How not to handle a crisis: A case study of the St John’s racism incident

2018-05-16 01:45

In this edited extract from communications expert Nick Clelland and political strategist Ryan Coetzee’s new book Spin, they tell you how not to handle a communications crisis

Spin, The Art of Managing The Media

by Nick Clelland and Ryan Coetzee

Penguin Random House 


144 pages

Crisis communications

Queen street massacre

In the three years Nick spent heading up media for Auckland city in New Zealand and as chief of staff for the mayor of Auckland, this was the biggest media crisis he faced.

Take a second to picture the South African equiva­lent: reading “Adderley street massacre” on the front page of the Cape Times would, without doubt, be a shock.

Fortunately for Nick, this particular New Zealand Herald front-page story was about a plan to remove sickly alien trees from Auckland’s main street and replace them with indigenous saplings!

All crises are relative, but all organisations will face one sooner or later. And South African political parties are no exception:

The ANC has faced Nkandla and Gupta state capture.

The DA has had to deal with Helen Zille’s colonialism tweets.

The EFF has had to address charges of tax evasion and fraud against leader Julius Malema.

Whatever the causes of these crises – or even the culpability of the organisations stuck in the middle of them – you can be sure that communications teams have spent countless hours trying to unbreak eggs. The nature of politics means that political communicators experience more crises per capita than your garden-variety communications professional. We’ve taken the hits and felt the pain, but we’ve learnt a few things too.

There are two equally important parts to surviving a crisis: preparation and management. Here are the steps to take to be ready for and to get through any crisis:

Crisis preparation

1. Identify your crisis team in advance

This is the first step in any crisis, and should preferably already be in place when a crisis hits. Assemble a core team of decision-makers and essential services, including, at least, the following:

An on-site decision-maker who does not need to refer up for decisions

Subject-matter experts

Media communications professionals, including a

desig­nated spokesperson

Legal experts

Stakeholder communications (whomever is important to you and your organisation)

Decide on a physical location from which to run joint operations – somewhere for the team to be physically based during the crisis. This proximity is essential for the fast-

moving, ever-changing environment.

2. Identify the spokesperson

Choose the person who will be the primary spokesperson. Keep a list of back-up spokespersons and technical experts if necessary. Make sure all of them have as much professional media training as they might need in advance of any crisis.

Choose someone who can handle stress. In 2010, Kylie Hatton was the City of Cape Town’s spokesperson when police and the city’s anti-land-invasion unit clashed with Hangberg residents who had been preventing authorities from dismantling shacks on a firebreak on the slopes of the Sentinel in Hout Bay. She was doing a live radio inter­view from the scene when there was an almighty bang. Asked what was happening, she calmly said, “No biggie, our car was just hit by a rock,” before moving on without skipping a beat.

3. Identify your stakeholders

Who are the internal and external stakeholders that matter to your organisation? Make a contact list and regularly check and update it.

4. Anticipate crises with a robust system

While doing a series of debriefs of various media cock-ups and crises in Auckland, Nick and his team arrived at a seemingly self-apparent realisation: someone in their vast organisation, somewhere, always knew, in advance, that there would be a particular problem. And for a host of reasons – a manager who disagreed with or ignored them, lack of confidence in coming forward, broken telephone – the executive of the organisation never got to hear about it in time.

So they designed a system that turned crisis planning on its head with this simple proposition: if something goes wrong and you knew about it and didn’t tell us, then you take full responsibility for the consequences of that problem. Every single department was afforded a weekly forum to brief the communications team on potential problems. In turn, the communications team categorised each problem with a traffic-light code on a spreadsheet called the Media Issues Register:

Red: Contentious

Amber: Significant

Green: Business as Usual

Alongside each issue, the team noted the essentials that would give the executive a high-level understanding of the potential problem and the contingencies planned in the case of media attention:

Issue: One sentence that crisply explains the issue

Date: When this problem will happen or whether it is ongoing

Executive: The senior executive responsible for this line function

Official: The ranking official responsible

Comms person: The person who will manage the issue in the media

Tactics: Whether the organisation will communicate proactively or wait to respond reactively

The full details of all communications undertaken and planned

Who will be the spokesperson

What media have already reported on this or are interested in the story

The Media Issues Register immediately became a mainstay at the executive committee meetings of the Auckland City Council and, after Nick introduced it back home in South Africa, a permanent fixture on the agenda for the cabinet meetings of the Western Cape government. The beauty of the system is that it gives busy leaders a quick overview of every potential problem in their organisation and the surety that the media risk is under control. An unintended but useful consequence of the system has been to reverse-engineer organisational problems long before they get to the media. Premier Helen Zille would often call up officials – in the middle of cabinet meetings – instructing them to sort this out or fix that problem.

