What’s wrong with crisis communications training

Media frenzy

I’ve written before about the absurdities that inflict many crisis communications simulations. And today I want to raise another problem. This is the obsession with spending an inordinate amount of time teaching PR people and executives to deal with “doorstepping”. This, in some training is given pride of place, as though it is the most important part of neutralising a crisis.

Doorstepping, of course, is the term for when TV cameras and reporters camp outside someone’s front door, waiting to ask questions and take pictures of someone involved in a scandal.

Now I’ll certainly accept that doorstepping is a problem for celebrities and pantomime FTSE100 villains – Fred Goodwin, for example. But for most executives facing the normal sort of reputational crisis that businesses face, doorstepping is unlikely to happen. Indeed, it tends to affect executives who don’t have crisis communication strategies in place, rather than those that do.

You see, doorstepping might deliver good, tabloid pictures of celebs. I have a friend who used to work as in investigative reporter for a tabloid, which involved lots of sitting in car outside the homes of crooks. But when legitimate business leaders are the subject of media scrutiny, camping outside their homes actually provides poor material. I mean, how useful or cost-effective is it to have journalists standing in front the house of an executive who isn’t saying anything?

Doorstepping for executives occurs to business leaders when their companies clam up in the face of a crisis, not when they make their CEOs or other top executives available for media interviews or provide PR comment. When Tesco found itself engulfed in the horse meat crisis earlier this year (2013), was its CEO doorstepped? Maybe, but I never saw any pictures of this and there would have been little point. That’s because Tesco fielded its technical director to answer media enquiries, including on television. Such interviews are much more revealing and make better television and fodder for newspapers.

Unless a doorstepping simuilation is being done by someone who’s either doorstepped as a journalist or has been on the receiving end of doorstepping as an executive, I do wonder if it is going to be very insightful anyway.

The tragedy of all this is that executives can leave crisis simulations feeling that they are well prepared, when they haven’t actually done the really important jobs in crisis preparation. They have play-acted some clichéd crisis situations, but not drafted their responses to the sort of crises that they are likely to face.

This is compounded by the fact that CEOs and PR leaders routinely fail to be honest with themselves about the skeletons that are inevitably hidden within their company’s pasts. A CEO who has an elevator pitch prepared, and a draft press release on file, about a skeleton will do much better wherever they are confronted by the issue, than someone who has simply done a role-playing game about a generic crisis.