Explore the World of Crisis Communications: Eleanor Bancroft

Monday, April 15, 2024

Written by Associate Director, Crisis Communications, Eleanor Bancroft

We are thrilled to have recently expanded our global Crisis Communications team here at Kenyon Emergency Services, following the arrival of Eleanor Bancroft, Rick Martin, and Arielle Sklar, who have joined us as Crisis Comms Associates. As part of their onboarding, we have had the opportunity to delve into their past experiences in crisis communications and explore the vital role it plays in the aftermath of disasters and incidents. Their insights into effective strategies for managing crisis communications are invaluable assets to our team.

Join us as we explore the critical world of crisis communications with Eleanor Bancroft.

Can you tell us about your previous experience in crisis communication roles?

I began my career at the BBC as a Communications Trainee, where I was exceptionally fortunate to be trained by Donald Steel, the current VP of Crisis Communications for Kenyon, and former Head of Press for the BBC. His classroom sessions, teaching us the intricacies and importance of Crisis Communications from a first-hand perspective, had a real impact on me and significantly influenced my career path within Communications.

I remained at the BBC for a further eight years, holding positions in the Corporate Press Office and BBC News and Current Affairs, both areas where crisis communication, issue management, and reputation management were central to the roles. In these roles, I handled a wide assortment of issues, either in leadership or supporting capacities, ranging from managing the fallout of an ill-advised tweet to addressing major reputational crises.

Since relocating to the US, I have worked in both corporate and non-profit sectors, where a significant part of my roles involved developing crisis communications plans from scratch. Collaborating closely with my teams to formulate comprehensive strategies for identifying potential risks, implementing mitigation measures, and establishing response plans for potential crises.

What challenges have you faced in previous roles and how did you handle them?

One of the biggest challenges that I’ve found crops up time and time again comes down to how best to use social media when managing a crisis. When I began my career, discussions surrounding social media's impact on crisis communication were already underway. Over the years, I've witnessed this impact grow exponentially. The concept of the 'Golden Hour' in crisis communications is no longer applicable; now, you have mere minutes to respond, at most. Your response must be clear, concise, and as informative as possible.

In today's landscape, the urgency isn't just about disseminating your message quickly to meet demand; it also involves combatting speculation and the spread of misinformation. Time is a luxury we can't afford, as stories propagate faster than ever before. If there's a void in messaging while deliberating a response, social media will swiftly fill it. I've dealt with crises instigated and amplified by social media. However, it’s also crucial to recognize the pivotal role social media plays in crisis management and plan how to use it effectively in crisis management strategies.

As such I emphasize the importance of including an experienced social media manager in the crisis management team and underscore the need for social media training and adherence to best practices during onboarding, with regular refresher courses for manager level and above.

How do you believe your past experiences will contribute to the effectiveness of our crisis communication efforts at Kenyon?

I believe my breadth of experience can support the effectiveness of Crisis Communications at Kenyon. Working in both public and private sectors, across multiple industries, and countries, exposed me to a wide range of crisis types, with varying levels of impact and a diverse array of stakeholders.

As the world's largest media organization, the BBC is a highly visible and scrutinized corporation. Working in the corporate press office placed me at the forefront of regularly handling issues ranging from minor incidents to major reputational crises, many of which garnered significant media and public attention. This environment honed my ability to manage crises calmly, efficiently, and swiftly, even under intense scrutiny. Serving within BBC News, particularly during on-call duties, further developed my skills in navigating high-pressure scenarios and making sound decisions amidst stress. I learned to anticipate the development, evolution, and escalation of crises over time, allowing me to proactively prepare strategies to address challenges before they escalate.

Interacting with diverse stakeholders, including government officials, media representatives, and the general public taught me the significance of tailoring communication to varied audiences and choosing the right channels for information dissemination during crises. While through my experience working in both the UK and the US, I learned how crises can vary significantly based on cultural, political, and geographical factors. Consequently, I learned to adapt communication strategies accordingly to address these nuances.

Since moving to the US, I've worked in both the finance and tech sectors, where I developed a particular interest in AI, and I am actively pursuing further education in it. It is extremely important for communications professionals to understand how to leverage AI effectively and responsibly.

Why is Crisis Communications during and following an incident so important?

Crisis communication during and following an incident is of utmost importance for several reasons. Firstly, it is the right thing to do, especially in cases of serious injury or death. Swift and clear communication can help alleviate some of the devastating uncertainty experienced by those affected or left behind. Even if the available information is limited, it is crucial to show humanity and compassion, share what can be shared, and offer reassurance that the incident is being treated with the utmost urgency.

From a reputational perspective, effective crisis communication is essential in today's social media-driven world. In the aftermath of an incident, there is a rapid formation of narratives, and it's crucial for the affected organization to take the lead in shaping this narrative. Failure to do so can result in a vacuum filled with speculation and misinformation, potentially leading to an online backlash and causing additional crises.

