How to manage an HR/PR crisis?

In the wake of high-profile cases such as Christian Horner, Philip Schofield, Huw Edwards and others, Maltin PR Senior Partner Clive Coleman discussed managing an HR crisis at the Employment Lawyers Association annual conference on 2nd May.

At the panel session entitled ‘How do you risk manage an HR crisis?’ Clive joined CMS partners Dan Tench and Hannah Netherton to examine the legal, HR and reputational issues at the heart of a big, developing HR crisis.

Clive began by explaining why these stories are so fascinating and get so much media attention. ‘Like all great stories’, he said, ‘they are powered by mystery and jeopardy, and involve the kinds of characters everyone wants to learn more about – the famous, the wealthy, the powerful often facing allegations involving sex and the abuse of power’.

Dan Tench identified three key elements of an HR crisis. It will be critical to the business, urgent and multifaceted. Hannah Netherton spoke of the impact of movements such as MeToo and Can’t Buy My Silence.

Drawing on his years at the BBC and as a print journalist, Clive looked at some of the key issues at the heart of a modern HR/PR crisis, including:

  • The importance of specialist expert PR support in a crisis, and the need to put this in place as early as possible, for example, when rumours start to circulate before a story breaks in the media.
  • The importance of specialist PR knowledge eg on broadcasting editorial policy, programme legal advice and Ofcom in a story about to break on television news.
  • Whether to suspend the alleged wrongdoer on full pay pending the outcome of an inquiry.
  • The key elements of a holding statement while the full facts are ascertained, including the measures being taken to protect those affected, prevent any further harm, what is being done to ascertain the facts, and timelines on actions.
  • The case for and against putting up a CEO or other spokesperson for interview in the early days of the crisis.
  • Commissioning an external inquiry by a KC or retired judge, and how it needs to be credible and transparent with its findings published.
  • The critical importance of secure data and communications.
  • When, how and whether to brief the media in the course of a crisis.
  • Public statements updating the media and stakeholders.
  • The need to ensure internal and external comms are in lock step.

Dan and Hannah provided insight into a raft of critical matters including identifying the key decision maker in an organisation, the key operational people (HR, internal and external comms, internal and external legal advice, tech and data specialists) and the need for daily meetings and assessment. Dan looked at the strategic objectives, fundamental messages and strategies for remediation including compensation schemes, changes to operations and the role and effect of regulatory and police investigations. Hannah considered the pros and cons of the current preference for external investigations and reports from leading lawyers and whether it was beginning to wane. Other subjects covered included legal privilege, protecting stakeholders and how a business fully complies with its duty of care to employees.

The panel session was held twice with lively Q&A sessions across what is now a very hot topic for many businesses and organisations.