5. Rehearse

Think of crisis rehearsals like a building’s fire drill – and for the exact same reasons. Walk into your office one day, gather everyone together and announce a scenario. And then see what they do. Repeat until they get it right.

Crisis management

Remember that a crisis comes in many forms. Some will happen in an instant and be resolved the same day, while others will drag on for months. The duration of a crisis might affect your timing and tactics, but the following crisis management rules apply.

1. Assemble the crisis team at the operations centre

For a short-term crisis (where everything happens in hours or days), the team should staff the operations centre continuously for as long as the crisis continues. For longer-term crises, it is essential that the team still meet regularly to share information and make decisions: this could be a daily hour-long team meeting or even a weekly status meeting.

You should have a back-up system in place in the event of a crisis happening out of office hours, including a pre-agreed arrangement on how decisions and tasks are managed remotely until the team is next in the same room together.

2. Assess the crisis situation and gather all available information

Make sure you have access to all information: experts, data­bases, technical information, etc. and that information can always be verified and substantiated. Compile and update crisp, credible, on-message answers to frequently asked questions (FAQs) on an ongoing basis. If possible, publish these FAQs online as soon as possible.

3. Act (communicate)

Here are the golden rules for communicating in a crisis:

The first is the old adage: tell it all, tell it fast and tell the truth. With one addition: tell it yourself.

Decide how you will source ongoing credible and veri­fiable information about the crisis. In other words, know the facts.

If you or your organisation has made a mistake (or worse), then admit it – upfront. This is the first step towards re-establishing credibility and confidence with the media, your stakeholders and the public.

Don’t panic.

Never ever lie or obfuscate the truth.

Don’t let the lawyers make the final decisions. They are notoriously risk averse – in some cases, to the detri­ment of the communications required.

If you ignore the situation, it will only get worse.

Don’t communicate until you are ready to do so, but don’t wait too long.

As soon as the crisis breaks, get the spokesperson (and back-up and technical experts) rehearsing what you want to be saying, but – more importantly – rehearsing the answers to all of the tough questions they might face from journalists.

And make sure they anticipate and practise new questions as the story evolves.

If the organisational leader is not the crisis spokesperson, make sure the leader is also seen to be leading and taking an active, hands-on role in dealing with the crisis. People want to see their leaders leading in times of crisis.

Determine who needs to be communicated with – who are the key stakeholders and how do you communicate with them?

When dealing with complex, multifaceted crises, make sure that editors and senior journalists are briefed on the background, context and details of the crisis to help them better understand your decisions and actions.

Understand that sometimes it is not enough to rely on the free media to communicate your message. Sometimes you will need to buy advertising space to get your message across. Just be aware though that big, splashy full-page apologies, for instance, notoriously piss off journalists, who see it as an act of arrogance.

4. Keep your team in the loop

While you are busy letting the world know what happened and what’s next, make sure you keep your team and decision-makers updated. WhatsApp groups are probably the best platform for sharing information with multiple people in a crisis period.

5. Vasbyt

No matter the nature of the crisis and no matter how carefully you’ve prepared and responded, either the media, the public or stakeholders are not going to react the way you want them to. So sit tight. Stick to your messages. Tell it all, tell it fast and tell the truth.

Case study: Paul Edey and St John’s College – How not to communicate in a crisis

Faced with a crisis surrounding a teacher found guilty of using racial slurs at St John’s College in Johannesburg, headmaster Paul Edey called in to Bongani Bingwa’s show on Radio 702 to clarify why the teacher was not suspended despite considerable public outrage. This interview is an illustrative example of how not to communicate in a crisis. As you read through it, pay attention to how Edey:

Does not tell it all or tell it fast;

Seemingly does not take responsibility for what happened as the first step towards re-establishing credibility and confidence;

Panics – five seconds of silence on the radio is skin-crawling stuff;

Obfuscates the truth – Edey later apologised to Wits professor Sarah Nuttall for “completely and inappropriately invoking her name”, after Nuttall denied she was involved in this process; and

Clearly did not anticipate and practise any of the likely or probable questions.

