The Handkerchief Ghost

Crisis communication & British Airways

As the dust settles after the British Airways computer hiccup, it is surprising that airline bosses speak of learning that they have to “..become more flexible and more communicative about things….”. Err yes. Social media has been around for some years. When you have a high profile, reputation threatening issue playing out in the public domain, public communication must be immediate. This has been so for years, arguably before social media was ubiquitous. In an emergency, where in this case thousands of travellers were unable to fly, a first rule is to speak out, explain as best you can and offer solutions. Be available. Your primary target publics are external, not solely internal. An organisation that is silent leaves an information vacuum. Inevitably, this will be filled with the worse kind of speculation. It is surprising that airlines chiefs are only now getting to grips with these communication principles. Are Communication Chiefs sitting at their top tables?


Points on communication…

What follows here could be said to be statement of the obvious, however, on an almost daily basis too few people ‘get’ these points. How many times have you heard mention of an organisation producing a report – with what can only be honestly referred to as a vague purpose or objective behind it? So here goes – a quick and dirty list of some of the starter questions to be posed when wanting to communicate with a target public, or publics: why do we want to reach out to a specific target public; what are our objectives in communicating (call to action, awareness-raising…..); where does our target public gather its information & which sources are trusted (big questions & yes – this can mean bespoke research); what is the preferred communication channel (some people eschew the digital domain & prefer a traditional hand-written note…); what form of language do we use – informal, formal…we avoid jargon and acronyms; should we use multimedia and avoid the written word (is it possible that in years to come some folks will build their information universe solely from video and images?)…..and so on? To use the old cliche; if I had five pounds/dollars/euros for every time someone waffled on somewhat vacuously when I asked why they had produced their new report & who they were targetting, I would be a wealthy chap……

How can smaller NGOs (& organisations) punch above their weight in the media 3?

Smaller NGOs (non-governmental organisations), and more generally smaller organisations, have an immediate advantage over their larger competitors/peers and bigger beasts in the private, public and global diplomatic sectors (e.g. United Nations) by being more nimble, flexible and quick. Nothing new in this. As we know, smaller organisations usually do not need the time-consuming, multiple sign-offs through extended hierarchies, and usually smaller organisations eschew the oft-found in-built risk adversity of larger beasts. Picking up again on the value of evidence-based ‘new and significant’ information (see earlier blogs), the standard process of a ‘rapid assessment’ of a fast-moving issue or situation is where smaller organisations may come into their own. Smaller organisations frequently conduct rapid assessments of an issue – for example flows of refugees through a country or countries – and within days can use these rapid assessments as the basis of news media outreach (among other purposes). You have lots of exciting new data to work with. This tactic of maximising the value of a ‘rapid assessment’ can immediately deliver higher brand profile and consequently broader fund-raising and advocacy results. Never overlook the multiple ways of using a well-conducted and speedily turned around ‘rapid assessment’. It can produce wonderful data and a significant snapshot that sometimes challenges preconceived ideas about what’s happening on the ground.

Avoiding ‘key message’ confusion

Rules of news media engagement – avoiding confusion over ‘key messages’. ‘Key messages’ are an important part of the advocacy toolkit. Crisp and clear lines that get your points across in a variety of potentially influencing situations. However, too often confusion arises in using ‘key messages’ when conducting media outreach. Some deem them capable of impact in media outreach too; that the media target public will be hooked by them. Put simply, ‘key messages’ are rarely newsworthy. By definition ‘key messages’ have been crafted for using in multiple contexts and on many occasions. They are unlikely to be new; hence unlikely to be newsworthy. Be wary of using them when preparing your newsy topline in any media outreach. Of course, they can support whatever it is that you have to say – but it is highly infrequent that they provide the rapier that will cut through congested media space. Don’t fall into the trap.

Panama Papers & crisis communication

It’s fascinating to read the drip-drip of stories from the ‘Panama Papers’ leak; and watch those caught up in it, who live in what we might term as ‘open media spaces’, struggle with some of the basics of crisis communication. The Icelandic PM came a cropper at the first hurdle. (The following does not apply to those elites living in ‘constrained media spaces’ e.g. Russians, Azerbaijanis and Chinese caught in the ‘Panama Papers’ spotlights.) To be unable to quickly and publicly lay-out what has happened, if you are caught up in this story, only leaves a vacuum that will be filled with the worst kind of speculation. Leaving questions unanswered creates the whiff (rightly or wrongly) of there being more that we should know, which leads to journalists becoming even more interested in a potential story. Then, some real journalistic digging begins. Anticipate that problems will get worse.

