Category: Crisis Communications

The Who, What, When and How to Communicate in a Crisis

Crisis

No matter where you stand on the new Texas law allowing college students to carry guns on campus, one thing is evident: those colleges allowing students with concealed carry licenses to bring their guns onto campus are updating existing crisis communication plans.

Planning for a crisis may sound like an oxymoron to some – – much like a little pregnant, good grief and larger half. However, proactively identifying and preparing for probable negative situations before they occur is critical and will better help with the overall management and communication of the problem if/when it occurs.

When a crisis does hit, you don’t want to spend your time on developing foundational elements that should’ve been planned and addressed before the crisis.

Now, there has been much written about crisis communication plans. Simply Google crisis communication plans and you will see a litany of entries from an array of reputable sources. What I’d like to do is provide some thoughts on certain aspects near and dear to me: the who, what, when and how of communicating during a crisis.

The Who

Generally speaking, there are many factors that will impact the breadth of the crisis communication plan and the number of spokespeople needed: company size, industry, office locations, public or private., external audiences (vendors, partners, etc.). You get the idea…

The number of spokespeople should be limited, but only you know the necessary amount to best represent the company by quickly and effectively communicating the appropriate messages to your target audiences.

One thing that can’t be allowed to impact the plan is the CEO’s/management’s lack of willingness to communicate. Meaning, I don’t care if the executives don’t typically see the value and benefit of regularly communicating, in a crisis it is imperative. In most crisis situations a company’s reputation is at stake. Could be safety. Livelihood.

No matter the company, a crisis communications team should be established ahead of time, made up of – among others – heads from all of the company divisions (financial, sales, procurement, HR, customer service, etc.). Most likely these will be key leaders/executives/C-suite members.

These individuals should be the company’s only spokespeople.

Let me be clear, a spokesperson is not just someone relegated to talking to media. A spokesperson is anyone who will be communicating key messages to target audiences – – employees, analysts, vendors, customers, etc.

Each spokesperson should go through rigorous training – not just “media” training – ahead of time on how to answer questions and how to get your messages across. When communicating, the spokespeople need to be using the same key messages (the same “base” or primary key messages; there will be key messages specific for each audience).

One of the major hiccups I see with crisis communications is when “unauthorized” individuals talk on behalf of the company. Not just to media. Tweeting his/her thoughts. Responding to a Facebook post or a question from someone. Most often the individual is trying to be helpful, but is responding with outdated or wrong information.

To best combat this, policies should be established – with consequences – and made part of employee handbooks. For media inquiries, employees should say they cannot speak on behalf of the company and direct the reporter to the appropriate person. For social media and general situations, employees shouldn’t respond, but forward the post/Tweet to the appropriate established in-house person (could be social media department or boss).

The What

Understanding each crisis will have its own set of messages, there needs to be a willingness to be as upfront as possible: explaining what is happening and what is being done. That said, there will be instances where you can’t/shouldn’t provide all of the information.

It could be that the company is involved in a police matter and there are certain details that could impact the investigation; security concerns could put employees at risk; or talking about union negotiations may sway those very negotiations one way or the other. The key is to honestly explain why you are not able to provide all of the information and not create false crutches so you don’t have to be forthright.

The When

When a crisis occurs and the team meets to ascertain and gather facts, establish roles, review the plan and develop messaging for the appropriate audiences, you’ll want to establish regularly scheduled checkpoints, based on the specific incident. During these checkpoints, you’ll provide/learn updates, tweak the plan accordingly, revise messaging and determine which groups/audiences are contacted first.

Be sure you are comfortable with whatever you send making its way to a greater/larger audience and be sure to avoid inappropriate language or slang. No matter best intentions and For Employee Use Only, “private” information can and will find itself on Twitter, Facebook and/or the local newscast.

The How

Use all available means/technology that is appropriate. Employee town hall meetings. Webcasts. Podcasts. Emails. Conference calls. The media. Twitter. Facebook.

It comes down to knowing how your different target audiences are receiving information, which method(s) will most effectively tell your story, and which will best receive your message. What is the crisis? What do we want to say? What is the best way to communicate that will be easily understood by target audiences?

Perhaps, for example, the VP of Procurement sends an email to a top vendor with a general note from the CEO and additional, vendor-specific messages.

Or, in responding to a media request, you determine you don’t have anything positive to say so you issue a statement explaining what occurred and what you are doing.

Remember

At best, a crisis is something you can prepare for ahead of time that has minimal ramifications; at worst, well at worst, an unforeseen crisis occurs where there are lives lost. Knowing ahead of time who possible spokespeople are and having them properly trained will help as you determine what messages need to be said to which audiences.

Five Must-Do’s Before Talking to the Media about a Crisis/Negative Story

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Last week I blogged about the questions I ask myself and the reporter when confronted with an unexpected “crisis” call (or email). Truth is, the real work comes into play before you ever enter into a conversion with the media.

This includes:

  • Getting the lay of the land – What is your industry and what are the potential issues? Are you in sales? Professional services?  Environmental? Engineering? Understand who your real audience is and what is important to them. Based on this, determine the main issues that may arise and those internal touchpoints responsible for those areas.

For example, if you are in a sales organization, get together with the sales leadership and discuss the types of issues – – poor sales experiences of customers; bad product – – and the reasons why they occur. Understanding every situation is different, start thinking about some broad stroke responses.

Ideally, you want to get to the point where key people are reaching out to you before something happens. For example, Legal and HR telling you before a large layoff is going to occur.

