About Rod Hughes

I'm a writer, bibliophile, witty wordsmith and generally a commentator on the world around me. Professionally, I am a partner and vice president of a Greater Philadelphia-based public relations agency that helps businesses get their messages out into the world in a positive, effective way. Kimball Hughes Public Relations also specializes in helping organizations manage crisis communications situations. Contact me at rhughes@kimballpr.com.

Why Lack of a Crisis Communications Plan Should Terrify You

Crises come in many forms.

They could present as one (or more) negative online reviews of your business. Others manifest through the court system in the guise of lawsuits or other law enforcement actions involving executives, employees or clients/customers. Customer complaints, employee disputes or soured relations with the local community or other stakeholders can constitute critical crises situations. Still others might involve negative press coverage or complaints on social media. The worst crises involve issues of life and death.

In Crisis, You’re Surrounded. Sometimes Literally.

Try to imagine having your workplace or for senior leadership, your home, surrounded by numerous news vans for hours or even days; harassing your workers, customers, and neighbors relentlessly to secure comments about whatever negative issue has befallen your organization. Now try to imagine keeping to a business-as-usual schedule as the world puts you under an intense microscope.

You don’t have to be a crisis expert to recognize when your organization is mired in one. In 1964, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart described how he determined if something was obscene by famously saying, “I know it when I see it.” The same standard applies for leaders in determining if a crisis exists and how seriously it threatens the organization.

In more than 15 years of crisis communications management, I’ve seen all the above scenarios and quite a few more. Most of the organizations involved were wholly unprepared and found themselves, at best, struggling to manage.

Yes, they had lawyers. In nearly every case, the lawyers were excellent. But lawyers concern themselves with minimizing liability; their concern is rarely public opinion. And public opinion, frankly, will make or break a business’s bottom line or crush a non-profit’s fundraising capabilities, not to mention create reputational damage that can linger for years.

The Scariest Role Playing Ever

I like to pose the following to senior leaders, and while some may find these scenarios alarmist or extreme, they happened. My colleagues and I have managed them. Nearly every case was a bet-the-business situation and in each, the client lacked a crisis plan. This meant the best that could be done was to try to get their version of events out in front.

Imagine getting a text message or email that briefly outlines one of the following scenarios:

  • Your CFO has been arrested, is in custody and there will be a mug shot and perp walk in front of waiting press outside the police or district attorney’s office within the hour.
  • One of your workers has been killed on the job, either in a work-related accident or active shooter incident, and numerous local and national media are asking for a statement immediately.
  • Your CEO has been unexpectedly terminated or has died. The press are seeking an interview with whomever will take over, and the board of directors has called an emergency meeting expecting you to lay out how you will manage this situation.
  • Protesters have surrounded your business with signs and megaphones that are paralyzing your operations and drawing the attention of media regarding alleged poor worker conditions, or health code violations or claims that non-union labor was employed in a recent or ongoing renovation.
  • One of your leading donors has been arrested on charges of financial fraud and the media are reaching out asking if you will return the substantial funds provided to help compensate the donor’s alleged victims.
  • You have been accused of sexual harassment, law enforcement are at your door or on their way to interview you and the press have learned of this and are surrounding your workplace or home right now.

If you were involved in any of the above scenarios and you looked out your window, you would likely see a parade of news vans pulling up while your cell phone and email exploded with all manner of stakeholders asking questions. What would you do in the first 5 minutes? The first 10 minutes? The first hour? Most importantly, what would your plan be to manage the situation?

Calling the lawyers is a given, but they won’t manage the press.

Dozens of Questions at Once

What’s the process one follows to draft a statement the lawyers can live with that will also help the organization to try to stop the bleeding? Who will write that statement? How will they vet it? Does someone from the organization read the statement to the press? Is it emailed? What if the press keep asking questions? Do you do an interview, and if so, with which outlet? What are the pros and cons of doing an interview? Is the person to be interviewed media trained? Who is in charge of ongoing messaging? Who has to sign off on the messaging?

So many questions will emerge. Unfortunately, answers will be needed for most of those questions within the first hour or two. Otherwise, the situation can easily devolve to the point where it becomes nearly impossible to manage all the moving pieces.

Now, is every situation so extreme? No. A few bad reviews of your restaurant won’t prompt a media blitz. But, you’d better have a timely plan to message to your existing and prospective customers before reservations start canceling. However, every crisis scenario — from minor to major — requires timely communications, and that’s a challenge at best when there’s no plan and each passing hour might be damaging the organization.

If what I’ve shared raised an eyebrow or you actually tried to answer some of the above and struggled to clearly answer my questions even a little, then you are not prepared for a crisis. And you absolutely need to be.

Start By Asking for Help

Crisis communications planning, like life insurance, is something no one really wants to use. But to protect the people and things you care about you need both.

If you’re curious about what you might need in a crisis communications plan or what the process might look like for your organization to create one, get in touch with me.

Our agency offers free crisis communications planning consultation — which, of course, is different from crisis communications management. We do that too.  But if you’re planning for 2023 and beyond for your organization, consider putting the development of a crisis communications plan at the top of your priority list. Because when a crisis comes, and one will, not only will you know it when you see it, you’ll wish you had a robust and tested plan to address it.


Reputation is What Others Think You are

An important factor influencing an organization’s reputation is how it is represented in the media. With this in mind, Kimball Hughes PR recently ran an independent survey of business professionals to get their perspective on how media coverage of their organization reflected on their reputation and, ultimately, their brand.

What we found was broad dissatisfaction among respondents with how their brands are perceived and represented through the media.

Among two significant reputational goals — having a regular presence in news media and being clearly differentiated from their competition in those media — a clear majority of those surveyed (more than 60 percent) did not believe these goals were met.

If these findings are any indication, brands hoping to benefit from any post-COVID economic boom have significant work to do in working with the media.

