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Crisis Management – Crime wreaks havoc on the image of a sweet lowcountry town

Out of clutter, find simplicity.  From discord, find harmony.  In the middle of difficulty, lies opportunity. – Albert Einstein

Crime wreaks havoc on the image of a sweet lowcountry town….

Gang violence and bullets in the night could have easily ruined the image of a sleepy little town in the Lowcountry of South Carolina, an otherwise placid place that boasted turn of the century homes, oaks lined with Spanish moss gently draping the wide streets, a bevy of antique stores and the home of the S.C. Artisans Center. The problem was thought to be the culmination of neighborhood gangs and infighting, which hit a new low when two adults and a 20-month-old girl were killed in a drive- by shooting inside the city limits in November of 2009.

This tragedy brought to a head the increased incidence of crime the area was witnessing, some of it inside and some of it outside city limits. Several more shootings followed in the area, resulting in the State Law Enforcement Division (SLED) sending in reinforcements and the state grand jury launching an investigation. Rumor and gossip fueled the problem, as did no formal communication with media and no crisis communications management in place.

Interviews were constantly sought by the area media, and as town officials increasingly felt they were being misrepresented in virtually every story, they began shutting out media, who were then left to fend for themselves, eventually making matters worse in what almost became a standoff. Next, the large daily paper in nearby Charleston, S.C., ran a formidable investigative front page story delving into the matter, leaving the mayor feeling that the full story had not been told. Community leadership was increasingly agitated with what they felt was no formal effort to reign in the media’s handling of the issue, and perception was quickly becoming reality as tourist numbers and real estate queries started dropping off, and the town became the brunt of barroom jokes.

Eventually, the opinion leaders began to pull rank and insisted it was time for formal counsel to help get the city’s name out of the ditch. They supported the hiring of a PR firm, and one was ultimately selected from Charleston in March, 2010. We were fortunate to be that firm, and plunged into the assignment by handling a television on-the-spot interview that arose during our own final interview for the assignment. Some speedy message development and message training, sitting in on the taping, re-taking sound bites, and providing the reporter with information with which to tell the story led to positive coverage, whereby the mayor projected “confidence and reassurance” that the city was in fact on top of the problem.

In fact, they had adopted the subsequently named ( job one) 10 point plan at a February, 2009 council meeting, but had never labeled it nor put anything in writing for media or otherwise to communicate what action was being taken to reverse course on the problem.

Through our proposal to take this on, we outlined our approach, and we followed it pretty closely, considering that the time (and budget) to develop a formal plan (past our recommendations) was not going to come easily. I do believe that today’s economy, in addition to moving at mach speed, means that sometimes we simply put the plan into our approach to the assignment ( and hope that extra effort, born of taking the time to understand their plight, and applying our knowledge) helps us land the account. Since activities by phase are suggested in detail as well, once agreed to, we plant those into an action plan for routine conference calls and or meetings, typically weekly and not less than bi- weekly.

To offer additional insight into this approach, here’s an example of how our plan was laid out in the initial scope of work:

  • To develop a unified, positive and consistent message and image to create greater awareness and appeal for the City of Walterboro as a safe, desirable travel destination and also a great community for living.

Strategies:

  • Develop core message and supporting messages for primary talking points, as well as basic media materials to accurately convey and positively portray the Walterboro story.
  • Create higher profile for Walterboro and its year round offerings through a more systematic and targeted outreach to local and regional media to inform re relevant news updates and angles, events and milestones that are news and/or feature-worthy.  Sustain awareness and interest in Walterboro activities, events, progress and maintenance of a positive image as an inviting, safe place to be.

The two pages of activities by phase then became our Excel spreadsheet tactical action plan for all moving parts and parties. This helped to solidify exactly what had to happen when and who was responsible.

Where did we start our assignment? We plunged into evaluating the coverage to date; compiled the media database; developed key messages and talking points, supported by proof points; wrote the backgrounder; bios on the mayor and town administrator; FAQs; and tough internal FAQs. We also began work on an op- ed to be authored by the mayor, with a primary objective of having that run in the daily paper in Charleston, the nearest large town where media had been coming from to cover each and every incident, and in some cases mis-labeling the scene of the crime.

