Category: Reputation

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.

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Phil Robertson, Justine Sacco and Steve Martin Walk Into a Bar…

In the last few weeks we have seen three public examples of “open mouth, insert foot” that have provided different levels of shame, misguidedness and opportunities to right real and perceived wrongs.

The first example, and most widely seen and reported was perpetrated by Duck Dynasty patriarch, Phil Robertson. In an interview with GQ Magazine (anyone else see some strains of irony here), Robertson got himself in some hot water. According to Fox News – “Robertson was suspended indefinitely by A&E after saying that ‘everything is blurred on what’s right and what’s wrong… Sin becomes fine … Start with homosexual behavior and just morph out from there. Bestiality, sleeping around with this woman and that woman and that woman and those men.’

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“In response to A&E’s sanction, the Robertsons have reportedly considered pulling the plug on the popular program. Politicians, including Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal have leapt to the family’s defense, decrying what they see as an attack on free speech and Christian values.”

Cracker Barrel initially took a stance by pulling Duck Dynasty merchandise of off the shelves, only to place the merchandise back on the shelves when perceived public perception (read dollar signs) seemed to fall on the side of the Duck Dynasty clan.

For his part, Robertson stands by his comments which he says are taken from scripture and individuals and companies like Sarah Palin, FOX News and others back him, citing free speech.

Every day is something new. Reports are saying he’s back on the show and according to the Chicago Tribune, in a recent announcement, Jesse Jackson Sr. compared Robertson’s recent comments about African-Americans, gay people and women to comments made by the driver of Rosa Parks’ bus.

Our second recent gaffe occurred when, according to CNN, Justine Sacco, a former PR executive sparked a firestorm of controversy on Twitter for the following tweet:

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Sacco’s employer – media company IAC – fired Sacco after her tweet went viral. IAC issued the following statement: “The offensive comment does not reflect the views and values of IAC. We take this issue very seriously, and we have parted ways with the employee in question.”

In a written statement. Sacco apologized “for being insensitive to this crisis — which does not discriminate by race, gender or sexual orientation, but which terrifies us all uniformly — and to the millions of people living with the virus, I am ashamed.”

She added that she is a native of South Africa and was upset that she had hurt so many people there.

The last recent example, also occurred on Twitter, this time with comedic legend, Steve Martin. Per ABC News, the actor asked his Twitter followers to “submit your grammar here,” and when one user asked, “Is this how you spell lasonia?” Martin responded, “It depends. Are you in an African-American neighborhood or at an Italian restaurant?”

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After receiving some negative feedback, Martin took responsibility, apologized on Twitter for the “offensive thing I’ve done” and posted on his website “I am very upset that a tweet I sent out last week has been interpreted by some to be insulting to African Americans … To those who were offended, again, I offer a deep, sincere, and humble apology without reservation.”

But Martin further explained that his “grammar” session with fans is something he’s done on other occasions, like “For example, a person might write ‘What’s the difference between ‘then’ and ‘than?’ I would say, ‘then’ is a conjunctive preposition, and ‘than’ is a misspelling of ‘thank.’”

Martin continued, “I was going along fine when someone wrote, “How do you spell ‘lasonia?’ I wrote: ‘It depends if you are in an African American neighborhood or an Italian restaurant.’ I knew of the name Lasonia. I did not make it up, nor do I find it funny. So to me the answer was either Lasonia (with a capital), or Lasagna, depending on what you meant.”

“That they sounded alike in this rare and particular context struck me as funny. That was the joke. When the tweet went out, I saw some negative comments and immediately deleted the tweet and apologized. I gathered the perception was that I was making fun of African American names. Later, thinking it over, I realized the tweet was irresponsible, and made a fuller apology on Twitter,” he added.

Martin added that he was cited incorrectly by some media outlets, who have yet to correct their misquoting of his tweet. But in the end, he again took responsibility for the blunder.

