How to make it as a crisis management consultant

An airliner has gone missing and the press are demanding answers. Who you gonna call?

by Jack Torrance
Last Updated: 14 Jun 2017

Businesses have never been more keen to safeguard their reputation. Those efforts can be pro-active, like getting good press coverage and banging on about their latest corporate social responsibility wheeze. But a company’s rep can live or die by how it prepares for and ultimately deals with a crisis.

That can be something as pedestrian as a minor product recall or a poorly received ad (think Pepsi’s Kendall Jenner film from earlier this year), or as catastrophic as a deadly plane crash. Regardless of the issue, when bosses discover they’re in line for some flak they often call on specialists to help preserve the company’s good name and minimise the disruption. That’s where crisis management consultants come in.

What crisis management consultants do

It’s not all about panicked late-night phone calls and hastily worded statements – much of the job is about preparation, says Duncan Gallagher, Europe and CIS crisis practice lead at Edelman. ‘Clients will come to us when they have an issue on the horizon – like restructuring or a product recall – and they will ask us to come in and look at that issue and prepare them for it.’ That’s not just about communications plans – they look at operations processes, customer service, IT systems and other aspects of a business to make sure they are ready. ‘The days of just writing a statement are long gone.’

Then there’s training. ‘A couple of weeks ago [for one of our airline clients] we simulated a plane crashing and killing all 211 people on board. It was a joint exercise with their comms people, operations, flight control, crew, customer handling, all working with the CEO and executive management team to make sure they were prepared. We simulated going to the airport for a press conference, making sure the volunteers were ready and making sure everybody could get on the relief flight.’

Finally there’s ‘getting that phone call on a Friday afternoon.’ Clients will call in crisis management advisors immediately after a pressing issue emerges and they’ll be expected to rapidly get up to speed on what’s happened and recommend what to do next.

What sort of person you need to be

It’s common for crisis comms consultants to be ex-journalists, says Patrick Tooher, former business editor of the Mail on Sunday, now a director at Citypress, specialising in crisis and issues management. ‘A crisis often replicates many of the characteristics of a newsroom. You get that same adrenaline rush, you’re driven by deadlines rather than milestones. You need to be able to absorb a lot of information quickly and ask pertinent questions.’

Staying calm is important. ‘But not calm as in completely laid-back and horizontal,’ says Gallagher. ‘But being able to put situations into context and focus on what the real situation is, rather than getting too drawn into everything that’s going on around you.’ Plus it helps if you can project confidence – clients aren’t going to want to take advice from somebody who doesn’t have the faith in their own ideas.

Stamina is useful too. ‘Crises can be quite tough-going,’ says Tooher, ‘it’s hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel sometimes.’

Routes into the industry

As previously mentioned, crisis management attracts a lot of former Fleet Street hacks, who benefit from the experience of witnessing corporate screw-ups from the other side of the fence. And it draws in people with experience in less specialised comms too.

But Gallagher suggests today’s crisis management teams need much broader skills than that. Some of his colleagues are lawyers, IT and social media specialists and even former security services operatives. ‘Comms or crisis experience isn’t really what I’m looking for. It’s a personality type, but it’s also [having had] interesting experience.’

Work-life balance

You could be expected to respond at a moment’s notice, but being well-prepared and having systems in place can reduce the disruption to your lifestyle. After spending two years planning for potential issues at London 2012, Gallagher ‘had the best two weeks of my life just watching the Olympics.’

If you’re at the top of your game there are good opportunities to travel – he’s heading to Houston next week and Brazil the week after that, and has been to Melbourne, Bahrain and Bangkok in the past year.

What you’ll earn

Mid-to-senior consultants’ salaries can be around £50k-70k, suggests Gallagher, with the top salaries running into six figures.

Image: debsilver/Flickr

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