Segment your audiences

Rules of news media engagement, part II; NGOs are no different to organisations in any other sector in that they need to be clear about segmenting their target publics. Too few NGOs are clear about this. When you produce a report, who exactly is it for? Who are you really targeting (or is it a case of hoping lots of people many be interested in what you have to say)? Who do you want to read it? Where do your target publics gather their news? What action(s) do you want your target publics to take? Segmenting your wider audiences into more precise target publics is a worthwhile exercise. It will, in turn, influence how you produce your media assets, how materials are written, how you deploy your media assets and should contribute to far more impactful news media outreach. Any potentially impactful newsworthy material needs to have clear news media targets, informed by your audience segmentation exercise.

Rules of engagement with news media

Rules of news media engagement for NGOs; when addressing traditional media, this is a huge area to cover. The first point to make is you should aim to make a good impression on first contact with a journalist/newsroom. Journalists are no different to folk in other professions, waste their time first time around and they are far less likely to be available next time. This may be especially so among journalists simply because they work across multiple media platforms and to endless tight deadlines. So, prepare for your initial contacts and make sure you have something that is genuinely newsworthy (the new and significant …..) to share with a journalist. Be ready to be able to illustrate whatever it is you have to pitch; have real life examples to hand that can be used to illustrate your news story. Make sure you are easily accessible for follow-up inquiries and can assist in the gathering of news assets (video, audio, images) to support the story you have pitched. Making this positive first impression with a news organisation can pay immense dividends in the long run. More (much more) to follow on the rules of engaging with the news media.

Media impact – ‘riding the wave’

‘Riding the wave’ ( this phrase may be perceived as distasteful given certain disaster circumstances but it is media vernacular) of a high profile news story; this is a classic tactic used by interest groups and NGOs seeking prominence in the public domain. Many key news events are known in advance; what we might call ‘diary moments’. Other ‘riding the wave’ moments entail being opportunistic and spotting when your organisation can add something to a prominent story. The list is long. A diary news moment can be an anniversary of a disaster, e.g. five years on from a large-scale natural disaster or the start of a certain conflict. Many organisations will want to mark this moment with media coverage of their brand. So, again, how do you cut through the crowd to gain media impact? There are many tactics you can employ; setting up newsworthy media trips in advance of a news anniversary to your field projects, making sure you have competent spokespersons in key locations in the field etc. Another good tactic is to prepare data and evidence in advance that is new and significant. This may be data that counters the prevailing received wisdom, it might be to show the fresh results of your great field work that has addressed the needs of vulnerable communities, your organisation’s actions and impact in the field….and so on. Good newsworthy preparations enabling your organisation to ‘ride the wave’ of a high profile news story will pay dividends. It is not a good idea to issue statements to news organisations to say something is awful and something must be done about it. This leads us on to ‘rules of engagement’ with the media. More on that later.

How can smaller NGOs punch above their weight in the media? 2

Run the truth-test. Much of what purports to be ‘news’ on all media platforms is often merely opinion. Facts are vital, sometimes golden and all too often over-looked. An NGO looking to cut through the noisy crowd of other loud organisations could do far worse than concentrate on pulling together new and significant facts. If you are ‘close to the ground’, delivering aid directly to communities, then this represents a potential competitive advantage. Larger aid agencies can be detached from what is happening on the ground. Generating facts does not mean committing to undertake expensive and time-consuming surveys/original research (of course, original research is a good thing); it can mean assembling solid case studies with fresh data. The value of fresh data (good case studies too) – and accompanying multimedia – can be enormous. They can be used to show what’s new, what’s changed and should be issued in a timely manner to enable the running of the ‘slide rule of truth-testing’ on a prominent opinion. This leads us on to another key approach for smaller NGOs – ‘riding the wave’ media tactics. More on this later.

How can smaller NGOs punch above their weight in the media?

An oft heard cry from smaller NGOs is ‘how can we punch above our weight in the media and have real impact when competing against larger organisations with big media teams’? Well, it is not so difficult, if smaller NGOs put in place a few key disciplines. These key disciplines are often missing elsewhere. More thoughts on these key disciplines will follow soon. However, the first and fundamental point is an understanding of ‘what is news?’. This can be (hotly) debated, but take it from journalists, those who have written, produced and edited news output. If you can drive the agenda by saying something new and significant about what will or has affected people, then you are in a strong position. Too few do this. Many organisations offer their opinions on a current event and deem it news. You usually have a to be a genuine decision-maker to have an opinion that is newsworthy. So, start thinking about what you have to say that is a) new and significant and that will affect people’s lives. Think about – and here is the next key point – b) something that is fact-based. Small NGOs are often closer to the ground than larger organisations. Facts are part of your daily work. More to follow…