Survey results:

My organization’s reputation, as it is communicated in the media, social media and other public venues, represents our stated mission, vision and values.

  • 9% Strongly agree
  • 45% Agree
  • 18% Neutral
  • 27% Disagree
  • 0% Strongly disagree

Senior leadership is regularly quoted in news and trend stories about our industry.

  • 0% Strongly agree
  • 18% Agree
  • 18% Neutral
  • 27% Disagree
  • 36% Strongly disagree

If I conducted a Google News search today of topics most important to my industry, I would find my organization quoted or written about in recent news from legitimate, third-party business or trade media outlets or sites.

  • 9% Strongly agree
  • 9% Agree
  • 18% Neutral
  • 9% Disagree
  • 54% Strongly disagree

Our brand reputation, as communicated by the media, adequately differentiates our organization from competitors in the markets we serve.

  • 0% Strongly agree
  • 18% Agree
  • 9% Neutral
  • 36% Disagree
  • 36% Strongly disagree

Worried about your brand’s reputation? Contact Kimball Hughes PR for a free, no obligation SWOT Analysis of your brand’s reputation within the media that provides top line, practical and actionable advice on what you can do to make improvements.

Pitching media during the COVID-19 crisis

In the U.S., we have found ourselves in an unprecedented situation: a pandemic combined with a national economic shutdown and widespread social unrest. Many businesses and non-profits have repeatedly asked about the timing of any type of public relations efforts.

  • Is now the right time to announce a product launch?
  • Should we try to connect our message to COVID-19?
  • Can we break through with our message given what’s happening in the world?
  • Are reporters/producers looking or eager for stories that aren’t COVID-19 related?
  • Will we be seen as tactless if we try to get our message out now?

Compounding these questions is the state of the media itself. While the news industry has been experiencing financial challenges for decades, COVID-19 has had a swift and devastating impact on the Fourth Estate at the exact time Americans stuck at home are rediscovering the importance of good journalism.

According to The New York Times, furloughs and layoffs have impacted nearly 40,000 journalists since the pandemic began in the U.S. Those who aren’t furloughed or laid off are working remotely, doing more with less, and are harder to reach than ever. What I’ve heard personally from reporters and editors at major daily metropolitan newspapers, news desks and producers of broadcast news and journalists at a range of trade media is their inboxes are inundated with hundreds of pitches, nearly all including COVID-19 in the subject line.

So how do you break through? Patient persistence.

In times normal and otherwise, it is essential to have a compelling and relevant story to tell. We advise our clients to work backward from the reader/viewer/listener perspective when evaluating the newsworthiness of any message. Absent your brand, would a generic story like yours be of interest or value to the intended audience? If it is promotional, only about your brand or is out-of-touch with the state of the world, stop right there, toss your pitch into the garbage and, if I may be so bold, set fire to it. In the midst of a pandemic, you can’t afford to sound out of touch.

My advice is also the advice good journalists give to public relations professionals all the time: do your research. This is the time-consuming leg work that pays off; the work often overlooked or even ignored by those who “just want to get the message out.” Beats, for those who still have them, are less ridged than ever. That green energy beat reporter from last week might be covering Capital Hill tomorrow. Look back at their recent work and make an informed decision as to whether their work indicates a reasonable wiliness to learn about your story.

If you feel you have a newsworthy story, and if you believe the journalist you want to contact might be interested, email away and then follow-up afterward. But assume your email is just to get on their radar. They won’t read your pitch if it is longer than 100 words or has an attachment. Bullet points can help. In times like these, getting on the phone with a reporter — assuming he or she will take your call — is the make-or-break moment of a pitch and is simultaneously nearly impossible.

I recently pitched a national story to an editor at major daily newspaper. Where I would normally follow up two or three times, I left two voicemails and emailed five times. He actually called me back, thanked me for being persistent and then asked me to “just tell [him] what the story is about.” He remembered seeing my email (just one?) but “didn’t have time to read it.” So, I gave him the 15-second elevator pitch. He liked it and ended up not only interviewing my sources but running a major feature article on the issue. Patient persistence.

COVID-19, and the economic fallout from it, will continue to have lingering effects all across the U.S. economy. Journalism is not immune from this, and this will continue to pose challenges to those engaging with the media. I advise patient persistence in getting your message out. A tenacious PR professional helps a lot, too.

The future of insurance careers

In recognition of Insurance Careers Month, we sat down with Alyssa Bouchard, director of education & programming for Gamma Iota Sigma, the premier collegiate talent pipeline for the insurance industry, to talk about the state of insurance talent and its future.

Alyssa Bouchard, CPCU, ASLI, ARM
Director, Education & Programming, Gamma Iota Sigma


Director, Education & Programming, Alyssa Bouchard, Gamma Iota Sigma

  1. There’s been a lot of discussion around the looming talent gap in insurance. What are risk management programs, or the industry more broadly, doing to attract talent to insurance careers?

The industry is rallying to preempt the talent gap and strengthen the insurance brand through initiatives like the Insurance Careers Movement and Gamma Iota Sigma’s One Campus at a Time, an initiative conceived to expand and diversify the insurance industry’s talent pipeline and funded by Lead Partners Chubb and the Spencer Educational Foundation. Core programs are Boots on the Ground Month, a call to action for professionals to go “back to school” and share their career stories with students each October and the Security in Risk Tour in partnership with Insurance Information Institute, in which we visit non-GIS, non-RMI/ActSci schools to raise awareness of insurance careers. Both allow us to showcase the industry’s vibrance, its career paths and opportunities, and its potential for the future to students from a variety of majors who might never have thought about insurance as a career before. The talent conversation is not just one for HR. Every insurance professional, from every functional area of the industry, is equipped to shape the industry’s pipeline and future.