  • “You Talking To Me” – Develop a process in which all media roads start and end with you. Make it clear that if someone gets a call from/is approached by the media that the media should reach out to you. Identify all of the realistic groups within the company that may get approached.

A few years back I received a call on my cell from the head of our security. Our office was closed because of a health scare and the media were at our front door (apparently an employee leaked the internal memo to the media). Security told the reporter he wasn’t authorized to talk, but gave the reporter my name and number. He called me before the reporter did and gave me a heads-up. When the reporter called, I was prepared and was able to provide information ensuring “outbreak” would not be used in her segment.

  • The buck stops… – Be clear as to who needs to see and approve responses. Less is more. Explain to Legal and HR the deadline nature of the media and the negatives of not responding in a timely fashion.

Get on the same page on the way to answer questions or situations surrounding security, competition, court cases, etc. – – “we aren’t going to talk specifics because our competition would love to know that.” The more you can agree on the better.

  • Talk to third-party groups – This can be helpful when the story in question really isn’t a company story but more of an industry issue. Reach out to trade associations, industry analysts and see what topics they are comfortable in answering.

If the story is about how nobody is using your product anymore, tell the media it is one thing for me to say it’s not true, but here’s an analyst (or trade association or customer) who covers the industry and will tell you the facts.

  • Don’t answer calls from people you don’t know – Paranoid? Yes, maybe a little – – what do you mean by that? Fact is, the media will leave you a message and may provide some insight as to why they are calling. This allows you to quickly get the facts from the appropriate parties.

Try to manage the expectations of all the appropriate people by providing an email overview of what the story is going to be, with our response and reasoning behind the response. Be the first to see/read the story and provide the same group a recap (we want to be the one to frame the message/tell the story).

Arguably, the most important part of this occurs after the story runs and the recap email is sent – – whenever possible/appropriate,  making sure whatever the issue was, is addressed and fixed to make sure it doesn’t happen again. Keep notes. Show reoccurring trends. Hold people accountable. The best response to the media means nothing if the problem(s) persist. It will hurt the company and it will hurt your reputation.

Six Questions to Determine Whether You Give an Interview, Provide a Statement or Send the Media to Someone Else

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Last week I talked about media misperceptions some people have and how to go about conducting a positive interview, free of “I was taken out of context” and other concerns.

But what do you do when you receive a call from the media regarding a less than spectacular topic?

Perhaps your client/company has an unhappy customer and the dreaded “consumer advocate” reporter reaches out to you. Or, an email asking for an interview regarding your recent office closing in which XXX employees (fill in your own amount; whatever it is, it is too many) were laid off. Can I interest you in “nobody is using your wasteful product” or maybe “we are outside of your office right now because we heard…” for your viewing pleasure?

Good times, I know.

First, the bad news. We need to respond to the inquiry and “no comment” does not count. Think about it. These days “no comment” or not responding is French for “I’m guilty” and immediately hurts our reputation.

Now, the better news. There are ways to respond that will allow us to best tell our side of the story. To get to that point where we can best tell our side of the story, let’s take a step back.

I get an email or phone call from the media. Couple of things I want to know and some things I’m asking myself:

  1. Who is the reporter (what beat/type of reporter) and what is the story?
  2. Deadline?
  3. Am I/is my company a direct part of the story or are we a piece/part of a different story?
  4. Who else has the reporter spoken to/is part of the story
  5. How is the story going to impact my different real audiences? How are they going to feel about us?
  6. Are there any relevant positive messaging?

Answering these questions will help me determine:

  • Am I or my appropriate company spokesperson conducting an interview?
  • Will I provide them with a statement?
  • Is there, legitimately, a better entity/person/company than is more suited to comment on the story to make it better?

Interview versus Statement versus Someone Else

No matter the vehicle we use for the response, the response itself is going to be the truth. That is – as they say – non-negotiable. Anything other than the truth is going to bite you in the long run. If we have done something wrong, own up to it, be contrite and move on.

Reality is, in most instances the reporter already knows what he/she wants us to say. This premise is reinforced if you learn that the deadline is very tight and you are the last piece of the story (meaning the reporter has already spoken with X and Y).

If we have something positive to say and have the time to prep a spokesperson, use a spokesperson or do the interview yourself. Like any interview, what are the things we want to get across; what are the questions that are going to be asked; and can I answer those questions and bridge to the messages.

If you don’t have the time or we don’t have anything positive to say, use a statement. Short and to the point. “That shouldn’t have happened. We are working directly with our customer to make this right. We are also taking the necessary steps to make sure this never happens again.” Remember, you don’t have to get into every detail and certain topics involving security, competitiveness, etc. don’t have to be addressed.

In certain instances, there may be a chance to have someone else answer the question for you. A couple of years ago, a reporter called saying she was doing a story that afternoon on how nobody uses or benefits from my wasteful product. Do I care to comment?

She was wanting the corporate suit to defensively respond. Instead I offered an alternative. “What if I get you a business owner who relies on my product to feed his family,” I asked. Sold! A segment that started out as a negative turned into a neutral or, dare I say (I dare, I dare) a somewhat positive.

The overall moral of this story (or blog) is to always be prepared. Know the questions you want to ask and be attune as to how the media presents the situation to you. Be clear on how your company is impacted and what your real audience will think. Doing so will prevent massive cases of flop sweat (and you were wondering how I would tie that picture together).