Why we won’t make a drama out of a crisis – keeping calm in a PR storm

by Scott Douglas

Wednesday, June 24th, 2015

Two views of the same potential crisis, but from different ends of the PR career ladder

reputation management and crisis managementWHEN Scottish Water found itself in the media glare during a potential health scare involving contaminated tap water, Holyrood PR was on hand to support the crisis management efforts.

Not one but two of our public relations team worked with the utility giant as it mobilised a massive response to deal with the immediate problem with the water supply – while also protecting its hard-earned reputation.

For veteran PR man Raymond Notarangelo it was an eye-opening experience because of the changes in Scottish Water’s crisis management since he first worked with water giant in 2002 to manage a media maelstrom.

Meanwhile digital account executive Sarah Fairley – just 10 months into her public relations career – got a first taste of just what is involved in a full-blooded media feeding frenzy. Read both of their accounts here:


Exhilarating and exhausting – but my first taste of crisis management was also terrifying

Public relations digital account executive Sarah FairleyBy SARAH FAIRLEY

SO WHAT was my first taste of a crisis like? At first it was terrifying. Then it was exhilarating. And finally it was exhausting. All that and I was only a bit part player!

As part of my role at Holyrood PR I had the chance to work with Scottish Water’s media team in preparing for a major summer safety campaign. That in itself was a fantastic experience. But little did I know what was to come.

During one of my days at the water giant’s headquarters in Rosyth I was driving in when I heard a radio report about a problem with an oily substance in water affecting thousands of customers in North Lanarkshire.

To be honest, I didn’t think much of it at the time. However, when I arrived at the Scottish Water offices, it was clear things were a bit different from usual. The other members of the press office team were missing and no sooner did I sit down than the phone was ringing.

Calm and confident

That call came from Heart Radio, they were looking for updates on the water situation in North Lanarkshire. Putting on my most calm and confident voice I told them I would get the information they were looking for and give them a call straight back.

It was then I was contacted by Scottish Water’s media manager advising that half of the team had been working through the night answering media enquiries, while the other half had started work at 4am to take on the next shift. They had gathered in the Glasgow office to be near to the situation – so it was my job to hold the fort in the HQ in Rosyth, Fife.

Since joining Holyrood PR 10 months ago, like all new recruits to the company, I’ve had to undergo a pretty intensive (and at times demanding) learning process. It’s a fast-paced environment where the phones are constantly ringing and there are always enquiries coming from journalists.

But during a major incident like the one at Scottish Water, this reaches levels I had never experienced. The phone barely stopped ringing during that entire day. Indeed, my lunch consisted of struggling to squeeze in mouthfuls of soup between phone conversations with insistent journalists from dozens of news outlets.

I answered calls and dealt with queries from some of the UK’s largest newspapers, television channels and radio stations including the BBC, ITV, STV, Heart Radio, Capital Radio, The Herald, The Times, and The Daily Mirror.

Even when the calls began to die down later on in the day, I still had a lot of work to do.  A main task in those few quiet moments was to pull together all the coverage and broadcast transcripts from radio and television interviews given by Chief Operating Officer, Peter Farrer.


Oily water report in Daily RecordThis coverage had to be packaged up so that it could be quickly assessed and scanned by the bosses on the frontline, who wanted to be sure important Scottish Water messages were cutting through – letting people know not to drink tap water, where to get bottled drinking water and what was being done to solve the problem.

One of the main things I’ve learned at Holyrood PR is about the importance of media coverage. Every day our team not only monitors and collates media coverage, we also painstakingly evaluate it. Is it positive or negative? Does it tell the client’s key messages? Does it help the client achieve its business objectives?

The sheer volume of coverage generated by the oily water incident was mind-boggling. Thankfully one thing was apparent straight away – the speed of Scottish Water’s response, both on the ground and in the media had resulted in broadly positive tone.

Indeed, the majority of the coverage mentioned how quickly Scottish Water’s team had responded in getting out the safety message and providing bottled water supplies.  It was also fair and balanced in explaining the steps being taken to identify the problem and put it right.

Thankfully no-one became ill as a result of the event and while families had to cope with an unexpected day of school closures, the vast majority of homes in the area had their clean, safe water supplies back as quickly as possible.

A real crisis was averted and even the drama played out in the media helped me get my first tase of handling a major public incident. It was a real eye-opener and in my opinion it is the best way to experience and learn about a situation like this.

And if I’m totally honest I really enjoyed being part of it, there was a real buzz created from being involved.

