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How to react in a crisis

At Pink Elephant, we’re often asked how to react in a crisis that comes from left-field.

The resumption of the Premier League, 100 days after it was halted due to coronavirus, was sure to bring controversy and celebration in equal measure.

But two things happened that few of us could have predicted.

Together, they tell us a lot about how to react in a crisis.

Read on.

Hawk-Eye fails after 41 minutes of action

how to react in a crisis, pink elephant communications

Only 41 minutes of the new season had elapsed when the bizarre happened in the first match, Aston Villa versus Sheffield United.

The Aston Villa goalkeeper accidentally carried the ball over the goal-line.

But the technology designed to verify the goal failed to spot it.

Referee Michael Oliver waited for the signal to inform him of the goal, but all was silent.

The TV cameras clearly showed the ball over the line.

Those watching expected the game’s second set of technology, VAR (Video Assistant Referee) to intervene.

But again, nothing.

Without either intervention, Oliver concluded the game must resume without the goal being awarded.

Much to the consternation of the Sheffield United players and staff.

The game finished 0-0, and could have huge repercussions for both teams at each end of the Premier League table.

The estimated combined financial risk sits at an eye-watering £120 million.

How to react in a crisis: HawkEye

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Barely an hour after the incident, Hawk-Eye Innovations, which runs the technology, “unreservedly apologised” for the failure of the system.

It cited this was the first time in 9,000 occasions that the technology had failed.

Their seven cameras, they explained, had all been obscured by the players and goalpost.

A swift, full apology and explanation was accepted by most.

The anger, ire and questions then turned to others.

Where was VAR?

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The Professional Game Match Officials Limited (PGMOL) – the group that officiates all Premier League matches – then explained that:

 “Under IFAB protocol, the VAR is able to check goal situations.

“However due to the fact that the on-field match officials did not receive a signal, and the unique nature of that, the VAR did not intervene.”

Neither clear nor an apology.

Hence the following tweets from each club:

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‘White Lives Matter’ banner flown over Etihad Stadium

how to react in a crisis, ben mee, burnley

Five days later, as Manchester City and Burnley players were ‘taking a knee’ in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, a significant buzz was heard around the stadium’s roof.

Minutes later, media reported a ‘White Lives Matter Burnley’ banner flying above the stadium.

A member of the far-right English Defence League has now claimed responsibility.

Within an hour of confirmed reports, Burnley F.C. issued a statement strongly condemn[ing] the actions of those responsible for the aircraft and offensive banner”.

More impressive was the interview given by club captain Ben Mee immediately after the game.

He answered questions head-on with a resoluteness rarely seen from footballers.

Normally those interviews consist of standard messages depending on the outcome of the game, shaped through hours of ‘safety first’ media training.

“We’re just glad to get the three points” (victory)

“We need to pick ourselves up and focus on the next game” (defeat)

This was different.

The reporter asked:

“Just how tough a night was that?”

And Mee replied:

“It was a tough night.

“We can talk about football but there’s something I want to speak about first.

“The aeroplane that went out before the beginning of the game.

“I’m ashamed and embarrassed about a small number of our fans who have decided to put that around the stadium…

“They’ve completely missed the point of the whole thing…these people need to come into the 21st century and educate themselves.

“We want equality in society and football…whether it be race, religion, gender, LGBTQ, community, and the players have all pulled together and we want to make a stand”.

Powerful words.

The class of a leader (who had just seen his team trounced 5-0 after months of inaction) to look beyond the game to something much bigger.

There are five lesson that we learn from both cases on how to react in a crisis.

Step One: React quickly

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Both Hawk-Eye and Burnley F.C reacted within 90 minutes of the incident taking place.

Consider the last time your organisation reacted to a crisis.

How long did it take?

If the answer is ‘too long’, you need a crisis management plan.

Here are ten steps to help you prepare for uncertainty, so you know how to communicate in a crisis.

Step Two: Apologise fully

how to react in a crisis, say sorry, pink elephant communications

Too often we see half-apologies.

Both Hawk-Eye and Burnley “apologised unreservedly” for the incident.

We normally feel there’s nuance and areas of grey when we’re the ones who need to express regret.

But this is about reputation control.

The only option is immediate, full and frank.

“Sorry” is always most effective.

And ideally say it in person.

Step Three: Tell everyone how much you know

Dominic Cummings' communication, failure to say sorry, how to react to a crisis

It can be tempting to hide information for fear of making things worse.

That’s how crises unfold.

Think back to Dominic Cummings’ ill-fated trip to Durham.

The drip-drip of damaging information was only plugged by a full statement and a question-answer session, clarifying the story.

That would have been more effective if it came much earlier and proactively.

As opposed to under intense media pressure and calls to resign.

Step Four: Explain your next steps

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This is where Hawk-Eye needs improvement.

An apology is one thing, but how will this be prevented from happening in the future?

Our ‘Regret, Reason, Remedy’ structure helps you to apologise, explain and outline steps that will be taken to improve things in the future.

That helps restore trust and confidence.

We needed Hawk-Eye to tell us about its commitment to improvement.

Instead, there’s been silence in the six days since the incident.

Step Five: update regularly

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Now you’ve handled the initial wave of excitement, you need to communicate regularly and fully.

That means spokesperson interviews, press releases and regular social media updates outlining what you’re doing to tackle the issue.

In May 2017, an IT glitch grounded hundreds of British Airways flights and was swiftly followed by a video apology from CEO Alex Cruz.

Rather than pouring cold water on the fire, it fulled it, given the complete inadequate response to individual messages and requests.

One apology is unable to answer all the problems.

So have a communication plan in place, with resources ready to answer customer questions that follow.

Communicating in a crisis

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Many of us find ourselves in crisis mode right now, facing anxiety daily.

We’re here to help, and we’re only a phone call away.

Call us on 0141 427 2545.

We’ll be glad to help.


Andrew McFarlan is the Managing Director of Pink Elephant Communications in Glasgow.

You can view his full profile here.

Photos in How to react in a crisis blog by  johngarghan / CC BY / on
Screenshot of Ben Mee and Feature Image courtesy of Sky Sports.
Screenshot of Dominic Cummings courtesy of BBC.
How to react in a crisis blog edited by Colin Stone.

How to react in a crisis blog

23rd June 2020 Featured in: Blog, Crisis management training blogs By:

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