How a nation learns a PR crisis-handling lesson

Newsroom 09/12/2015 | 10:51

56 dead and over 140 injured. A toll of pain and suffering that seems to never end. A country reborn out of solidarity and desire for change has to learn the hard way that corruption and the lack of proper information destroy lives. But what was also learned is how to get up and start taking new steps, the right ones, in the right direction and with a higher purpose. BR spoke with some of the most appreciated PR specialists with expertise in crisis management in order to find out more about how they saw the situation and what lessons learned can be applied in the future.

Romanita Oprea

 

Unfortunately, PR crisis management in the administration and the public sector was handled weakly, if not poorly, and all our respondents were in agreement with this statement. “There is a lack of capacity in the public administration generally and in communication even more. There are very few governments in recent history that have understood the need to have powerful teams of communication experts. From civil servants to state secretaries and ministers, all are refusing to be guided and advised by PR experts. They lack the reflex of consultation and they trust only the people from their inner circles that are not necessarily experienced, especially in dealing with a crisis of this dimension,” said Corina Vintan, founder and managing director at Links Associates- Edelman Affiliate.

As became apparent in the media landscape, Romania has the type of media that tends to “hijack” the message that should be delivered to people. “We have talking heads, with vested agendas, moderated by people with vested interests, no proper debate, stifled discussions, the same “analysts “ everywhere. No doubt people realize that the situation is deliberately kept at this level. That’s why in my opinion, the real debates are happening now on Facebook, the new analysts are also on FB, the new aggregators are on FB. The real, genuine discourse is now in social media,” added Vintan.

Another Romanian expert in handling PR crises, Ana-Maria Diceanu, head of the crisis management division/PR director at GMP PR, considers that nobody can dispute that the public sector needs to be more open to professional exchange insofar as communication is concerned, and to consult the PR specialists from the private sector. “The ministries, the clergy, the mayor’s office have to understand that they need to practice PR in accordance with the communication rules of this century. Therefore, the best idea that comes to mind is a think tank comprising of PR professionals from the private sector, a think tank that would be governmentally created. Some institutions manage a difficult situation better than others; some bury their heads in the sand and decide that saying nothing is better. If they have a sense of PR, it translates into everyday practice,” explained Ana-Maria Diceanu. For example, she appreciates the way firefighters build up their reputation. “Every time they are confronted with a situation, they come in endowed with all the necessary gear, ready to act…What can speak louder for their ability to handle a crisis than this? When one manages a crisis, it should not be only about writing a press release or making a statement, it can be also about showing what you are able to do, proving you can solve a problem. Unfortunately, talking seems to be sometimes the main sport, and not a winning one,” added the GMP PR representative.

A good handling of the situation requires “presenting the facts – as accurately as possible, answering all questions that appear – in an accessible manner so as to avoid misunderstanding, explaining the courses of action that are being taken and stating the next steps. In a nutshell, have common sense, decency and compassion, react quickly, be transparent and communicate continuously,” said Anca Rancea, freelance PR Consultant. And most of all, according to Bogdan Theodor Olteanu, partner of Daescu Bortun Olteanu, don’t forget that the crises end only when all the negative aspects are dealt with in a proper manner, and that is a process that can take months, or even years.

“Crises are tough situations – the thought process and many of the decision-making processes take place behind closed doors, based on arguments and data that may never become public, so it is very difficult to judge them from the outside. One thing is true for all of them: it is not the crisis itself that defines or damages those in charge of managing it, but the way they react to it and the way they communicate around it. The Colectiv tragedy highlighted the fact that hospitals and other institutions in the administration do not have teams of trained communicators. Much of the communication following the event was handled directly by doctors, firefighters, the actual crisis managers rather than trained communicators or spokespeople. This was neither practical nor reasonable – we were asking the same people both to fix the problem as quickly as possible and talk about it in great detail,” commented Sorana Savu, owner of Premium Communication.

