Category: Spokespeople

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.

How the Three-Column Approach is the Best Way to Getting Your Messages Across AND Answering the Reporter’s Question

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When we last left our Strategy of Answering Questions blog, we were talking about – among other things – the ways to answer questions including not necessarily the way the media would like us to do so.

So, let’s get a little interactive. Grab a piece of paper. I’ll wait….

Draw three columns, making the middle column much narrower than the right and left columns. Label the right column Messages.

Now, think about a particular topic. This is the topic that was pitched to the media or – if reactionary – the topic the media is asking to talk about. Let’s say, the launch of a new product or service. Write down those points we want to get across. Think about it like you have a three-minute commercial to fill with facts. At this point, we aren’t sculpting true messages or worrying about anything other than those things associated with the launch.

I think it’s fair to say the points could look something like this:

  • Last several years developing, testing and refining new technology
  • Enables consumers to accomplish tasks faster and more efficiently
  • Target audience are men and women 35-54 years old; educated; high disposable income
  • Vastly improves existing technology

Pretty good list. Could have more bullets, but you get the idea. Label the column on the left side Questions and think about all the types of questions that may be asked.

Don’t look at the messages. Just think about the types of questions and jot those down.  Could look something like:

  • Late to market
  • Too expensive
  • Not going to succeed
  • Already outdated
  • Not needed

Again, you get the idea. Also, please note that I specifically did not write the questions in sentence format. Reality is a reporter isn’t going to repeat your questions verbatim. There are multiple ways a question can be asked and this prepares you to get comfortable with answering any type of questions – – even the tough ones.

Now if you take a look at both the left and right columns, you’ll see that the column on the right relates to the column on the left. Your message points may not specifically address the question, but they certainly relates to them.

But what about the middle column? Glad you asked.

The short, narrow middle column are for your Answers. The column is short and narrow to remind you to keep your answers short. You absolutely want to answer questions because you don’t want to sound like a politician, but you are taking part in an interview because you have messages you want to get across. Messages on a topic that you’ve already agreed upon.

So, a question is asked, concisely answered and “bridged” to your message points. Bridging is the technique that allows you to get from a question to your positive message. The secret to successful bridging is answering the question.  Whenever you’re asked a question give a short, honest answer, then bridge to the positive message you’ve prepared in advance. If you don’t have a positive message prepared in advance on the question’s subject, give a short honest answer and stop.

Next up – how exactly do you answer those really tough questions? Like, “Was it poor planning or poor execution that made you late to market?” or “What if the new technology fails?” Fear not. The toughest question is nothing more than a great opportunity to get your messages across.

Prepping Your Spokesperson is More than Just How to do an Interview

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Few weeks back I talked about the Four Ways to Make Sure Your Spokesperson Isn’t ‘Taken Out of Context’ by the Media. It was a much-abridged version of media training; something that is near and dear to me and a topic I was asked by several people to expand upon.

Before I do anything, I must credit the late, great Ken Fairchild who I was lucky enough to spend time with, learning this craft. Many consider Ken the “Godfather of Spokesperson Training” for he started this “take” on media training in the 1970s. Ken was a good man and is dearly missed.

Now, I’ll let you in on a little secret. I dislike calling these training sessions’ media or spokesperson training. The fact is, while these sessions are designed to prepare an individual to handle the toughest of interviews from 60 Minutes, 20/20 and the like, what is being taught is a strategy of answering questions that can be applied to conducting new business meetings, presentations to clients or vendors, or any conversation where you are wanting to get your message across. Works with everyone except my wife.

Another little secret. If our spokesperson goes through training and we stop our work after we secure the interview and review key messages, we are just as much to blame if an interview goes wrong.

Without the proper training, most people when confronted with a media interview surrender their right to be an equal participant in a two-party conversation. An interviewee often behaves like a witness under a subpoena and not an active participant with a message to convey to a larger audience.

Remember, a media interview is more than just an agreement to answer a reporter’s questions. You participate in an interview because you have a message you want your real audience to receive (that said, and I cannot stress this enough – – you must answer the question).

Prior to the start of the interview, the PR professional should restate to the interviewer the purpose of the interview and what the spokesperson is going to bring to the table. If the spokesperson is by him/herself, he/she needs to do this.

Sometimes things get lost in translation between producer who was pitched and anchor/host who is doing the story. Doing this level sets, addresses any confusion and provides you or the spokesperson to possibly “test-drive” a key message you want to get across. This should be done with all interviews, not just broadcast. It reinforces what you are wanting to talk about.

As an interviewee, you have certain rights. In my next blog post, I’ll discuss what those rights are, and how you can leverage them to make sure you not only answer the questions, but do so and get your messages across.

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.

Four Ways to Make Sure Your Spokesperson Isn’t ‘Taken Out of Context’ by the Media

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How many times have you heard, “The media are out to get me” or “There is no such thing as a good interview” from a client or executive? Or maybe something like, “I didn’t say that” or “they took what I said out of context” from a CEO who is unhappy with a quote he/she sees in a story.

For the most part, the media are not out to get us. It hurts their credibility to get something wrong, which translates into declining numbers and loss of advertising.

I look at it this way – – the media are not going to force the black cowboy hat on you, but if you grab it and put it on your head, the media will help fit it.

The CEO, C-Suite executive, manager or appointed spokesperson who doesn’t properly prepare for an interview is doing a disservice to themselves and the company they represent. As PR professionals, we are doing a disservice to our company and ourselves if we allow this to happen.

If your spokesperson is not amenable to some form of spokesperson training (which you don’t have to call “spokesperson training”) and/or isn’t willing to have a “get prepared” or “review what is going to be discussed” meeting 20 minutes before the interview, rethink why you are talking to the media and what you are wanting to accomplish.

