Sector: Crisis and Issues Management

Navigating comms in the age of permacrisis: Q&A with Scott Langham, Senior Counsel

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Scott joined Grayling in 2022 from freuds, where he was Head of Crisis, and has spent more than 20 years at the sharp end of the media industry. He was previously Deputy Managing Editor of the largest English-language website in the world, MailOnline, and, and before that he spent nearly a decade at the Press Complaints Commission.

Specialising in crisis and issues management, reputation management, media training, media regulation, and much more, here we get a sense of the day-to-day workings of a senior crisis communications professional.

Talk us through a typical day – what’s on the agenda? 
I’m one of those people who immediately checks social media and news before I get up. It’s important in my role to be aware of what’s going on so I can anticipate any potential repercussions for my clients but also more broadly understanding what’s coming up. What are the key things that seem to be driving the media narrative? What are the issues which are creating headlines?

I’m always interested in the latest controversy or scandal and think, “what would I do in this situation?”

The rest of my day very much depends on what’s happening in real-time. It could be media training a senior exec for a broadcast interview or giving counsel to a brand which is considering a restructure.

You must be prepared for anything in crisis management, learning lessons and implications for clients. It’s essential that businesses and brands don’t exist in a vacuum and take a long-term view of their reputation because, at some point, it will be your turn to experience a public crisis.

What’s the trickiest crisis you’ve worked on and why? 
I’ve worked on hundreds of reputational challenges, from allegations of mismanagement and inappropriate behaviour to issues of institutional racism and Europe-wide product recalls.

The hardest ones I’ve worked on are those that have involved an accident, death, loss or tragedy. Those are the ones where not only do you have to absorb the emotional stress and energy from the clients, but you’ve got to stay focussed and almost detach yourself emotionally from the situation to deliver what the client needs. In a crisis situation, you build relationships very quickly as you help your clients through the worst, and as you do you feel like you are making a difference.

What do you know now that you didn’t when you started out? 
It’s OK not to know everything and immediately know what to do. I think there’s a tendency in our industry to believe that you can prepare to the smallest detail, but you can’t. In a crisis, your instincts come to the fore, and you have to trust them. If you focus on doing the right thing, even if it requires properly saying sorry, you should be OK in the long-term.

When you start out, you’d expect the senior people alongside you to give the right kind of counsel and, if they’re not, you’ve got to have the confidence to stand up and explain what you would do instead. It’s so important to have good mentors. The best people I’ve worked with have always asked the right questions from the start, getting to the root of the problem.

What’s in store for the rest of 2023? 
Many businesses (and the people who work for them) are still mentally scarred from what’s happened in the last few years. We’ve seen a direct line of permacrisis running from Brexit to the pandemic, the cost-of-living crisis, and the war in Ukraine. People-centric comms has become fashionable but, in my view, it’s more about staying in touch with the prevailing mood and acting accordingly. It’s essential to understand what your customers are going through and make sure what you’re doing is in step with what’s happening in the world.

What’s your one piece of advice when handling a crisis?
In a crisis, it’s very easy to get caught up in the minutiae. Take a breath, keep your eye on the horizon. You don’t have the luxury of time in a crisis situation, but you do need to find the collective headspace to focus on what really matters and work together get the job done.

One of my favourite fictional detectives is Josephine Tey’s Inspector Alan Grant – he finds that when he’s confronted with a complex case he needs to step away from it entirely for a while, then he comes back with fresh eyes and solves it. I like his approach!

To learn more about Grayling’s crisis communications, please contact Scott here.

Navigating crisis communications in Germany: An interview with Nicole Heyder, Managing Director, Advice Partners

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Nicole Heyder heads crisis management at Grayling’s Berlin-based agency, Advice Partners. She has worked in crisis communications for more than 15 years after a background in public affairs.

We sat down with Nicole to understand how crisis comms differs in the German market compared to elsewhere in Europe and what attracted her to such a potentially stressful job!

Talk us through a typical day – what’s on the agenda?
There is no ‘typical day’ in crisis comms. Most of my work depends on the specific needs of my clients and each crisis is unique. We have a special crisis service: anyone can call us if they need help – whether we know them or not.

It often happens that new clients approach us, and it is always a special challenge to understand what the client wants and needs while building trust.