In support of her opinion, she pinpointed the fact that all Romanians saw the handwritten lists of incoming patients – as one friend in the communication industry was telling her, several hospitals did not even have enough computers and office equipment and much of it was outdated. “We are working to fix this. Communication in hospitals and health facilities is a big deal in the US for instance – specifically because hospitals deal with life and death situations daily. As we have seen, we too need to add a stronger communication function to our own medical institutions, not only in times of crisis, but also for the day to day activities,” recommended Sorana Savu.

 

Crisis communication: step by step

A well-managed crisis has to respect some key action points: never deflect, dismiss or denounce in a crisis, the truth will save everybody and no matter what, you have to do the right thing. “What do we have here? We have a Health Ministry accused of hiding the truth concerning the hospital’s capacity to treat the injured people from Colectiv. We have a Ministry of Internal Affairs who got tangled in its own press releases instead of telling the truth regarding the behavior of its boss. We have a sector Mayor who refused to take responsibility and tell the truth from the first instance. The matrix of communication in a crisis should be thought around some core values: Care, Commitment, Consistency, Coherence and Clarity. In Colectiv’s specific case, we’ve seen a lot of care and commitment which is a big step forward, but we haven’t seen that much consistency, coherence and clarity and this is directly linked to the lack of procedures and organizational culture,” argued Corina Vintan.

Her opinion is shared by Crenguta Rosu, owner DC Communication, who believes that communication was practically absent after the burst of the tragedy. “We had the initial announcement and then the deployment of the victims and then silence. Then later, much too late – a message came out saying that everything is under control. Things are bad, but under control. There was no constant report regarding what is being done, what the status of the overall process is, what are the needs and how people could get involved. Most of the sources were individuals in contact with the hospitals. The very little official announcements were not repeated enough and lost in the mass of data. This is why everything looked like a huge chaotic mass of information. This is why, regardless of what the authorities state post factum (no matter how true,) has/had little credibility,” said Crenguta Rosu.

Moreover, in her expert opinion, there was also a lack of logic in everything that happened. Anyone with a sick person in contact with the hospitals would have known that there is always a lack of materials in every hospital. “The messages <> were not supported by previous experiences with the medical system and not explained (if new special resources were allocated, how much, for how long, etc.) In parallel, news was coming from hospitals from desperate friends and families of the victims from 11 different places, with the natural emotion embedded, that there are more things that need to be done in order to save loved ones. So we had lack of information, late information and non-coordination,” added DC Communication’s owner.

The same lack of coordination was seen also by Bogdan Theodor Olteanu. “There wasn’t any kind of centralization and coherent flow of information. The public discourse, when available, was juvenile and contradicted by the facts,” said Olteanu.

Not only when viewed from a specialist’s eyes, but also just from common sense and understanding of every citizen, it was quite obvious from the very beginning (the first hours since the news broke) that there was little to no real interest in accurately sharing the information with the public. It was clear that there was no head of communication or any communication strategy during this crisis. These are the main reasons that false information and chaos were instilled in the Romanian reality of these tragic days. There was a constant refusal and beating around the bush instead of answering the valid questions that arose. There was a lack of differentiation between the information communicated regarding the deceased and the wounded. It’s a situation from which all Romanian PR professionals should learn, but more importantly than that, from which the State’s representatives should learn.

“In the haze of making decisions, communicating to the public was neglected and, in my opinion, this excuse is only acceptable regarding the medical staff, all of whom were literally busy saving livespinpointed Anca Rancea, freelance PR Consultant.

Clear, timely and frequent communication is needed during crises. “You need to talk to all those affected, all those able and willing to help and all those that are curious. And you also need to allow time for the people who are in charge of the situation to manage it and limit the damage as much as possible. You need to quickly create a structure for the communication and establish credible outlets for the information. And you need to have someone in charge of communication. If you do not have official information in place, in time, you allow for speculation and gossip,” explained Sorana Savu.

