RIBA Insight Monthly Briefing

Crisis communications – striking the right balance

By its very nature, the construction industry is high risk. Health and safety has improved considerably over the past decade and is now a high priority, if not the highest, for many businesses. But no matter how good your health and safety processes are, accidents can happen – and it's not just on sites where accidents can happen, post-occupancy has its risks too. The recent tragic events at Grenfell Tower have shown that it is not just those on site that are susceptible, it can affect the whole supply chain, from designer to contractor, and every manufacturer and supplier. So how should a business go about preparing for a crisis? And, in the event of a crisis, what is the best course of action?

The fire at Grenfell Tower has brought the issue of crisis communications to the forefront of every comms professional. Everyone involved in the project, from the design team to the contractors to the suppliers, is coming under scrutiny. However, it doesn't stop there. The way in which we design, procure and construct is now been questioned, as this is spreading far-reaching ripples across the industry. No-one is immune.

With clients involved – directly and indirectly – with the Grenfell project, we have experienced first-hand the challenges this tragedy has presented. Reporting has spanned trade and consumer media and has reached the four corners of the world. The internet has now empowered anyone that wants to, to become 'an expert' and to have a voice. In many instances this is encouraged, but with events such as Grenfell, this can also be hugely damaging.

Building regulations, design, procurement and construction are complex subjects and all the time an enquiry is in progress, there will be unanswered questions and parties that are unable to speak freely. At the same time, there has been a lot of misinformation, debatable views and opinions, and poor reporting.

One of the big challenges comes in knowing what to say and when to say it. Experience has shown us that clients' legal teams will recommend a "no comment" policy, or at best the provision of the absolute minimum of information. However, this often doesn't sit that comfortably. A "no comment" response can often be construed as guilt. Say nothing and people will assume you have something to hide. From a client's perspective, they have a business to run, and as a responsible employer they should be seen to be transparent and helpful, rather than burying their head in the sand or avoiding the question.

So what should an organisation do to minimise their exposure to such an event, whilst also communicating responsibly? The answer is to strike the right balance between what to say, when to say it and who to say it to – and it all starts with having a process in place to deal with any eventuality.

Prior to Grenfell, crisis plans were all too often either a relatively short document or non-existent. Now we are finding there is a realisation that these plans are essential and that they need to be detailed, robust and consider the multitude of channels and potential challenges. And where relevant (typically due to company size or type of operation and risk associated), they should be supported with professional media training.

It is impossible to plan for every eventuality, so crisis plans should be flexible. They should put in place the necessary steps that your business should take in the event of an incident. This should extend right across the business, from the person who answers the phone to senior management. It should provide measures to communicate internally and externally, to customers and other stakeholders, as well as the media. It should consider social media, reaction time, tone of voice and the process for approval of comments, and who the spokesperson should be.

It can take a lifetime to build a brand's reputation but minutes to destroy it. Some would argue that a high-risk industry like construction is used to dealing with negativity, but people always remember the bad before the good so it's vital that construction brands know how to manage and minimise any negative impact that may be caused from a crisis of any level.

With real-time communication tools such as social media, it's never been easier to communicate – within minutes a social post could have reached thousands. Construction companies need to know how to respond and be confident in their responses.

It's also no good thinking 'it will never happen to us'. For many that may be the case, but ask yourself the question, 'Is it worth the risk?'.

Our advice: create a crisis management plan – review it and communicate it internally on a regular basis; make sure you have the appropriate support on hand – this could be a PR agency and/or legal representation; make sure senior management is aware of the appropriate first steps – these first steps matter; but above all, make sure you strike the right balance.

Author David Ing, is Managing Director of CFA, an award-winning full-service marketing and communications agency that specialises in the built environment.


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