Proof that the only way to avoid a reputational mauling is all in the preparation – even if the crisis never comes


NO BUSINESS wants to be thrust into the media glare – to have its senior staff and business affairs subjected to intense scrutiny and possibly face fierce criticism and condemnation.

That’s the scenario that Scottish Water encountered when it had to issue warnings to several thousand people and businesses in North Lanarkshire after the discovery of an oily substance in the supply.

As a water supplier, whose principal service is to provide a clean and safe public water supply, this is pretty much as bad as it can get – a potential PR disaster.

So how do you resolve – or better still – avoid a PR disaster? How do you handle the immediate priorities and demands of a crisis, yet still ensure your business’ reputation remains intact?

Front row seat

In this case I was given a front row seat to see exactly how Scottish Water responded.  The slick operation I witnessed was in stark contrast to my first experience of providing crisis management support to Scottish Water in 2002.

Back then the fledgling organisation (Scottish Water was just three months old) suffered a tsunami of media flak when tens of thousands of customers in Glasgow were warned not to use their tap water because of the presence of the bug, cryptosporidium.

Newspaper and broadcast editors smelled blood and featured brutal reports on Scottish Water and its senior management as confusion and mixed messages were given out about who were and were not affected, how and when the public were notified and what were the likely consequences for anyone who had drunk the contaminated water.

It was as bad a media mauling as any business or organisation could face. The impact on the utility was massive – staff morale suffered, public opinion and confidence was rock bottom and there was a constant steely focus from government and regulators.BBC report on oily water

This time round, it was so very different.

As a result of that bruising 2002 experience Scottish Water set up a totally new and tailored response to major incidents, which is tested regularly. Experience gleaned over the intervening years means it is now incredibly well-drilled and combined with a superb internal comms programme to build staff support.

The organisation has more than learned from its mistakes – it has created a major incident response system which should be the envy of organisations everywhere. Sadly too many firms don’t plan or prepare for such situations, until the crisis is already underway.

At Scottish Water, as soon as a major incident is declared, key members of staff – from the Chief Executive down – muster at the utility’s modern base at The Bridge in Stepps to launch a well-practised emergency planning operation, headed by an appointed Incident Commander.

While the incident team was composed of experts from the likes of operations, engineering, logistics and scientific services, whose main task was to find the source, keep people supplied with bottled water and to remedy the problem; there was a vital role for the comms team.


24 JUN SW WebsiteTheir efforts centred on a vital element of any emergency or crisis situation affecting or involving the public: keeping people informed at all times. There is no surer way to build up criticism and mistrust than to have people complain than by creating an information vacuum. It will simply be filled by unfounded criticism, inaccuracies, rumour and other misjudged information.

To avoid any such vacuum, Scottish Water put in place teams working round-the-clock in shifts – including me – to draft and issue constantly updated media statements; to facilitate media interviews on the most influential channels; and to upload fresh content regularly on the Scottish Water website and social media channels.

It doesn’t come easy. It takes experienced media professionals who can calmly handle the sometime unreasonable demands of the press while working as part of a larger incident team, and who won’t complain about working long hours. Despite the extremely long and demanding day, it was an enjoyable experience and serves to show the media management skills that Holyrood PR provides to businesses and organisations at times of crisis.

The results speak for themselves. Yes, there was extensive coverage, but it was factual reporting of the incident. There was no adverse media storm stoked by people complaining that they didn’t know what was happening, or where to get supplies of bottled water, or that management had been negligent or indeed the business had failed in some way.

Such was the success, that the incident has already been forgotten by the media, who were satisfied there was no further story to report and quickly moved on. Pleasingly for our team of Edinburgh-based PR experts, we also got praise from Scottish Water Chief Executive Douglas Millican for the part we played in the wider effort.

He said: “Thank you for the support that you provided to Scottish Water with our major event in North Lanarkshire.  As I visited the sites, I was struck by how many people from your company and our other partners were supporting our efforts.

“The speed with which you mobilised to support us was excellent. I was impressed by the willing support of all of your people who played an essential role in minimising the impact to customers, maintaining customer confidence, and providing alternative supplies.”

If your business would like to work with PR professional who are adept at crisis management, check out the public relations services of Holyrood PR

We are a friendly bunch at Holyrood PR and we’d love the chance to speak with you about how our various public relations services could benefit your business.

It couldn’t be easier to get in touch. Just phone us on 0131 561 2244, or take seconds to  fill in the simple form below and we’ll get straight back to you:

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