  1. How has insurance changed in the past five or six years in ways that are impacting what today’s risk management students are now learning in the classroom?

Risk management and insurance curriculum is evolving with the industry. Cassandra Cole, adviser for Florida State University’s Gamma Iota Sigma chapter and Gary Sullivan, adviser for the GIS chapter at Mercyhurst University, recently addressed collegiate insurance curriculum changes in a Property Casualty 360 article; data analytics and cybersecurity are just some of the new focus areas. Zachary Finn, GIS adviser at Butler University, is making the connection between the classroom and real-world experiences by providing hands-on opportunities for students to design a captive and work through real-life scenarios.

  1. We are told technology has opened up new career opportunities for tomorrow’s insurance professionals. What are some of the newer roles today’s risk management students aspire to within the insurance industry following graduation?

The data science field is taking off as insurance companies work to analyze a wealth of growing data and use it to make better business decisions. We’re seeing new technologies like drones, blockchain, and telematics impact roles across the industry in risk management, underwriting, claims, and more. A good example of this is claims adjusters who fly drones to survey damages. It is important for students to understand how technology is impacting insurance career paths and opportunities.

  1. Can you offer examples of how the insurance industry is responding to millennial and Gen Z workplace styles and sensibilities?

I imagine when some people think of Gen Zs and millennials running the workplace, they envision either foosball tables and free snacks or a 100% virtual workplace. But Gamma Iota Sigma’s Annual Recruiting Survey results show workplace perks and work-from-home capabilities take a back seat to factors like future growth, compensation, culture, training, and development when it comes to influencers in student’s employment decisions. Millennial and Gen Z generations want much the same thing as older generations: a fulfilling, growth-oriented, and stable career. The insurance industry offers all those things, and through collaborative initiatives, training programs, mentorship and more, is working to showcase its breadth of opportunity.

  1. Would you share some insights on career opportunities within insurance for those coming from different industries? In other words, are their specific skills or adjacent industries (i.e., accounting) that lend themselves to those seeking to transition into the insurance profession?

The insurance industry is for everyone. Any background. Any major. Seriously! I have a friend who majored in Art History and Museum Studies. She is now a fine art underwriter. The industry is hiring for roles across all functional areas – Accounting, Finance, Marketing, Actuarial, Brokerage, etc. Our GammaSAID Council equips GIS members to be inclusive and intentional in their outreach to engage students of all majors for Gamma Iota Sigma. In fact, the fastest growing segment among our membership of 5,000+ students is about 27% who report their major as something other than Risk Management & Insurance or Actuarial Science. Our message of insurance careers is resonating with a diverse pool of talent.

  1. Can you share any statistics or numbers that help to quantify career opportunities in the field of insurance that tomorrow’s professionals should consider when deciding on a career path?

There are many shocking statistics out there about our industry’s need for talent – namely that 41% of students and recent grads change their path due to some form of exposure, whether faculty, industry speaker, peer, or some form of GIS programming. This flings open the doors of opportunity! The bottom line is, insurance career prospects are abundant, and we have tremendous variety in career paths and specialties. It is a great time to pursue a career in insurance.


Alyssa is Director of Education & Programming for Gamma Iota Sigma, the premier collegiate talent pipeline for the insurance industry, where she collaborates with industry, association, and university partners to engage and equip the next generation of insurance leaders. Alyssa is an alumnus of the Rho Chapter of Gamma Iota Sigma and holds her Bachelor of Science in Business Administration, Risk Management and Insurance from Appalachian State University.

The Chaos of Crisis

DA194EB8-069D-4AE8-9EBE-0969AC7B7CD6For a few hours on March 30, 1981, chaos overcame the U.S. federal government.

Ronald Reagan, just three months into his presidency, was struck by a would-be assassin’s bullet. As media worked to rapidly cover fast moving events, the Fourth Estate found a young administration ill-prepared for the circumstances of the moment. Absent a clear crisis communications plan, and with the president in surgery, the vice president on a plane being returned to Washington, D.C., and the district largely locked down following the shooting just blocks from the White House, Secretary of State Alexander Haig famously stepped to the White House podium and, unscripted, told reporters asking who was in charge: “As of now, I’m in control here at the White House.” Haig was constitutionally inaccurate while at the same time functionally correct. However, his ill-considered wording set off a flurry of speculation about the severity of the president’s health and contributed, temporarily, to exacerbate a national crisis.

Into the storm
Whether you have news vans swarming your office, incessant phone and email inquiries from eager reporters or angry customers (and sometimes employees; and sometimes all three at once) inundating you with demands for answers, the evidence of a full-blown crisis situation involving you or your business becomes hard to ignore once the word is out.

I’ve stood next to, and sometimes in front of, countless business leaders facing all of the above scenarios (save the Reagan assassination attempt). What I can tell you is these crisis situations are jarring experiences for even the most seasoned business leaders.

In my recent series of articles on crisis communications, I’ve noted there are four essential stages of a crisis: discovering the crisis, disclosure of the crisis, managing the crisis and completion of the crisis. Here I’ll talk about the most challenging stage: managing the crisis.

Who is in charge here?
Once the underlying issues are front and center for your audience(s), you will quickly find yourself in full-fledged crisis management mode. There is a lot to do, and never enough time to do it.

And if I haven’t beat this drum enough in other articles on this topic, let me again note that this stage is significantly less horrifying if you already have a crisis communications plan in place.

Assuming you do not have a crisis communications plan in place and have not had a lot of lead time to prepare for this crisis scenario, there are several things you will need to do all at once after related details have made it into the wider world. The first is to establish a chain of command.

Often, in a crisis, the CEO may not be the best person to lead the crisis response. He or she may have other mission critical responsibilities or may serve as the spokesperson in some situations. What you’ll need is a small but empowered group to keep the assessment and response process moving. Every organization will approach this differently, but legal counsel and your public relations representative are essential members of this team.