Bingwa: Alright, the story that you would have heard throughout the afternoon is the decision by St John’s College to not suspend a teacher that they have found, through an independent investigation process, through an independent hearing, that they found guilty of a racist incident and they’ve decided not to suspend this teacher and they said that they are taking a recon­ciliatory approach. Joining us on the line is the head­master of St John’s College, Paul Edey, and of course you want to explain your side of the story. Good afternoon to you.

Edey: Bongani, thank you very much for the opportunity, I really appreciate it. Obviously this incident and this process has caused a great deal of upheaval and upset and I understand that. Our first priority

is our students and to look after their welfare. I just want to reiterate that this process has taken a long time, regrettably a very long time, but it was handled by an independent senior counsel and the decision was made that the master … the teacher was guilty and that … that … that he … a letter of final warning should be granted and—

Bingwa: What was he guilty of?

Edey: He was guilty of making stereotypical racial re-marks.

Bingwa: What are those?

Edey: There … a number of remarks that were made …

Bingwa: Such as …?

Edey: Well, comments about [five seconds’ silence in response] referring to … to race but—

Bingwa: Explain. Be specific. What did he say to those boys?

Edey: [three seconds’ silence in response] Bongani, I can assure you that the school is committed to a process of transformation.

Bingwa: Paul Edey, you’ve come onto this show to give your side of the situation. You found this man guilty, you say, of what I’m asking, what did he say?

Edey: I didn’t find him guilty, Bongani, he was found guilty by an independent—

Bingwa: Sure, I accept that. The process found him guilty of what? What did he say to those learners?

Edey: [five seconds’ silence in response] They found him guilty of making a stereo … stereotypical remarks.

Bingwa: What was that statement?

Edey: It was statements referring to boys on race.

Bingwa: What did he say? Do you not know it? Do you not have a record of it?

Edey: I do have a record of it.

Bingwa: What did he say? Take us into your confidence. Let people understand what exactly it is this independent process found him guilty of. What did he say to those learners?

Edey: Bongani, there was a comment about boys …

Bingwa: Tell me the comment.

Edey: … doing well on … in tests and … and … and doing badly because they were black or doing well because they were black and …

Bingwa: Did he say to those learners that they were doing well academically only because they sat next to white boys?

Edey: No, that was not one of the comments.

Bingwa: That was not one of the comments.

Edey: No. A lot—

Bingwa: Verbatim, please. Can you tell me what he said?

Edey: [seven seconds’ silence in response] That “you’ve let the side down by doing well in the test”, to a black learner.

Bingwa: Which side? So he was saying he’s let black people down?

Edey: [three seconds’ silence in response] Yes, but—

Bingwa: Is that what he said?

Edey: That’s what he said.

Bingwa: And you find that merely stereotypical?

Edey: Bongani, I don’t find … the school is adamant that it is … abhors racism and bigotry. We are … we have put in place a whole set of processes for transformation and diversity, we are involving our pupils and our teachers and our parents in conversations, we’ve engaged Dr Sarah Nuttall from Wits to begin those conversations …

Bingwa: Sir, with respect, with respect, you have a teacher who’s come and told a group of learners that they’ve let the side down for doing well, which suggests he expects them to do badly, and you have allowed that teacher back into the classroom and you’re now coming onto this radio station to tell us you abhor this kind of behaviour. Are you kidding me?

Edey: Bongani, this was a decision given to us by an in-dependent counsellor. We—

Bingwa: So you have no responsibility.

Edey: [indiscernible] There … [indiscernible].

Bingwa: You will throw those learners into the lion’s den because the independent process said so.

Edey: We are not throwing any learners into the lion’s den. We have counselled those learners through the process, we have given them psychological support and some of the facts that have been put out into the media are simply wrong.

Bingwa: Alright, Paul Edey from St John’s College, what are your thoughts? It’s merely a stereotypical incident.

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May 19 2019