For the 20 minute prep, it is as simple as:

  • Reviewing why we are doing the interview. Illustrate how it is going to benefit us, who we are wanting to reach and what we are shooting for as far the desired effect. This is important for both proactive interviews and reactionary interviews (media contacted you about a subject and you determined an interview was more appropriate then a statement – – choosing interview or statement is the topic of my next blog).

The idea here is to make sure we are on the same page as our spokesperson and we manage his/her expectations.

  • Having your three to five key messages agreed upon,  ready and in front o’ your spokesperson. Ideally, we will have worked with the spokesperson on the messages so he/she feels true ownership.

More is not better when it comes to key messages – – muddles what you are trying to get across. Staying on message is going to help prevent being “taken out of context” or saying something “you didn’t say.”

Each message needs to be to be compelling, meaning it affects the heart, head or wallet of your real audience. Follow each key message with examples supporting/proving the accuracy of your message.

Use your spokesperson’s personal experience, experiences of others, facts/statistics, and analogies. These examples shouldn’t have to be complete sentences; just enough so the spokesperson remembers the example.

  • Addressing the questions and bridging to prepared messages. We know what the majority are going to be. List them and make sure your spokesperson can answer them. The key is to be short and sweet and to understand that while we are going to answer every question (maybe not the answer the media wants to hear), we are doing the interview to get our key messages across.

Our answers may very well not be our key messages, but the key messages will relate to the question since the question will be about the agreed upon topic.

I like using a three column approach – – left side for the questions (my preference is not writing out a word-for-word question since a reporter may not say it exactly the same way), right side for our messages and narrow middle column for the answers – – narrow to remind short and sweet.

Answer the question and bridge to your messages that relates to your question. If you don’t have a relevant message, answer and wait for the next question. Don’t go off message.

  • Talking about trap questions and questions you don’t have to answer the way the media wants you to answer. Questions like, “what if you don’t succeed” or “was it poor planning or lousy execution” or “why is your competitor saying” are nothing more than great ways to quickly get to our key messages. For example:

– I don’t speak in hypotheticals, but we are going to succeed because…

– Neither, what happened is…

– You’d have to ask them, what I can tell you is…

There are also questions that are asked that may be competitive, personal, in litigation or involve security issues. Explain why we can’t answer those questions.

During the actual interview, I like to be present. In the room, over the phone. My role is to introduce our spokesperson with the reporter by reiterating the topic, listen to the questions asked, provide “nudges” when necessary to our spokesperson (a note, pointing to a relevant message, mentioning in the interview), take notes, provide follow up materials/information  and review the interview with our spokesperson.

What works for you? What obstacles have you had to overcome?

The Good, the Bad and the Shades of Grey in Popular ‘PR, Then and Now’ Infographic

Last week I started blogging about elements of an infographic created by InkHouse Media + Marketing, examining the ever-evolving role of public relations. While much of the “that was then is now” approach is spot-on – – especially the last part – – it is important to note that we don’t live in a world of black and white. There are few absolutes, but many shades of grey.

Media Tour and Phone

At first blush this may seem like a no-brainer (some would a strength of mine). Not the case. For some reason, the analogy of a hand-written thank you note comes to mind. The note will most likely have more of an impact on the recipient. It is more thoughtful.

There are absolutely times when an in-person media tour is appropriate and necessary. When determining this, think about:

  • Who is the spokesperson? Is it a CEO who is charismatic who rarely has face-time with reporters?
  • What is the topic? Is the topic sensitive in nature that a face-to-face is appropriate? Are you introducing something – a product, solution, idea – that warrants more of a hands-on approach?
  • Can you piggy-back the media tour off of an existing trip? If you do, make sure your spokesperson makes the time specifically for media interviews.

The phone call has its place. When you are responding to something or are a part of a larger story. However, you must remember:

  • Call – whenever possible – from a landline. Marginal cell phone service is an unnecessary distraction. If you are using a cell phone, be in an area with good reception.
  • No speaker phone. The reporter should think you are 100 percent engaged in the interview.
  • Quiet area. Again, distractions are bad. Don’t do an interview while driving. Not smart or safe.
  • Have your notes/key messages in front of you. See driving bullet.

2nd Day 2nd Hour

Now more than ever, PR professionals need to be buttoned-up. Deadlines are real-time and “citizen reporters” are just 140 characters away. Crisis communication plans need to be fluid and reputation management 24 hours a day.

From a proactive media relations standpoint it remains the same as it always has – – what outlet is most appropriate/relevant for the compelling message or story. The outlet of choice may change but the idea of making sure you are getting the right message to the right outlet remains intact.

Impressions and Influence

In many ways, social media is the vehicle. The content used in social media will be the driver of influence and that content is going to consist of owned and earned media.

Owned media is the content you develop and post on your blogs, Facebook pages, Twitter feeds, etc. You are in total control of your messages and the messages should be more about your real audience seeing you as a trusted source of a particular field/industry, and less about hitting your real audience over the head with your latest product or solution.

Earned media is the use of the “fourth estate” – – news outlets that cover/mention you in an article or segment. Positive coverage carries the benefit of third-party credibility. “It isn’t me saying this is great, it is your trusted news source.” Whenever possible/appropriate, earned media can and should be used on your blogs, Facebook pages, etc.

Always

The infographic goes into other comparisons but the most important part about the evolution of PR is in the last part of the infographic. No matter how we – as PR professionals – get there, these elements (listed above) will ALWAYS be the most critical. We are the voice of reason, the conscience and the face of our clients. We are gatekeepers and problem-solvers. Time and technology aren’t going to change that.

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.