What’s going on?
Next you need to quickly, but accurately ascertain the facts of the situation. Gather as much verifiable information on the situation as possible. This includes speaking to those involved, reviewing any related documentation, and in many cases trying to establish a timeline of events. In fast moving situations, you typically have about 15 to 30 minutes to do so.

While you’re gathering the facts, you’ll also need to prepare a holding statement to respond to inquiring media, as well as for use on your brand’s social media channels. You may also need a slight variation on your holding statement for internal audiences (e.g., employees, managers, vendors, boards of directors, investors, etc.).

Once you’ve compiled your facts, you need to more fully respond to the media beyond your holding statement. Attorneys will advise most business leaders to say little or nothing at all. They are thinking about potential litigation issues, and rightly so. However, as we advise clients facing crisis situations, there is the court of law and the court of public opinion. One of those allows you many appeals. The other, just one.

During any crisis, your legal team and your public relations professionals should work together to determine what can be included in a statement that still addresses any legal concerns. There is always something you can say. Under no circumstances should a business ever issue a “no comment” to a crisis situation. The negative publicity a “no comment” generates can be substantial.

What can we say?
Every good crisis statement should follow another simple formula:
• Acknowledge the situation
• Tell the truth
• Tell what you know/lay out the facts as you have them
• Don’t speculate on what you don’t know
• Highlight any immediate, corrective action the business is taking to address the current issue
• Reference, if possible, what steps you will take to ensure such a situation cannot happen in the future

You also have to decide if your statement will be written or delivered by a spokesperson. If it is written, how will it be delivered? If it’s meant to be read, who will read it? Has that person been media trained? Will they take questions? What will they do if they get a question for which they are unprepared?

Throughout all of the above activity, you also need to ensure your organization is speaking with one voice as well as directing inquiries to the right personnel.

Who is handling customer calls or complaints? Do they have instructions on how to reply to certain issues? What if reporters start dialing your phone tree randomly? Does everyone in the company know what to say and to whom they should direct any random media inquiries? What’s been told to the employees, board members, investors and other staff? What about vendors? Has anyone reached out to them? Who is monitoring your social media? And has that person made sure to cancel any scheduled social content that has the potential to worsen the current crisis situation?

Who is talking about us?
From the outset, you need to begin monitoring what is being said about your company. On social media, in the press, by employees, etc. Your response to any crisis can define the situation in many cases. How the public at large reacts to your statement, what they say online and off, will shape all that comes after for your business. This is precisely why a crisis communications plan is critical. No company that wants to remain in business should be “making it up as they go” while trying to save that business during a crisis. How a statement is received, how it is believed, and how it is shared plays an outsized role in any crisis situation.

To monitor effectively, companies in crisis should use monitoring tools for online media as well as social channels. Google Alerts are a simple, free tool. A range of social media dashboards can help ascertain what is being discussed about your business, which is often not on your business’s social media channels. Your communications team or outside public relations agency should be able to provide other professional monitoring tools to assist with keeping an eye on timely press coverage and social channels.

Talk to employees. Get feedback from managers. Contact your most trusted vendors and ask what they are hearing. It’s also possible, through this monitoring process, that your business may have to issue future statements or updates to the press and others to best manage the situation.

When will we know more?
Crisis events can be brief or linger for weeks. They can also come roaring back into the spotlight months and even years later if managed poorly during the original event. Each crisis has a life of its own, and each is subject to the nature of the situation, time and circumstance. No one should assume a crisis facing their business will only last a single news cycle.

With all things related to business crisis situations, my advice is always to plan for the worst and hope for the best.

In my final note on this series about the four stages of any crisis, I’ll detail what must be done when the crisis ultimately subsides. I’ll talk about how to gather lessons learned to both better the organization and how to begin the hard work of repairing any reputation damage the business and its leadership team might have suffered.

The Business Crisis

“These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.” – Thomas Paine

lucy-chian-34385-unsplashAs far back as the late 1700s, even Thomas Paine knew that “shrinking from service” during a crisis was a bad idea. That sentiment remains true today.

In my most recent article, “The Biggest Mistake Businesses in Crisis Make,” I noted the mistake in question was not realizing when one is already in a crisis. I also noted the four primary phases of any crisis: discovering the crisis, disclosure of the crisis, managing the crisis and completion of the crisis. Here I will explore the second phase, disclosure of the crisis.

Stage Two: Houston, We Have a Problem

The disclosure of a crisis can take many forms. The worst is when businesses learn of the situation via the news media. More often, however, it is the business itself that identifies and discloses the crisis by recognizing a problem exists and pulling in the leadership team to debrief and consider options.

The decisions made by leadership during this discovery phase determine whether the situation will be truly negative or if a positive outcome might result for the business. The best-case scenario is for businesses to already have a crisis communications plan. Management must also be willing to address the issue at hand as well make meaningful changes to better the situation for the business as well as its clients or customers. In such situations, there is potential for the business to emerge with its reputation not only intact but possibly improved by demonstrating its responsiveness and sincere effort to make needed course corrections.

However, as Mr. Paine alluded, those who shrink from the responsibilities of meeting a crisis head-on only add to the damage. One need only consider Toyota’s 2010 recall debacle and the company’s initial, repeated denials of any vehicle defects to recognize that failure to take ownership of a crisis situation and create a corrective action plan can do serious damage to a business’ reputation.

Best Practices

As I’ve noted repeatedly, businesses are best protected when they already have a crisis communications plan in place. However, that isn’t always the case. Sometimes, business leaders must prepare for a crisis by creating a plan either immediately before a storm or in the eye of one.

