Although rare, when they do occur serious fire-related incidents generate considerable interest among a range of stakeholders using numerous media sources. Mike Sopp describes how developing a communications strategy could rescue a company’s reputation.

The Business Continuity Institute highlights that “when a crisis or business discontinuity gets into the public domain, effective communication will play a key role in rescuing and maintaining an organisation’s most valuable asset — its reputation”.

Organisations must appreciate the information and communications demands that can be made when a serious fire-related incident occurs and ensure that, as part of their overall contingency planning, a communication strategy is developed and implemented so as to manage information flow and communications with the media.

Communication, information and reputational risk

Modern means of communication have transformed how information relating to a crisis (such as a fire) is reported on and scrutinised by the press, the public and other stakeholders.

The biggest change and challenge for organisations is the revolution of the Internet, smart handheld devices and social media. Social media can make crises spread faster and allow the press, public (and potentially employees) to voice their opinions and experiences or to propagate rumours rapidly in a highly visible manner.

Such scrutiny can be immediate and intense, with organisations being judged prematurely in the public domain, which can influence the perceptions and opinions of stakeholders. Fire incidents can elevate from operational response to reputational management issues almost instantly, potentially damaging the organisation’s reputation with an associated loss of confidence in that organisation by stakeholders.

It is information, in whatever form it may flow, that is of vital importance in maintaining reputation and thus ensuring the survival of the company. Research undertaken by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) noted that management of reputational risk is growing in importance due to:

  • the growth in information technology and media leading to rapid transmission of information directly to the general public

  • a “professionalisation” of communications where society actively engages media

  • a greater stakeholder interest in corporate misconduct due to the impact this has on share and brand value.

It is worth noting that those organisations participating in the research cited media reports covering serious incidents and requirement to advise customers of incidents as the most likely way of increasing risk of reputational damage.

Communication strategy planning

Managing communications, particularly with the press, is essential. Failure to do so can mean:

  • the press will not know what is happening and react negatively, making assumptions about the situation

  • the organisation could be perceived as being inept, at best, and criminally negligent at worst.

An integral part of any contingency planning for serious fire incidents is the development of a communication strategy and/or plan before an event occurs that can be used to manage stakeholder information flow, thereby helping to protect the organisation’s reputation.

The general principles to be considered when developing a communication strategy are that:

  • crisis communication maintains a steady flow of relevant, factual and timely information

  • communications must have a central strategic role in the response to, and recovery from, an incident

  • those with responsibility for communications must have credibility with management to give clear advice that is acted on.

When considering communication requirements, thought should be given as to what the needs of the particular stakeholders are likely to be so as to ensure an appropriate response is developed as part of the strategy. Referring to the news organisations, needs will focus around:

  • exclusivity, deadlines and obtaining human interest stories relating to the incident

  • gathering of background information, casualty details and facts about the incident

  • bringing the story to life with photographic or film imagery, interviews and quotes

  • speculation, interpretation of events and challenging complacency that may have caused the incident.

Organisations will need to ensure there is a dedicated individual or team nominated to manage communications and related information flow. The functions of the role will involve handling press enquiries, drafting press releases, issuing background information, anticipating enquiries, drafting key positive messages, briefing spoke persons and monitoring media coverage of the incident.

Preparation of some information prior to an incident may be beneficial, eg on the organisation’s fire safety record and management systems. Pre-prepared information can be especially useful in the early stages of an incident as it enables an organisation to provide generic information while details of the incident are still being established.

Fire and media communication

The reputational outcome of a serious fire depends heavily on what is said and done in the first few hours following the incident. What the news media report in their initial stories and how they view the ability of the organisation to cope will often set the tone for the entire incident through to its conclusion.

In the event of a serious incident, a decision will need to be made as to the potential impact on the organisation’s reputation and whether or not the plan needs to be invoked. This will be very much a judgement call, based on the facts available.

What are known as “fast facts” that have been pre-prepared can be released. These should provide basic information about the organisation and its fire safety culture that places it on the “front foot” of media relations. It is important that the organisation establishes itself as the prime authoritative source of information about the incident as well as its actions relating to the incident.

There are generally two types of information flow, these being uncontrolled (eg when the media are uninvited or employees provide information through social media) and controlled (eg when there are formal management briefings to internal and external stakeholders).

Uncontrolled communication and information flow is obviously extremely difficult to manage with modern media networks and, as such, the organisation should ensure that controlled communication management and information flow is implemented with all due expediency.

A number of methodologies can be utilised. These will include:

  • issuing a statement containing brief details of the incident and the organisation’s response

  • issuing further news releases as and when required, so as to relieve pressure on telephone enquiries from the media and public

  • responding to telephone enquiries by using trained and practiced employees using a dedicated number

  • holding press conferences and interviews once those participating have been fully briefed and prepared so as to anticipate sensitive issues raised.

Clearly, any information provided must be subject to some form of approval process before being released, including using an approved and consistent format. Approval will usually come from a senior manager with the support of expert advice.

The information released should not include any speculative responses, estimates of damage, names of those involved, causes of the incident or any statement relating to liability or negligence.

The use of the intranet, Internet and social networks to provide information should also be given consideration as part of the communication strategy as many news organisations monitor these networks for information about the ongoing crisis.

The response should also include a process for monitoring media coverage. It is vital to know what is being said about the organisation so as to provide internal feedback and to allow on-going communication and information flow to be adapted accordingly.

Further information

Last reviewed 31 July 2012