Unfortunately, not everything was by the book in the aftermath of this tragedy. And, as previously shown also by Corina Vintan, “probably the most important game changer was social media and particularly, Facebook. All the rumors, mixed with real and detailed information were there, everything was unfiltered. All the questions, the worries, the grief, the outrage, all the conversations that we were once held in private became, all of a sudden, public. Hesitations, delayed statements, inaccurate information were all picked up by everyone, interpreted, some blown out of proportions, others reduced to silence. This is why, to this day, there is still a lot of confusion about both the tragedy and the way it was handled,” declared Premium Communication’s owner.

“I see what Hotnews.ro has become, what bloggers are doing. As we very well know, crises have two facets. One is the crisis itself and the other one is the opportunity that it creates. The positive outcome in this huge tragedy is that this crisis has produced a whole reset of the Romanian reality, from politics, to administration, business and population.  This window of opportunity will grow and will change the whole paradigm in Romania,” added Vintan.

“It is for the first time we have faced such a tragedy, which I dare to call the Romanian 9/11, and it would have placed any PR professional in a tight spot, be he/she Romanian or foreign. So I refuse to judge and analyze a situation without having all the (real) facts. One of the main rules of crisis communication, and perhaps my favorite, is: act in a way that would make your mother proud. What I have done these days, as a citizen, I would have expected the public figures to do: ministers to donate blood, priests to be part of the silent march…,” commented Ana-Maria Diceanu.

 

PR crisis expertise at the agency level

PR agencies in Romania, like their worldwide counterparts, are theoretically fully equipped with talent and know-how from a professional standpoint. At the same time, many agencies promise the ability to deliver a range of many services and capabilities across sectors, some of which never have the chance to actually be taken to the execution level. So how well-prepared are the PR agencies’ specialists for real, large PR crises and how many of them are at the top of their game? According to Diceanu, “the majority of PR agencies in Romania manage negative articles, not the actual crisis situations. There are few PR people able to manage real crisis situations involving deaths or real full-time activists. As far as companies are concerned, we have seen an increase in crisis communication strategies only in these last few years. The most vulnerable companies are the local ones, with limited know-how as far as crises are concerned, as well as the large companies, with a 100-page crisis manual, but without any trained professionals, and no completed crisis simulation exercises,” added the GMP PR specialist.

“Crisis specialization depends heavily on direct experience, so I would say the level of specialization varies depending on the portfolio. We have been working with major industrial companies and companies that have heavy-duty customer service activity, so we are quite experienced. Usually, international clients and industrial clients are better equipped in terms of tools and guidelines than the others, but crisis management depends just as much on the people, on their expertise, speed of decision-making and level-headedness. In the private sector, I would venture to say we are at the same level. We have been among the countries to adopt social media faster and on a larger scale than others, and social media and the online environment take crisis management and crisis communication quickly to the next level. Not all European cultures are there yet. Some of them are still more rigid, more formal, require more time for decision making and approval – all these are not features that help you in times of crisis,” concluded Sorana Savu.

Caseta 1 PR crisisOn her turn, Crenguta Rosu said that within her company’s 10-year crisis communication handling programs with many large companies, they reviewed the risks, the procedures, made simulations and adjusted accordingly every year. “We did that with big industrial sites – where serious risks are part of the usual processes, from work-related risks, to incidents such as fire. Many big companies have not only full procedures, but they implement them annually in exercises and update and adjust according to the findings. There are others that have these mapped out but not implemented/tested sufficiently. I’m sure however this is not the case anymore as they react very promptly. In some of the programs we are partnering with international companies. They develop the mother company crisis management procedures and I can say we are on the same page. We are at the proper professional level, but it is to be mentioned that these subjects are more carefully considered by the clients themselves who are more aware of the communication importance,” Rosu explained.