In such situations, we recommend business leaders, upon discovering the problem, take the following steps promptly:

  1. Quickly and thoroughly assess the facts of the situation and its practical impact on the business/customers/employees
  2. Begin planning what steps must be taken immediately, as you also look at long-term strategies to remedy the situation for all parties involved
  3. With your crisis communications team and attorney, create a small crisis response team with clearly defined roles and responsibilities
  4. If you don’t have media response and social media protocols, create them
  5. Craft a response strategy and related messaging that will help ensure your side of the story is made simply and clearly
  6. If possible, prepare by testing your strategy and responses through simulations with your crisis team
  7. Consider all your audiences, including your employees, when you craft your messaging and strategy, and tailor the tone and style of each message to each audience — while making sure you are consistent with facts
  8. Don’t lie, don’t speculate and be sure to put your emotions aside as you prepare to manage the crisis

What is key to remember is the steps listed above must happen in near synchronicity, and they must happen quickly. Depending on the situation, businesses might be faced with a crisis in the public eye with little or no warning. I’ve seen crisis situations emerge where businesses get a day or two of warning before news goes public. However, I’ve also gotten phone calls from C-suite executives who received phone calls from reporters seeking comment on situations these executives were completely unaware of, with only minutes before publication or broadcast of the story.

If you believe the reputation of your business is important, you need to know what steps to take and how to communicate effectively to help protect that reputation.

Lack of planning, poor communication and disorganization in response to a crisis situation can lead to a “bet the business” risk responsible business leaders don’t need to take. Following the steps above when a significant problem arises can help your business weather a crisis.

In my next article, I’ll discuss managing crisis situations, including what to look for, how to respond and how best to manage both the crisis and yourself as you attempt to shape the resulting impact.

Fiddling While Rome Burns

The biggest mistake business and other organization leaders make during a crisis is not knowing they are already in a crisis. It sounds odd, but it can be alarmingly easy to miss the early stages of an unfolding crisis and devastating for those caught unprepared.

As I have written previously, expertise in managing crisis communications is essential. So too is having a well-considered plan.

Too many business leaders believe a crisis doesn’t start until the excrement hits the oscillating unit; in other words, when the situation is discovered by shareholders, customers, the media, the public at large and so forth. And while news spreads fast, bad news travels 10 times as fast thanks to the eternal 24-hour news cycle and omnipresent social media.


Photo by Dario Veronesi on Unsplash

A Test for Crises

It’s not complicated to determine if your business or organization is in crisis. If you answer yes to two or more of the following questions, your crisis has already begun whether you realize it or not:

  1. If I do nothing, could this situation get worse?
  2. Will the business or its leadership be viewed negatively if word gets out?
  3. Does any aspect of this situation have the potential to attract media attention?
  4. Could news of this situation hurt or hinder normal operation of the business?

Once you determine you have a crisis situation on your hands, it’s important to know every crisis, regardless of its origin or complexity, follows a cycle. Different crisis communications firms have different ways of classifying the stages of a crisis. For me, the essential stages of any crisis include: Discovering the crisis, disclosure of the crisis, managing the crisis and completion of the crisis.

Stage One: Uh-oh

The first stage is when someone realizes there might be cause for concern. Using the four questions above, this is when an individual or group of individuals begins to recognize the organization has a problem.

This is also the stage where, if you have a crisis communications plan already in place, you can best prepare your team to weather the crisis and mitigate damage. Absent a plan, organizations need to engage experienced crisis communications professionals as soon as possible. Even a few hours or days to prepare with the business’ leadership team can make a significant difference in any outcomes.

However, too often, business leaders believe this early stage doesn’t yet signal an actual crisis that requires action. I’ve heard a range of rationalizations for hesitating: Maybe it will go away; no one knows yet; there’s still time to figure it out; I don’t want to spend money dealing with something that might not happen; we’ll deal with it when and if something happens; etc.

Valuable time is wasted by not acting quickly at this early stage. What many business leaders fail to realize is even if the situation doesn’t come to light immediately, that doesn’t mean it won’t pop up at some undefined point in the future. And sometimes that delayed revelation adds to the damage because then it is clear that leadership knew something was wrong and failed to act. Also, by working to address the urgent issue at hand, businesses without a crisis plan in place are laying the foundation for handling future crisis situations. As they tackle the issue of the moment, they are essentially making it more manageable and, sometimes, more affordable to later build a long-term crisis communications plan.

Waiting until the situation is disclosed (by forces either within or outside of the business) puts your organization at maximum risk. At that point, any crisis communications professional you engage can only help business leaders ride the wave. The opportunity to define the narrative, to mitigate some of the damage, has passed. Once disclosure of the situation occurs, absent some form of a plan, most businesses risk being defined completely by the crisis rather than defining how it addressed the crisis and how it plans to resolve it.

Don’t Wait

The best advice is this: If you use the litmus test provided here and find your business or organization is at risk, recognize you are already in a crisis. Don’t wait until that situation causes irrevocable harm to your business or its reputation. Act quickly.

Being as proactive as possible will help ensure you can weather the crisis at hand, and possibly provide the beginnings of a plan to avoid or at least better manage another crisis in the future. Like insurance, spending money to prepare a crisis communications plan is never wasted. Absent insurance – in this case, a crisis communications plan – the costs are far higher.

In my next post I’ll talk about the disclosure stage of a crisis and what that sometimes looks like. Meanwhile, if you have questions or believe the time for your business or non-profit to prepare for a crisis is now, please contact our office at (610) 559-7585 or email me at rhughes@kimballpr.com.




The Truth About Crisis Communications


When an unforeseen crisis strikes your business, who will you call to ensure your reputation isn’t ruined? The right answer can be the difference between a temporary tough time and, sometimes, going out of business all together.

If your house were on fire, you wouldn’t ask your neighbor for his garden hose. You’d want the fire department.

The same idea is true when you find your business in crisis. You wouldn’t call just anyone. You would call someone with extensive experience managing crisis scenarios.