What’s the trickiest crisis you’ve worked on and why?
Last autumn, I accompanied a client through a media battle that had erupted over a corporate decision. My client’s decision triggered an intense controversy in the German media fanning the flames of ongoing culture war topics. That was really hard to take. The challenge was to focus on the really important stakeholders like employees and partners and not on the media.

The media was really trying to stir things up while we just focussed on communicating clearly with employees and partners. After a couple of weeks, the press lost interest.

What do you know now that you didn’t when you started out?
I’ve learned plenty of things but the one that really stands out to me is the power of language. Words create images and feelings, and these image and feelings determine how people view the world and judge a situation. The media understands this, of course, and unfortunately, often abuses it. So, we need to be careful with language.

What’s in store for the rest of 2023?
There are three things that stand out for me in Germany.

Firstly, companies must be prepared for risks such as cyberattacks and power blackouts. Secondly, corporate attitudes to social issues are gaining new momentum and companies need to be ready for it. It’s important to have an opinion on issues.

Finally, internal communications have become increasingly important recently. This is very good, because it is the only way that employees can become positive ambassadors for the company in a crisis.

What is your one piece of advice for anyone working in crisis comms?
I have two pieces of advice! Firstly, always remember the power of words; they can have a real impact. And the second is “keep calm and carry on” – focus on the bigger picture and get the job done.

To learn more about Grayling’s crisis communications offering in Germany, you can reach Nicole here.

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

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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.

The Art of the Apology

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This week, Grayling hosted an expert panel to discuss the “Art of the Apology” with a focus on how organisations can navigate crises and issues during a time of heightened scrutiny and expectations on businesses and individuals.  

External socio-political pressures have rarely been so constant as a backdrop to communications as they are in recent times, from Brexit to Covid to the cost-of-living crisis. When things go wrong, and as we learn to live with permacrisis, “sorry” still seems to be the hardest word for many leaders and businesses.  

The panel was chaired by Grayling’s Senior Counsel, Scott Langham, and included: 

  • Jenny Afia, partner at Schillings 
  • Lord Kamlesh Patel, chair of Yorkshire County Cricket Club  
  • Baroness Nicky Morgan, Former Secretary of State for DCMS and Education Secretary  
  • Stephen Bevan, Former News Editor, The Sunday Times 

Held under Chatham House rules, the event explored how organisations and leaders can prepare for the worst, the lessons we can learn from some of the biggest communications issues of recent times, and what this means for planning, firefighting and rebuilding reputation.  

The wide-ranging conversation touched on topics such as the importance of empathy during a crisis, the move toward greater transparency and openness, and the legal ramifications of apologising and what this means for liability. During the discussion, some key insights emerged:  

  • An apology without action loses impact: saying sorry is a good start but without action – in terms of addressing what happened and seeking to make things right – it can be detrimental to an organisation or leader’s reputation.  
  • Addressing an issue head-on is an opportunity to drive real change: it can be tempting in a time of ongoing disruption to avoid addressing problems that might disappear from the news cycle as quickly as they appear. The danger of such an approach is that issues can continue to cause damage and may re-emerge. Admitting that something went wrong can be a platform for positive reputational benefit, if real and lasting change is the end result.  
  • Empathy and understanding of the wider context are crucial: a vital component of a successful crisis response is factoring in a human and relatable response, tapping into the public mood. This also plays a part in the authenticity of an apology – demonstrating understanding will mean that an apology will be regarded as genuinely remorseful rather than lip service. 
  • The medium is the message: there are a multitude of ways to apologise, but the way to deliver your message is fundamental, from a CEO going on live TV to pre-recorded content to judicious use of social. This is where understanding of your audience, and key stakeholders, as well as ongoing relationships can help to drive understanding with those who need it most.
  • There is a misconception that lawyers and PRs are against each other: in fact, both are prioritising their clients, and working side by side can breed exceptional results and protect reputations. Liability is clearly a factor, but each case must be considered on its merits, and gut feel can often help to sway the basis of advice. 
  • Ingredients of a good apology: clear (including the word sorry), concise, empathetic, and accountable – delivered in good time, and in a tone which resonates!  

With thanks to all our panellists and our highly-engaged audience! 

If you would like to learn more about how we could help you or your organisation with crisis and issues management please get in touch with us at