Lack of sound crisis communication can result in loss of control over the public perception of the incident. Negative perception, even if not based on reality, can quickly become accepted truth, leading to further damage to the organization's reputation. Conversely, well-executed crisis communications present an opportunity to showcase smart and professional management, thereby enhancing trust among stakeholders and mitigating long-term damage to the company's reputation.

How do you approach managing public perception and reputation during (and after) a crisis?

It all begins with preparation. While it's impossible to anticipate every possibility, leveraging data can help identify potential areas of risk, allowing for the development of tailored crisis management plans. Identifying the most suitable spokesperson for a crisis and ensuring they undergo thorough media training is essential, as is determining the most effective communication channels. Throughout the crisis, it's imperative to treat stakeholders and the broader audience with respect, delivering clear, honest, and timely messaging that remains consistent. Additionally, active listening is paramount; responding to audience inquiries ensures they feel heard and acknowledged.

Communication must persist beyond the crisis's resolution. Trust may have been compromised, making it crucial to continually demonstrate a commitment to learning from the incident. This involves not only acknowledging the crisis's root causes but also showcasing the lasting impact of implemented solutions. Post-crisis evaluation is vital, examining everything from the crisis's triggers to its management. Collaborating with stakeholders to assess successes, areas for improvement, and lessons learned ensures a more resilient approach moving forward.

What metrics or indicators do you use to evaluate the effectiveness of crisis communication efforts, and how do you adjust strategies accordingly?

Post-crisis evaluation, as previously emphasized, is paramount. Crises, despite their challenges, offer valuable learning opportunities, particularly in assessing the effectiveness of crisis management strategies. While preparation relies on forecasting and theoretical frameworks, a real crisis provides a unique chance to gauge the practical application of prepared plans.

Ideally, I would look at indicators and metrics in five broad categories to measure effectiveness and pinpoint areas for improvement:

• Preparation: Identifying whether the necessary mechanisms were in place to respond when faced with a crisis, if there were any elements missing, and if the people with specific roles were able to complete them as expected. Assessing what triggered the crisis and whether it had been accounted for. 
• Time: Assessing the promptness of our response and the duration it took to bring the crisis under control.
• Messaging: Evaluating the appropriateness and consistency of our responses across different channels and spokespeople, maintaining a consistent messaging cadence, and adapting messaging as needed.
• Online: Analyzing social media engagement metrics, media coverage, and website traffic. Tracking sentiment changes where possible. 
• Offline: Soliciting feedback from stakeholders regarding their perception of the crisis management and its impact on their perception of the company, as well as gathering insights from the Crisis Management Team on their adherence to the crisis management plan and areas for improvement.

I would also evaluate the cohesion and performance of the Crisis Management Team under pressure to understand any challenges they faced during execution. Identifying and addressing such challenges is vital for enhancing the team's preparedness for future crises.

What strategies or approaches have you found most effective in managing communication during a crisis?

Being proactive and pre-emptively identifying potential crisis areas in order to mitigate them and thus avoid a crisis will always be the ideal scenario. Whilst all crisis is predictable in our view, the exact time, nature and place are not, underscoring the importance of preparedness. A robust framework with well-established communication channels and a practiced crisis management team becomes critical when faced with unexpected challenges.

An eloquent and media-trained spokesperson who remains composed under pressure is invaluable. A lot can hinge on the perception of the spokesperson so selecting the right spokesperson is paramount.

Transparency is non-negotiable; messaging must be clear, honest, and informative across all communication channels, both internally and externally. Consistency in messaging is essential to avoid confusion and maintain credibility.

Furthermore, actively listening to stakeholders' concerns and promptly addressing them demonstrates responsiveness and empathy. Collaborating closely with the media to ensure accurate reporting is very important too. Providing consistent updates and responding to inquiries in a timely manner helps manage the narrative and instils confidence in stakeholders.

How do you ensure transparency and honesty in communication while still protecting sensitive information during a crisis?

Firstly, internally establish clear guidelines regarding what information can be shared and what must remain confidential. This includes defining communication protocols that outline the process for disseminating information.

In situations where sensitive information cannot be disclosed, communicating openly that there are certain topics that cannot be discussed due to confidentiality constraints. This transparent approach helps convey that information is being withheld for valid reasons, rather than implying deliberate concealment.

Limiting the number of individuals with access to sensitive information is crucial. By restricting access to a select group of trusted personnel, the risk of unauthorized disclosure is minimized. Collaborating closely with the legal team is also important, to ensure that communication practices comply with legal and regulatory requirements.

Appointing a dedicated spokesperson who is trained in handling media inquiries is essential. All communication should be channelled through them to ensure consistency and accuracy in messaging.

Regular updates should be provided to stakeholders, even if there are no significant developments to report. This ongoing communication helps prevent speculation and maintains transparency regarding the organization's response efforts.

By implementing these strategies, it is possible to effectively balance the need for transparency and honesty with the imperative to protect sensitive information during a crisis.

As we continue to navigate the complex landscape of crisis management, Eleanor's expertise will undoubtedly bolster our readiness to effectively address challenges, protect reputations, and, most importantly, provide compassionate support to those impacted. Stay tuned as we hear next from Rick Martin about his experience in the world of crisis communications.