Why? Because a crisis is like a fire. It starts small and grows quickly. Those with the right expertise will put the fire out while assessing the cause and the damage to help ensure it can’t happen again.

If your house were on fire, you would call 911. But who do you call when your organization is in crisis? Selecting crisis communications experts requires planning and realistic expectations.

Start with a Plan

The first step to mitigating a crisis is to have a plan. Hire a crisis communications firm (usually a public relations agency with deep crisis communications expertise) to assess your organization, identify crisis risk factors and create a response plan. Decide whether you would like a plan you can execute using in-house resources or if you would like to empower the communications firm to lead for you during a crisis. The best approach is to always have an outside, unbiased third party lead the assessment and plan creation, working closely with your management. Your in-house team may have blind-spots or biases that cause critical factors to be overlooked.

The value of a plan can’t be overstated. Nearly everyone has participated in a fire drill at least once in their lives. Local fire departments are always advocating for families to make evacuation plans from their homes in case of fire. Knowing how to escape and who to call can make coping with a fire more manageable while, hopefully, reducing the risk to lives and property.

At a minimum, prudent organizational leaders should identify and interview qualified crisis communications firms they can call should a crisis emerge. After all, you wouldn’t want to start interviewing fire fighters as your house burns. This goes for crisis communications teams as well.

Don’t Expect It to Be Cheap

Crisis communications work is not inexpensive. With no plan to follow, those costs only rise.

Remember, you are seeking expertise that public relations agencies don’t always offer. Just as a local, volunteer fire fighter is not inherently qualified to fight massive forest fires, not all PR agencies have the capacity or expertise for crisis communications. In those cases, the Forest Service calls on specialized crews with specialized training and tools—just as you will call on crisis communications experts.

These experienced crisis communicators do a rapid assessment of your actual situation, not just what you believe it to be. This includes identifying the players, looking at your organization’s public history, reviewing media coverage, identifying your internal resources and coordinating with your legal team. They then use their experience and insight to develop a plan to ensure your side of the story is heard clearly by all audiences.

When hired, your crisis communications team commits to being available to you 24/7 until a clear resolution is achieved. Depending on the crisis, that time commitment can be substantial.

This is why reputable crisis firms require an upfront retainer to begin any crisis work, and these retainer rates vary widely.

Rather than asking what that retainer can “get you,” what clients need to consider is how the retainer will be applied. What work will those up-front dollars allow a crisis team to begin on your behalf? Who will populate your crisis team? And what initial steps need to be taken to tamp down any dangerous embers that might spark a bigger fire?

When hiring a crisis team, you are not purchasing a defined set of tactics (i.e., three press releases and a one hour consult). Rather, you are engaging a firm’s time, reputation and established expertise to help guide you through a crisis situation. And as circumstances evolve and change, you’ll have an experienced team helping you navigate the situation as best possible.

Recognize You Must Act Quickly

Some crises you see coming: A pending legal matter. Terminating a disgruntled employee who is likely to cause trouble. Others, just like fires, begin and spread so quickly you don’t realize what happened until it’s over.

Organizational leaders should act quickly when a crisis emerges. What might at first seem trivial can quickly spiral out of control. The faster you move to bring in experts to assess and address a situation, the better prepared you will be if what appears to be a minor situation ends up having major implications.

A recent national news event in my backyard of Philadelphia is a perfect example of underestimating a crisis. What started as an apparent loitering dispute at a downtown Starbucks—in less than 24 hours—turned into a series of street protests and a prolonged national media storm. It has become a PR nightmare for both Starbucks and the Philadelphia Police Department, both media-savvy organizations. Both have experience at the center of crisis situations within the glare of the media spotlight. Yet neither saw the crisis coming until it was already dominating headlines.

Be Realistic

Creating a crisis communications plan can help you identify risks you didn’t realize you had, and might even help you avoid a future crisis. Not having a crisis plan is the surest way for any organization to guarantee a very expensive crisis when one emerges.

However, even with a plan, you still need a skilled communications team to help. Experienced PR crisis professionals won’t “spin” or lie or cover up. Rather, they will help ensure your organization speaks with one voice and that your side of the situation is related clearly and honestly. This also means you’ll need a plan for what comes after.

A good crisis team cannot remove all potential damage. Sometimes the crisis team isn’t called in until after headlines and news alerts have already blared. Being realistic also means recognizing that after a crisis, there will be clean up work needed to begin to repair the damage that has been done. This doesn’t happen quickly, and certainly not without a plan.

Helping to save reputations, jobs—sometimes the organization itself—isn’t easy, isn’t for amateurs and isn’t cheap. We know because, since our agency’s founding in 1995, crisis communications work has been a hallmark of Kimball Hughes Public Relation’s services. I’ve personally been involved in crisis communications planning and response efforts for nearly 15 years. Our agency president, Gary Kimball, has been leading crisis communications matters since before our company was founded, going back to his corporate communications days in the late 1980s.

Done well, crisis communications can make all the difference and help organizations ultimately get back to their missions.


Inga Beale of Lloyd’s Speaks at Women of Themis London Event

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Lloyd’s CEO Inga Beale spoke at a Feb. 7, 2018 Women of Themis event in London.

On Feb. 7, 2018, Inga Beale, CEO of Lloyd’s, delivered a powerful keynote speech for Themis Advocates Group Women’s Leadership Forum in London last week. Themis Advocates Group appreciates that so many women from the insurance and legal industries were able to attend. The group also sincerely appreciates the time Inga Beale provided to inspire a room full of future female leaders. For those who were unable to attend, the complete text of Inga Beale’s speech is below:

(*Posted on behalf of Themis Advocates Group)

Good afternoon,

Thank you for inviting me to speak and particularly during such a momentous week, as the celebrations for the 100th anniversary of votes for British women get underway around the country. This afternoon is all about equipping and inspiring you to get to those top roles within the insurance sector. We all know that there are very few women occupying those roles and that is a situation that we must urgently turn around, not just to push forward progress for women, but for the health and future of this profession.

