Navigating crises that put your business on the precipice: Q&A with Billy Partridge, Director

Based in Edinburgh, Billy Partridge provides senior crisis counsel to clients across the UK, based on his two decades of experience in public relations and corporate affairs.

Billy has worked on a wide range of crises, from major incidents to allegations of fraud and abuse at well-known organisations. He specialises in crisis prevention and preparedness, helping organisations to reduce the risk of an issue becoming a crisis in its early stages. He has also delivered integrated communications strategies at high-profile conferences, arts festivals, and sports events. Here, he discusses key learnings and best practices from his broad experience managing client reputations.

What’s the trickiest crisis you’ve worked on and why?
There are some that really stand out. The Rana Plaza factory collapse was a horrendous tragedy and a major test for the retailers involved. I also recall an occasion when a major children’s charity with an important role in Scotland’s social care provision faced collapse after dozens of child welfare cases they were involved in were called into question. I was also heavily involved in helping parts of the agriculture industry to manage the swine flu pandemic of 2009.

On reflection, these all had common facets – widespread public interest, major political intervention and an urgent requirement to act decisively.

It was vital in these cases to identify what a successful exit from the crisis looked like. We had to identify a route out and then act accordingly – and we did all this before we said a word.

Crisis comms is rarely just about avoiding negative headlines. The headlines are literally the tip of the iceberg. I spent a lot of time in those three examples working below the water line, so to speak, helping the client to understand the positive impact we could make by acting to influence many different stakeholders. If people see a crisis being handled well, you can often retain their support even in inherently negative circumstances.

What do you know now that you didn’t know when you started?
I’d say don’t be afraid to challenge and shape the narrative. But it’s just as important to understand when you have a chance to change something and when you don’t, otherwise, you end up wasting a lot of time and resources. Often, those first few early interactions with journalists can really define a media response – I try to handle those myself as you have to be able to judge when to employ defensive or offensive responses.

How does the Scottish media differ from other UK media?
Firstly, the Scottish media is not to be underestimated. Some publishers are investing heavily in talented journalists here, as well as in their commercial and digital offerings. You still see some incredibly brave investigative journalism in Scotland. Yes, the same trends are happening that you might see elsewhere – reducing print circulations, heavy development of online and digital channels, and the important role of broadcasters in public information campaigns.

Scottish society is rooted in fairness and social equality, so the media generally seeks stories that either reflect or challenge that viewpoint.

Innovation and entrepreneurialism are generally championed and supported editorially – the nation has a thriving tech community, and its business media generally supports positive stories of growth from any sector.

In Scotland, some local tabloids can command more attention and trust than national titles. The Aberdeen Evening Express is a great example – the last time I checked, its readership in the region was more than that of the Scottish Sun, Daily Mail and Daily Record combined.

I find that major institutions in Scotland often need message control and are very sensitive to narratives in the media. In general, the business media in Scotland will talk up its business community, but that makes negative news all the juicier when it happens.

The one unknown quantity is the matter of independence. The (first) Independence Referendum in 2014 was absolutely chaotic and completely dominated the media agenda. There were countless examples of claims going unchecked, criticisms of media bias, constant set-piece moments and hours of broadcast programmes dedicated to debate. And yet, there was virtually no change in public opinion throughout, so it was quite challenging to navigate the media environment at that time.

Should #IndyRef2 come to pass, it will be key to keep on top of journalist relations and the media focus and diary, to prevent stories from being lost.

What’s in store for the rest of 2023?
It’s going to be a really interesting year.

Firstly, I think we’ll see the death of the mea culpa. Brands have often been too quick to say sorry and bare all when they transgress, but part of risk management includes taking on risk. Sure, make right what you did wrong and apologise to those involved and yes, make appropriate stakeholders aware. But I think brands will pull back from the full-page ad apologies and mass communications until they get more empirical evidence to suggest that approach will reap the rewards.

Instead, I think we’ll see the rise of the ‘watch and wait’ approach. Brands will be very well prepared to adapt to changing circumstances. Being very well prepared but accepting the worst may not happen is a good way to balance risk; the default for too many is to bare their corporate souls in the mistaken hope that transparency is a get-out-of-jail-free card. In fact, sharing too much too soon can do you more harm than good.

Finally, I think we’ll see more narrative control through owned channels: so many organisations can reach a large proportion of their stakeholders and customers without the aid of the media – getting the narrative right on owned channels and using direct comms is going to be an increasing priority.

What’s your one piece of advice when handling a crisis?
There are a few edicts I live by:

  • Ask not what you will say, but what you will do
  • What does success look like when all this is over?
  • Always provide the client with options. Ensure they are partners in the decision-making process; let them know the risk/reward balance

Clients are your most important tool in a crisis. I used to think that crisis managers should tell clients what to do, but my modus operandi is actually to make clients feel that we’re all in a team. Mutual trust is essential. You have to give counsel on the clients’ options and outline the potential consequences of each. Then the client can see how it will work out in practice. I find this collegiate approach works best.

To learn more about Grayling’s crisis communications, you can reach Billy here.