In every agency, especially in the ones with international affiliation, there is some level of expertise, believes Corina Vintan. “In other European countries, a disaster like this would have automatically prompted the individuals responsible to resign immediately and not wait to be forced out by public protests. In Western Europe, there is a different culture of accountability and responsibility. On top of that, the answer to crises is anticipated well before on the “what if” basis and organized, engaging exclusively professionals with experience,” added Vintan.

“The big clients have the necessary pieces of information, even from a theoretical side. They have manuals and global procedures to follow. Even if they don’t have trained people for these kinds of situations, they are willing to listen and give the agencies the benefit of the doubt. For the serious crises they even send consultants to help the local teams. Most likely, the large agencies have at least one person that has been involved in handling a major crisis. Therefore, the theoretical knowledge is backed-up by the experience,” considers Bogdan Olteanu.

 

Change comes from within

More than ever, this unfortunate context has shown the Romanian PR industry that things need to change and that the administration and the public sector in general need proper guidance for a PR crisis. In an industry that usually is very competitive and divided, there were some admirable initiatives that prove this industry can also be very united, when needed. In the heat of the crisis, Eliza Rogalski, founding partner & head of corporate PR at Rogalski Damaschin Public Relations, and a hand of other PR specialists, launched the PR Colectiv group through which they tried to help the system as much as possible and bring the real information to the surface. More than that, there were also initiatives to help the hospitals and the administration achieve better communication with the general public. The group already consists of 286 specialists, as I write this article. Entering the group and helping wasn’t even a decision for Anca Rancea, but a natural and normal reaction to the horrible reality of so many people to whom she expresses her sympathy and regret. “I only wish there had been more for us to do… I also wish the authorities would have relied more and/or sooner on the civil society, since so many people were eager to help, on so many different levels,” said Rancea. It was an instant decision for Sorana Savu as well, as she was glad to be invited and to access a platform that enabled her to quickly exchange information with other people who wanted to help.

“Now people listen but they have little time to immediately implement new procedures. However – we could and we should offer our support to implement crisis handling programs. Perhaps the institutions themselves have also learned the hard way what an enormous mistake it is to neglect information during a crisis. Ionut Oprea, who first implemented the “needs google doc” also had an excellent idea – an attempt to coordinate the intervention. That should have been picked up by the authorities, to fill in the real situation of needs and make all these efforts more efficient,” said Crenguta Rosu.

Caseta 2 PR crisisOn her turn, Diceanu affirms that the first lesson in any PR crisis is to put the people first and this is how everybody reacted, not only PR professionals. “All of us focused on helping those in need. Several PR agencies tried to lend a helping hand, to talk to their clients, to help by donating and volunteering in hospitals and NGOs. You don’t need to be in a specific industry to be close to those who suffer. You don’t need to have a diploma or to be a professional to act in solidarity with the people in need. The PR industry, as any other industry these days, from food to healthcare, from pharma to transportation, from tourism to NGOs, acted as a responsible citizen through the force of individual initiatives,” highlighted the GMP PR specialist.

There is no doubt for anyone that the change we need is inside of us, no matter the level or the position we are in. The Romanian PR industry has the capability, the resources and the talent to help change the situation in the future. “I think the time of critics is over. I don’t find satisfaction in criticizing anymore. The public administration doesn’t have the same access to knowledge as we do. Let’s offer our help, let’s be supportive, let’s try to accommodate agendas so that we, professionals in the private sector are not perceived as enemies and give a helpful hand so that we, as a country, act in a professional manner,“ said the founder and managing director at Links Associates.

“There are crisis experts in the Romanian PR industry, there are people able to train communication teams in public institutions, but I do not believe in forcing your knowledge on someone just because you believe this is the right way. The members of the Romanian PR industry demonstrated that they are willing to help, now it is in the hands of the public institutions to make their move. I have seen efficient PR professionals employed in public institutions, it is up to them to bring this problem into the limelight, and the events that occurred recently showed that this is a necessity that prevails,” reflects Diceanu.