Collectively we have an incredibly important purpose. Businesses, governments, and most importantly people – individuals – rely on us to be there when it matters most. We keep economies going and build resilience in what increasingly feels like a fragile, rapidly changing world. Together we pay trillions of dollars of claims each and every year – helping people to get back on their feet when disaster strikes and enabling new endeavours to get off the ground. Without us, the wheels of global economic and societal progress would grind to a halt.

So with such an important purpose, it is absolutely vital that we have leadership teams who represent the world we serve – half of which are women! It simply cannot remain as imbalanced as it is in our sector.

Let’s look at some the numbers. Last year it was found that 15 percent of all board seats globally are taken up by women, compared to 12 percent in 2015, according to Deloitte research which tracks the efforts of 64 countries to promote boardroom gender diversity.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, that research found that companies with a female CEO or board chair have almost twice as many women on the board as companies led by men. It also found that 29 percent of board positions are held by women in companies with a female CEO. This compares to 15 per cent in companies with a male CEO.

If we look at countries around the world leading the way, Norway was found to have the largest share of board seats held by women at 42 percent, followed by France at 33 percent and Sweden at 32 percent. The UK came 12th on 20 percent, an increase from 15.6 percent in 2015. And a recent Oliver Wyman survey found that female managers, senior managers and executives in financial services are 20 to 30% more likely to leave their employer than their peers in other industries.

Why is that? This same survey found that many women face a mid-career conflict – a point when they weigh up the costs of a career, and what they are sacrificing in their personal lives. Now I wouldn’t say this is the case for all women, but many feel that the costs seem too great in relation to the uncertain benefits of pressing on. Insufficiently flexible working options, inadequate support for family responsibilities, lack of clarity on promotion processes and equal pay, and unconscious bias were named as the most significant hurdles for women juggling family commitments, and their career.

But there are other factors, too.

Throughout my career, both for myself and in hiring people, I have noticed that women tend to think that if they can’t tick all of the boxes on the job description, then they are not good enough for a role. The very first promotion I was offered I refused. I fell into the trap of thinking just that – I’m not good enough to take on that role. Women need to really believe in their ability, to get out there and take on those challenging roles.

But there also needs to be a shared vision in achieving equality in the workplace – not just for women, but for all people. It is everyone’s responsibility to take action – to challenge existing attitudes and behaviours and drive change. The UN Women HeForShe global campaign is one example – a call for action for people around the world to stand together to create a bold, visible force for gender equality.

In 2016 I joined senior leaders across the insurance profession in support of the Insuring Women’s Futures HeforShe campaign, which aims to give everyone the opportunity to see where they can personally make a difference in reinventing insurance for women and making all of our lives, and those of whom the industry serves, more inclusive.

I think it’s important that we recognise the gender imbalance at the top is everyone’s problem, and this is just one initiative where we can get that message out there. Reporting is a powerful spur to action. And so are targets – provided they force companies to do what they should be doing anyway. Since signing up to the UK Women in Finance Charter launched by the UK government in the first half of 2016, Lloyd’s have published targets for gender balance in our senior management. We aim to achieve a better balance than we have now with at least 40 percent women, at least 40 percent men. Those numbers clearly demonstrate that we all need to take action, with our own career development, and with supporting those around us to take up those senior roles. We have more momentum now than ever before to make some real progress in creating much more gender inclusive business leadership teams. Now is the time to really crack this.

As you heard with the Deloitte figures on female representation in senior levels when there are women on Boards or the CEO of organisations, it is absolutely critical that all women across the insurance sector be ambitious and determined in their own careers to reach those positions – to act as role models, and to spur on positive change.

That is something that I am absolutely committed to. Some years ago, I was asked about what my purpose was. I hadn’t really thought about it much before, and after some contemplation I realised that it was all about empowering women in business. I feel very aligned with that purpose today and it drives me on, particularly when things get a bit tough. I know that I simply don’t want to let women down, and I must keep on for them and keep moving forward.

I think there are three elements that are essential for career development. These are best summarised as P.I.E. PIE stands for Performance, Image and Exposure. In other words, we know that to progress we must “Perform”, and most firms around the world measure and give feedback on people’s performance at work.

But there’s also the “Image” element – how others perceive you, how do you come across in business situations. Now I will admit that there are often days when I’m walking into a room full of men, and have to bolster myself – to muster up the courage to speak my views, and show real strength of character. I’m sure that many of you have similar situations and will have felt the same pressure to perform. In those situations you really have to believe in the skills and talent that have got you into that room and find confidence in that.

More generally, I have found that the best way to make sure people see your best side is to be authentic. Authenticity is a quality prized by employers, and will help you get on in your career. I first realised the true value of being authentic when I worked for a woman in Australia at the BBC – this was after I had walked away from the industry and went travelling. She said what she thought and wore what she wanted. Up to that point I had tried to fit in with existing cultures, instead of being myself and putting the onus back on the team to embrace who I was.

When I got back to London I decided to restart my career in insurance – but on my terms. My confidence in my abilities grew. I stopped trying to be anyone other than myself. And I began to realise my value. If you don’t, it’s less likely that your employer will. If you know you are good at your job, own it. Demand more! And that doesn’t apply just to your salary either. Be bold and ask to be put on leadership courses and training offered by your organisation. Sitting there and doing your job brilliantly isn’t enough – you need to be confident in going after every opportunity you can to develop and take charge of your career.