Phil Robertson, Justine Sacco and Steve Martin. Three widely different public figures who faced fast public scrutiny and outcry for things they said/did. My thoughts:

  •  Phil Robertson does have the “right” to believe what he believes. We all do. What is unfortunate is we are at a point where thoughts – right or wrong; left or right – are amplified and exasperated. Individuals and groups seem more concerned with furthering agendas instead of getting to the heart of the matter.
  • Should we be taking everything written in scripture verbatim?  Would it be helpful/healing to open real conversations where we can better understand why…who…when?
  • Like it or not, we are all public figures. As a PR-person, Justine Sacco has to know better. Heck, she is a native of South Africa. Twelve words that will change her life. What she said was stupid, wrong, hurtful, naïve, etc. That said, I haven’t seen or heard the outcries of “free speech” that I’ve seen from Sarah Palin and others. Maybe, Sacco isn’t public enough…
  • From a PR and social perspective, Steve Martin handled things great. He apologized. Took all the blame and explained the “backstory” of what he did. Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, “news outlets” distorted his tweet to make a better (and less accurate) story.

Bottom line, this isn’t the last we will see of situations like these. As long as we continue to care about “public figures” and the definition of “public figure” continues to expand; and as long as groups and individuals wanting to push forward agendas and personas are opportunistic; and as long as businesses have a stake in things; and as long as we all like being social and consider it social to hit someone when they are down; well, you get the idea.

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).

The Perils of Feeding the Beast

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The Paula Deen saga is the latest – but certainly not the last – instance of “celebrity done wrong” that brings with it the onslaught of communication experts, crisis counselors and image consultants offering their take on how to saunter back toward grace.

The advice is usually sound – – fess up to your mistake; make good with the offended group; be sincere, etc.

What you don’t typically hear from the pundits are two things: One, it isn’t surprising that Celebrity X slipped up and two, in many ways it is our own damn fault that the transgression is newsworthy.

Whether it is Paula Deen, the Kardashians or Paris Hilton before them, the Bachelor or Bachelorette, we live in a Reality TV world where we want to know what the Real Housewives think and what Duck Dynasty is doing away from the pond.

It will be interesting to see if Deen bounces back. Dropped sponsors. Lost book deal. Cancelled TV show. That said, we live in a forgiving society even more forgiving of certain transgressions when the offender has something to offer – perceived or otherwise – we find entertaining. It seems to be less about being contrite and more about surviving the social backlash while waiting for the next few news cycles to pass.

Is there anything we can do to prevent these outbursts from occurring and being covered?  Probably not.

From a celebrity standpoint, no amount of spokesperson training can change who you are and what you believe – – especially when your celebrity persona/brand is one that is outlandish and talking from the hip. One of the challenges celebrities and other high-profile/public eye individuals face is the: 15 second sound-bite/140 character/attention-span light society that we live in…actually, that is a double-edge sword.

On one hand, there certainly is a percentage of people who treat as gospel things heard second or third hand. On the other hand, there is also a percentage of individuals (with some overlap) who gravitate over to the latest shiny, new person.

From a consumer standpoint, as long as we elevate those looking for their 15 minutes onto a pedestal, we will always have rants, ignorant comments and questionable behavior making headlines. Until we are honest with ourselves and take the source for what it is worth, we will have TMZ, your local Contemporary Hit Radio station and even Matt Lauer and Today reporting on marginal news.

Many have said Paula didn’t mean anything by her comments and it was just – with apologies to Manny Ramirez – Paula being Paula. And that may very well be the case.

So the question remains: Are we good with Paula being Paula, Kim being Kim and Honey Boo Boo being Honey Boo Boo?

The New Company Spokespeople are on Social Media Sites and Instant Chats; Should Execs Be Afraid?

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When I was in college, I remember taking a Public Relations Case Studies Class. In it, we talked about the different crises of the day. “What would you do about the Tylenol tampering?” My response was usually, “I wouldn’t ask a kid right out of college.” Not the most profound of answers, I know, but the truth.

Fast-forward a few years and I’m working at a boutique agency, defending myself to my seasoned boss for not getting two placements a day (quick math, 10 a week). Not ”interests” or “sounds promising” – – actual “that will be running on Tuesday” placements. My response – to myself, my boss scared the heck out of me – was usually, “excuse me unreasonable person, you need a much more experienced person to consistently get 10 placements a week.” And for the record, I was not lacking confidence at all, 10 placements for what I was pitching wasn’t reasonable.