In addition to early on labeling and packaging the 10 points that had been adopted late winter (but not named nor communicated) as the 10 point plan, and succinctly summarizing that for media, we also knew that job two was to start to remove the label that the media had affixed to all crime occurring in the area. Crime occurring in many small boroughs and hamlets outside the city but inside Colleton County were being identified as Walterboro in articles, newscasts and datelines. We were determined to help the media better identify the crime incidents by their precise locale, and to not hang the entire crime label on the city’s crest.

We set a date for media training and broke into two groups— mayor, town administrator, police chief and deputy, as well as the tourism director. The second group was comprised of town council members. Once media training had occurred and was deemed successful, we initiated our contact with media, which started with personal phone calls to the daily editorial page manager, and the managing news editor. I appealed to the former to review and accept our op-ed, and to the latter I requested enhanced awareness of where these crimes were actually occurring, and asked for their help in better telling the story, and recommended our team as a contact and source for information. It’s worth noting that the media had heretofore been going mostly to the police force and to “contacts” in the area, and now and again to town hall. However, they were not always met with cooperation and information, truly the result of frustration on the town’s part that led them to hunker down and to try and shut out the media, in essence. It’s clear, however, that is both impossible and not advisable.

Tapping the media to tell our side of the story was what was needed, and to that end, we offered the op-ed by-lined by the mayor to the daily only, initially, and agreed to hold on other media outreach until they ran the piece. That accomplished, we moved on with a personal appeal

( email) to the media on our list, all of whom had covered the crime in the area to ask their help in more accurately identifying the location of the crime, and to help in not sensationalizing the information either.

We shared the 10 point plan (as the backgrounder, with an intro) and the FAQs, as well as the op-ed. The reception was very solid, as personal follow up calls were made to engage the assignment editors, primarily, in helping us sort out fact from exaggeration.

In addition to the daily paper doing a cover story not long after the op-ed about the town turning its image around, the local ABC affiliate also did an interview with the mayor and me about the effort to turn around the image of the city, which had been badly tarnished.

Along the way, and as things settled down and the coverage became more fair, we were able to go out with some releases about events and activities the town had planned, like the Antiques, History and Arts Festival, which had several placements and was a huge success.
But, alas, there have also been additional crime incidents, which we are handling, and learning from, guiding the city on how to improve the process internally so we may maximize the opportunity for success and project an open, fair, responsive attitude toward the media. Shutting them out and/or not giving them the information they need to tell the story was old news now, and things had to change. Still a work in process, yes, but with each incident we get a bit closer to looking like a collective well-oiled media machine that not only survives, but in fact, may even thrive in spite of a crisis.

From years of training and practice, here are some things that are necessary for any organization to ride out a crisis and come out, head high and reputation intact, on the other side:

Is there a written plan for crisis communications in your organization?

Do you have an established phone tree for emergencies?

Is there a roster of phone and email contacts (home, cell, and so forth) for all members of the organization, which is both current and updated routinely?

Is it clear who is charged with talking to the media?

Do all employees know how to react if the media calls?

Are there written materials to supply media regarding background, company leadership and key facts?

Are talking points prepared when a specific crisis occurs to thoughtfully consider and prepare comments before responding to the media?

Are the appointed spokesperson(s) trained to speak with media?

Are third party spokespersons available to speak on your behalf?

Are there materials prepared for their review prior to media interviews?

Do employees know how to get information on what is going on?

Do all key staff members have a copy of the crisis communications plan and protocol- electronic and written?

Review these questions and you’ll hopefully be better prepared to weather the crises that will inevitably come your way. Shoring up your company’s reputation year- round and doing at least an annual review of your crisis communications plan will help with damage control. And at all times, remember to keep it simple, seek harmony and scan for opportunity.

Elizabeth L. Boineau runs E. Boineau & Company, a Charleston-based strategic marketing communications and public relations firm. She can be reached at eboineau@eboineauandco.com.

*A version of this article appears in PR News’ Crisis Management Guidebook, which came out in October, 2010.

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