just have an ad agency and not bother with PR. And then when they find this crisis, they call and say ‘Our ad agency just wants us to place an ad’. But if somebody who is not a current client comes to me from outside with a crisis, I decline. I’ve had this several times.”

So how does it all work in practice? Baker was working for Hill & Knowlton when the agency faced on of its biggest challenges in the region — the Gulf Air crash. In 2000, an Airbus A320 flying from Egypt to Bahrain crashed into the Persian Gulf, killing 143 people. Although the PR firm was not the retained agency, it was called in shortly after the accident, and staff from throughout the world began to work on taking control of the situation.

Baker, who now counts Gulf Air among his clients, says: “H&K can take real credit for the way they handled it. Most airlines will be ready for a crisis. Manuals will be written, exercises will take place. Airlines are among those who do that well but nonetheless it is always difficult.”

At the time Baker was in the H&K’s Dubai office. He moved over to the Bahrain office to provide backroom support so staff already on the ground could tackle front line issues. Meanwhile, H&K staff working from London and the US were able to provide round the clock support. Taking advantage of the offices being spread in different time zones, meant the press worldwide had access to the most up to date and accurate information.

“The key issue was speculation about what had happened and nobody could verify that — that took some months. But the real plus was that Gulf Air is an integral part of the community in Bahrain and everybody rallied around. The country pulled together as a team. It went from senior management at Gulf Air right the way through to the king,” Baker says. “Everybody was prepared and talking from the same page. There were not the contradictions you get in some cases. We are in a region where it is traditional to bring down the shutters but they did not, they were as open as they could be.”

Baker also acknowledges that for PR people, successfully helping a client during a crisis can be one of the most satisfying aspects of the job. “The adrenaline does flow but there is enormous pressure on you and your team and you cannot have any weak links,” he says.

H&K’s Mullan agrees: “The only time when PR is truly valued is when a company is in crisis because that’s the time at which the PR guys will have a seat on the board and will be speaking to the chief executive on an hourly or daily basis. In crises, the main man wants to be talking to you.”||**||

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