Compelling message, meet appropriate audience. Looking back, whether dealing with a crisis or a proactive pitch, you need to have the experience and training to be adept in creating/developing/sculpting that compelling message for that appropriate audience. I think we can all agree that makes sense. Yes?

So, why is it we are seeing more and more unskilled/untrained individuals manning (or womaning) company social media sites, Instant Chats, etc.?

This past week we saw McDonald’s get some flak for tweeting about the happenings in Cleveland. Closer to my home, my wife was trying to buy a present online with a major retailer only to learn that a receipt with the prices would be included with the gift. My wife Instant Chatted with the retailer, and received a response from the retailer tad amount to, “dude, that sucks for you.”

Understanding economics may prohibit having seasoned PR people available 24-7 to either act as a company spokesperson or respond to a “crisis” situation, it is critical to embrace the reality that those individuals who are on the Instant Chat, Twitter, Facebook, etc., are representing your company. Would you let an untrained person talk to a reporter at The Wall Street Journal? In many ways, today’s consumers are all reporters.

Make no mistake, this is by no means an indictment on the twenty-somethinger. Not at all. All I’m saying is, whoever is going to be working the new technology should understand that they are representing the company, and in doing so should consider the following:

  • Know your brand – You are not responding, your company is – – doesn’t matter if you are having a bad day, want to say something that is clever, or think the person you are talking to is unreasonable. I wrestled in high school and when we won the state cup and were presented      with jackets, I remember my coach telling us, “When you wear the jacket, you are representing Baldwin wrestling. Act accordingly.”
  • Empathize with your real audience – Why are they reaching out to you? Odds are, not to just say, hi. There probably is an issue and it was important enough for them to reach out.
  • Make sure you know what you can promise and deliver on it – You may start off as the consumer’s advocate, working with other departments within the company. Keep in touch with your customer (yes, now they are your customer) and, if possible, take the conversation off the public page until the resolution. Your customer may not agree with the outcome, but the hope is he/she (and everyone else reading the string) will understand.

A couple of years ago, I developed my current company’s Facebook and Twitter pages and responded to more than my fair share of inquiries.  Now, I have a very skilled (and I believe twenty-somethinger) monitoring and responding. She keeps me in the loop with her interactions and will ask for counsel when needed – – funny thing is, after all these years, I still think back at what my high school wrestling coach said. Still applies today.

Monkeying Around With Words

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Words are powerful. They can unite. Motivate. They can hurt. Misrepresent.

Love. Hate. All. None.

In our field, words are the foundation of strategic plans; the essence of key messages and the tools used to convince, sell and explain.

Why then are so many, so quick to treat words as gospel? And why are so many, so quick to spread the words without fully embracing or understanding the ramifications of the words?

Ready, fire, aim.

Recent current events have only solidified trends that have been occurring for years. And social media has kicked it up a notch. How many times have we seen something reported and retweeted only to find out minutes or hours later that it was inaccurate?

But what should we expect? We stretch the truth every day for a myriad of reasons. How often have you been in a meeting where you hear someone say something like, “Nobody understands the message” or “Everyone thinks that is a bad idea.” Really?

Come to find out that the “nobody” was really three emails and “everyone” was a group of people at a happy hour.  In other words, not so much nobody and everyone.

Jon Stewart has said, “If everything is amplified, we hear nothing.”  Amplification occurs when words are used carelessly, without checking the accuracy. We’ve become numb, substituting truth and fairness with being first and whenever possible our take on a particular situation.

The great philosophers Peter, Micky, Davy and Mike once sang, “I remember when the answers seemed so clear; we had never lived with doubt or tasted fear. It was easy then to tell truth from lies; selling out from compromise; who to love and who to hate, the foolish from the wise.”

While I’m certainly not naive to think the world was much clearer years ago, I do think much of society’s quench for 15 minutes of fame has taken the idea of “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth” to a much broader interpretation. And Facebook, Twitter and social media in general has given us the platform to shine the spotlight large and bright.

I don’t know what the answer is; I do know part of my job is developing compelling messages for appropriate audiences. It can sometimes take me quite some time in determining the right words for the right people. Maybe we’d be better off if we all took a moment to breath before both sending/saying something and considering the source. Maybe not, but at the very least I wrote a blog that included Jon Stewart and the Monkees.