By Elizabeth Boineau, E. Boineau & Company, Charleston, SC
Chances are fair that by the time the media calls about your client, it’s already a crisis. A crisis is any situation that is threatening or could threaten to harm people or property, seriously interrupt business, damage reputation and/or negatively impact the bottom line.
Handling the crisis well stems in part from effective communications to manage the message and the outcome. Offensive planning to avert the potential downside from a crisis can minimize the damage and could mean the difference between success and failure of the business and your case.
A crisis will present a greater test of communications and management skills than any other time, and the way the incident is dealt with will often determine the veracity, validity and integrity of the organization, all of which may be destroyed or damaged within minutes. Character is defined by times such as these, and the way one manages around, over and through them sets the course for the rest of the journey toward building reputation, awareness and credibility for your company or client.
Crises typically occur with little or no warning, create a lot of chaos and typically make the news…bad news, that is. In times of crisis, information changes swiftly, things change rapidly and often there may little or no information early on, which can lead to speculation and conjecture-internal, and external.
Most organizations fail to handle a crisis well for three primary reasons:
They lack a cohesive plan, they don’t have a crisis management team, and a single (not more than two, ideally just one) spokesperson is not identified and trained before the crisis occurs. Some companies perform poorly in these situations because they don’t react quickly enough; they don’t confront crisis head on; and they don’t anticipate that a crisis can come at any time, and are therefore reactionary.
In a crisis, it’s essential that a state of calm and an attitude of openness and honesty prevail. Relationships with media are critical too.
The media is calling because they are doing their job too and they should be given information quickly and professionally. Giving the media what they need- access, facts, next steps, and timely updates, most always means the media will in turn offer fair and balanced coverage of the incident. Even before the media gets the “official” word on the crisis, stakeholders, such as employees, board members, shareholders should be advised of the incident, the consequences, potential damage, action taken, and what’s ahead.
A cover –up job is never acceptable, so tell the truth and tell it fast– and that works in all aspects of life. They WILL find out- every time- and then you’ll have your credibility to regain too. Be sure you have all the facts and know just what IS true before you speak.
Make it easy for the stakeholders (and the media) to communicate with you. Establish the communications team, clearly identify who will be the spokesperson(s) and arm them with strong message/statement/talking points.
Tap your website and social media channels (this is your owned media) as a platform for the right message and to monitor what’s being said out in the field. Scour social media sites via Google and Yelp, and set Google Alerts for key words to keep radar up so you can tamp down negative messages.
A small team of senior executives should be identified to serve as the organization’s crisis communications team, including the CEO, the top public relations firm executive and legal counsel. If your in-house PR executive does not have sufficient crisis communications expertise, hire a pro.
PR and legal counsel don’t always get along. Often the lawyer wants the “no comment” path, which is a basic PR 101 violation. There are many ways not to divulge sensitive information and accommodate media, respect and manage their needs without shutting down and without giving away inside info.
Media training is most helpful, if not essential for the key spokespersons in a crisis. Spokesperson training teaches you to be prepared, to be ready to respond in a way that makes the most of your media opportunity.
Prepared statements, talking points, and key messages become the job of the PR person and/or agency, in concert with senior management. Mock interviews using TV techniques and role-playing on camera are good ways to practice scenarios that might involve a sometimes combative, aggressive media corps during times of disorder and chaos. Developing tough internal FAQs and rehearsing those in role play media training is a smart practice too.
If your company or clients is directly responsible for a situation, apologize immediately and show compassion for those harmed as you work to sort through the details. As appropriate, showing concern and possibly owning responsibility makes you more human too, and people become more forgiving if you admit mistakes up front and detail what you’re doing to improve or change the situation for those affected.
Keep open dialogue with the media, anticipate the next update and always be prepared to win in the court of public opinion too.
Elizabeth L. Boineau runs E. Boineau & Company, a strategic marketing communications and public relations firm based in Charleston. She has extensive PR and crisis communications experience, in her own agency and with large global PR firms. You may reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.