And then there’s the “exposure” piece which is equally important for your career progression – getting exposure to the right people and situations within your organisation and outside of your organisation. So I would encourage anyone who is given the opportunity of something new and different to be flexible in your career choices. Take a chance, give it a go – it takes some courage but it can really pay off. That’s what I did. And that’s what I am still doing. I’m still learning on the job – Lloyd’s is a complex, fascinating, demanding place to work – and the sort of place where you learn every day. What I take confidence from is that, having worked my way up from the bottom, I know that I will be able to deal with any challenges that come my way. nThat’s a good weapon to have in your armoury. It’s also a quality that the company you work for will benefit from.

Moving back now to the subject of diversity and inclusion – as CEO of Lloyd’s, this is an area that I feel particularly passionate about, especially when it comes to creating the sort of environment that attracts the best and the brightest talent, no matter their background, or differences. When you run an organisation you want people to be free to be the best they can be. You want people to take risks, to learn from mistakes, to think the unthinkable because diverse thinking leads to better decisions. What you don’t want are employees distracted by the daily fear their colleagues might not accept who they really are. Creating a workplace culture in which everyone can bring their whole selves to work should be, therefore, a business priority for all CEOs – and all people in leadership positions.

There’s a ton of research supporting the business case for diversity – I won’t go into that now. Suffice to say diverse organisations find it easier to attract talent, retain employees, perform better in terms of profitability and productivity and make better decisions. It is the responsibility of all of us in leadership positions, who have the influence to change attitudes, to lead from the front and drive out the prejudice, ignorance and hate that lingers still in some parts of society. If you are not taking positive action to promote diversity, you need to ask yourself why – there is no excuse for inertia.

The question we face as leaders and managers is: How do we change the culture in our organisations to ensure diversity and inclusion are so integrated they become totally woven into the decision-making process? When I became Lloyd’s first-ever female CEO, I faced a real challenge. I inherited a venerable institution steeped in charming – or anachronistic – tradition, depending on your perspective, that was anything but diverse. So since my arrival at Lloyd’s, my exec team and I have worked hard to overcome these perceptions by putting in place a Talent Strategy.

In summary, we have modernised our approach to sourcing, developing, managing and recognising talent. And not just internally within the Corporation – the body that oversees the Lloyd’s market – but externally to the Lloyd’s market, too, by providing a framework and tools they can use.

I am really pleased with the progress we are making. The other day I got an email from an employee describing his experience of diversity and inclusion in the Lloyd’s market. He wrote: “For me Lloyd’s is place where it doesn’t matter who you are, what you are, or where you have come from – if you are the right person for the job, we want you to work for us. People don’t realise what it means to be part of a minority. But actually in organisations like Lloyd’s, you are not a minority. You are just one of many. But at the same time, with your own individuality – whatever that might be.”

This sentiment is proof that put the right measures in place, challenge existing cultures and get people speaking honestly about how they feel and it is possible to change views on all aspects of diversity, however deeply entrenched. Change is happening in the wider business community too but let’s not kid ourselves we are there yet.

So I urge you, take diversity in all its forms seriously. Use the power you have to make a lasting positive difference to your organisation. Empower the next generation to fulfil their true potential. Be remembered for what you did – not what you didn’t do.

Thank you.

#ThemisLondon #WomenofThemis

Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word


There is no shortage of powerful men being felled by scandal lately. From Hollywood to Wall Street, from Capitol Hill to the Fourth Estate—no industry is immune. And it appears the cycle of revelations, accusations, ham-fisted apologies, pseudo-apologies and angry denials is just getting started.

Considering the scale of this wave of accusations, business leaders need to ask themselves: What do we do when it happens to us?

Most of us hope this won’t happen to our organization. However, hope is not a strategy. Most companies have anti-harassment policies and this seems like the ideal time to dust off those employee handbooks for a review. But to be effective you should be proactively communicating your policies to ensure compliance. Deploying some simple, professional and preventative internal communication can make a world of difference. It’s easier to avert a fixable problem than to ignore it and try to do damage control later. Because, frankly, there is no good way to respond to accusations of sexual misconduct.

However, there is a right way. With the hurt victims, misuse of power and highly-charged feelings, these situations first require an empathetic, human response. That’s where communications come in. I can’t comment on the legal procedures. And the human resource issues are another matter as well. However, I can provide insight into how skillful crisis communications can protect a business and the people that are part of it.

Beyond their fiduciary responsibility to the company, business leaders are responsible to the people with whom they work to be prepared for any scenario—yes, even sexual harassment—with a disaster recovery plan. And that includes a robust crisis communications strategy. A lack of clear communications can make employees feel unmoored and demoralized.

However, having a plan ensures everyone in your organization is on the same page. It lets employees know you’re dialed-in on the issue and taking positive steps to address it. In part, you will also help protect the jobs of those who have done nothing wrong but are nonetheless impacted. Having a communications strategy for this type of scenario reassures your clients and customers you are looking out for their interests as well. But most importantly, planning for the worst will help to produce the best possible result under the circumstances. It may very well save your business.

So, ask yourself: What will you do if your CEO or board member or a high-ranking manager is accused of inappropriate sexual behavior in the workplace? What will you do when the local news station calls for comment? Do you have a plan?

The answers come from conducting a realistic threat assessment. From that assessment, you must create a communications plan that ensures your company can effectively weather such a scandal, including the rebuilding of trust with your employees, customers, vendors and the public. You need buy-in from stakeholders, clearly defined roles, back-up personnel and—most importantly—a rock solid commitment to the truth and sharing the facts as you know them. Developing a plan like this takes time, so first focus on prevention. But also have a plan.

After all, the worst time to prepare for a crisis is when you are already in one. As we’ve witnessed through countless media statements from the accused, saying “sorry” isn’t easy. In fact, when done poorly—yes, I’m looking at you Kevin Spacey—these statements make matters substantially worse, adding to the number of negative news cycles, the confusion of employees and the pain of survivors.