Anca Rancea believes that every change requires a desire to change. “It is imperative to admit the problems or shortfalls and then to make efforts to change, both internally and externally. You cannot really help people who don’t believe there is a problem or who don’t want to help themselves,” said Rancea. Moreover, she considers that in terms of communication and transparency, the Romanian Embassy in the Kingdom of Belgium set a positive example. “In terms of mobilization and civil involvement, Pavel Popescu set a very high bar. There were however, plenty of other less visible, yet concrete examples from both people and companies. In this category, the Silent March should also be noted. In terms of respect, there were some journalists who treated the subject with decency and respect, just as there were televisions who stopped advertising all together so that people could be informed,” commented the freelancer.

However, “assuming that there is a desire for improvement, I believe that a partnership between the public and the private sector would be beneficial. PR specialists could help with the continuous professional training of the communication officers within the administration and the public sector. For crisis communication specifically, good starting points would be the development of a manual on what and how to communicate to all stakeholders for each public entity according to their role in crisis management as well as the existence of a network of volunteers that can be activated when needed,” added the freelance PR consultant.

A more hands-on approach is proposed by Sorana Savu, who believes that the PR specialists can help the hospitals build their teams of communicators and train them. “We can create tools and guidelines for them and we can even adopt them in times of need. We can also recommend that our clients pay more attention to supporting the crisis response and crisis management institution,” added Savu.

“I would be very happy to see, at the end of all this, an audit of the situation: what went wrong, what went well, what can be changed. There are crisis experts on the market able to help and willing to offer their support in developing a crisis plan for the future, concluded Diceanu.

 

Brand solidarity at its best

In every bad circumstance, there’s also the good part that emerges.In the Colectiv tragedy, we saw a lot of solidarity and public involvement, but we also saw many brands trying to help and jumping in quickly to help by improving the lives of those affected by the tragedy. From Starbucks to Vola.ro, from Medlife to Medcenter and Sensiblu, from Trenta Pizza, Calif , Joseph Restaurant, Cinema City, Mega Image, Aqua Carpatica, Oala cu Bunatati to Bavardage Delice Macaron to Fabio Pizza, Pizza PPH, Pizza Pizzicato, PepsiCo, Pizza Hut Delivery Romania etc., tons of brands were there to help and make a difference.

In the days immediately following the event in Colectiv, MOL decided to turn off their image campaign “MOL – It matters where you stop for gas” rolling on key TV stations. “We wanted to give room to the actual news to reach more people, and not to expose victims, their loved ones or even general public to commercial messaging from our part, as if nothing had happened. Let us remember that at the time, not all the victims had been even identified – so we thought it was common sense to let the news run interrupted by our commercial. We posted an update on our Facebook page about this decision hoping that others would follow, in order to serve the greater good,” said Adina Ionescu, Communication Manager MOL. Their action was followed by other brands, while IAA circulated an appeal among media companies in order to stop commercial campaigns from being aired.

We also wondered what a brand should always do in a national crisis and what not. How far can the brand go without seeming like it’s taking advantage of a difficult situation and pushing too much PR? Adina Ionescu shows that we live in the era of “Everything speaks,” even silence. Dysfunctions can be made visible, on a large scale, in a matter of seconds – at least through social media and TV. “That is why preparing is crucial and crisis management-related plans are not a whim, but a necessity. A brand should be swift in addressing different stakeholders with relevant and accurate information. Silence or a delayed response may trigger misinformation and misleading articles which are very difficult to correct later. On another note, in the face of a tragedy, any brand should be compassionate and supportive. In a nutshell, when in crisis, based on a preparedness plan, a brand should communicate rapidly and effectively with its stakeholders, presenting facts and steps to improve the situation. Subsequently, regular updates and holding statements are necessary, in order to show transparency and avoid misunderstanding. Brands are under severe scrutiny from the general public and face real reputation risks, impact on business or even their stock listing. Establishing open channels with stakeholders is mandatory: explain, inform, be open, accept dialogue and feedback,” explained MOL’s representative.

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