This article was originally published in 2015 and has been completely updated in 2020.
Author René Henry has kindly granted permission to publish this excerpt from his latest book, Communicating in a Crisis: A Guide for Management.
There are 10 steps a company, organization or institution needs to take or have in place to hopefully prevent a crisis, quickly close the crisis, or to meet the crisis as a challenge and create a positive opportunity.
1. Anticipate and have a plan
Anticipate every possible crisis and ask “What if …?” for every possible incident and scenario that can be envisaged. Organize a crisis management and communication team, and then create a detailed plan to communicate and be in a position to control the message to the media and all stakeholders.
2. Respond immediately
When a crisis strikes, respond immediately. Have the spokesperson prepared and ready to go. Follow the steps outlined in the crisis communication plan and put the team into action. The first few hours are most important in establishing credibility and building public trust and believability. Do not stonewall. Be responsive to the media and inform the people who need to be kept informed, especially employees, shareholders, vendors and customers.
Eliminate “No comment” from your vocabulary. One way or the other, the media will get information, but it may be inaccurate and the sources unreliable. In a crisis, perception is stronger than reality and emotion stronger than fact. When those responsible do not communicate, the crisis still gets played out in the media and possibly even later in court.
The communication plan should do a “What if …?” for all potential situations, and in many cases a news release can already be prepared for media distribution. For example, if a crisis team believes the company may be a target for a labor strike, a news release can be prepared, approved by all concerned and put on the shelf for future use. One former client faced a situation where the two top officers traveled frequently, and might not be reachable for a quick response to the media. Having a pre-approved news release would allow the company to quickly respond until the top executive could be reached.
If there is potential of litigation, either as a plaintiff or defendant, have detailed fact sheets and background materials prepared and ready to release to the media when needed.
Use the company’s website as one of the important information vehicles and have someone assigned to keep it constantly updated.
3. Do not overtalk
Just the opposite of stonewalling, do not overtalk or release information without having all of the facts. Never speculate on what may or may not be happening. Be sure to analyze each situation for its newsworthiness. Some information may not warrant media attention. Former White House Press Secretary Marlin Fitzwater said: “You don’t have to explain what you don’t say.”
You don’t have to answer every question. Just because a question is asked doesn’t mean you have to answer, but you should have some kind of response. In any crisis, there are questions that you simply cannot or should not answer. Hypothetical questions, proprietary questions and speculative questions should be politely turned away. The spokesperson needs to be trained and reminded that he cannot be expected to know the answer to every question asked. But never withhold information that should be disclosed.
4. Always tell the truth
Never lie or deceive the media or public with misinformation. Sir Winston Churchill once said: “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.” It is all right to say “I don’t know” if you don’t have the facts. The media and public will respect you for that, and know that you are telling the truth. Never speculate. Colin Powell said it is best to get facts out as soon as possible, even when new facts contradict the old. “Untidy truth is better than smooth lies that unravel in the end anyway,” he wrote in his book, My American Journey.
According to a survey conducted by the Porter/Novelli public relations firm, 95% of people were more offended about a company lying about the crisis than the crisis itself. Even worse, 57% polled believed that companies either withhold negative information or lie.
However, if you are in a crisis in a political campaign in the State of Washington, the state’s Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, declared that lying is not unconstitutional, or, put another way, it’s just fine.
5. Accept responsibility
If there is a problem, admit it. Be accountable and accept responsibility. There is an old Belizean Creole proverb, “bad ting neba gat owner,” which literally means bad things never have owners. Everybody disclaims responsibility when things go wrong.
Today’s leaders in government and business and even the media have fueled a rising tide of public distrust and skepticism. The sooner a company accepts responsibility for its actions, the stronger is its credibility with the general public and the media. In any crisis situation, the faster a company, organization, institution or individual tells a public it is responsible and accountable, the faster it will be able to manage communications and have its message believed or even better, closure on the incident and crisis.
Ronald J. Alsop, former staff reporter for The Wall Street Journal, believes doing the right thing, no matter how painful, is especially important in a crisis. In his book, The 18 Immutable Laws of Corporate Reputation, he cites how Johnson & Johnson did the right and trustworthy thing in 1982 in responding to Tylenol poisoning with its product recall. He compares this with how Roman Catholic bishops covered up incidents of sexual abuse by priests and put the church’s reputation above the interests of its parishioners. “Cover-ups almost never work. Why? Because today almost anyone can disseminate information quickly and widely on the internet, where it can be seen by millions of people,” writes Alsop. “In addition, the internet is a key source of story ideas for many mainstream news reporters and editors.”
A company’s liability issues may need to be resolved with the attorneys involved but winning in the court of public opinion, in the long run, is far more important that winning a decision in court. Never go into a denial mode. The media and the public will believe a spokesperson who accepts responsibility, and this is one way to build public trust.
6. Select the right spokesperson
Determine in advance who will speak for the company in the event of a crisis. More than likely there will be several individuals who are the only ones authorized to speak for the organization during a crisis. Designate one person as the primary spokesperson and another as the backup. Additionally the company should have individuals who can serve as technical experts or advisors, such as a financial expert, engineer, or someone who can speak about a highly technical subject.
Too often the wrong person speaks publicly, and others, because of an “ego syndrome” just want to get in front of a camera. The names of those who are authorized to speak needs to be communicated to all so they understand that requests for comment by the media or anyone else must be directed to an authorized spokesperson.
Always remember that the media will seek out anyone for a soundbite, including employees at all levels, so there must be a policy in the crisis plan and everyone made aware of it regarding the official voice of the company or institution.
It is important the person be believable. This doesn’t mean being slick or polished. He or she must be someone the public will trust to tell the truth. All spokespersons must be professionally trained and completely prepared for the media. If time permits, there should be a rehearsal before any media interviews to review all anticipated questions.
“The CEO should be one of the spokespersons, but not necessarily the primary spokesperson,” says Jonathan Bernstein, of Bernstein Crisis Management. “The fact is that some chief executives are brilliant business people, but not very effective in-person communicators.”
Public opinion has shown that lawyers are not the most trusted of spokespersons and especially outside consulting attorneys. It is best to get the CEO or one of the most senior executives in front o the media as soon as possible.
7. Stop rumors and correct misinformation
A no-response is almost the same as implied consent. When something incorrect is printed or said, immediate action should be taken to point out the error and ask for a correction. Otherwise, the media involved will only assume that what was written or said is correct. One publication could print a damaging story with incorrect information. Another publication could assume the information was correct and refer to it in a follow up article. When repeated over and over, fiction and errors become fact.
In a matter of seconds, social media can spread misinformation or rumors around the world. This is why it is so important to have open lines of communication with all employees, customers, vendors, shareholders and friends. You want to control your message as best as you possibly can but you can’t control what others say. The media will seek out anyone with any connection to the company or organization for information and a quote. Be sure that all authorized spokespersons have correct and current information.
Just as there are clipping services that scan newspapers and magazines for any mention of a company or organization, and services that monitor radio and television programs, there are monitoring services that can be retained that regularly the web and social media for information. Adversaries, disgruntled employees and former employees, and whistleblowers can leak confidential information, misinformation or outright lies that are republished on websites, blogs, and social media – and eventually find their way into mainstream media.
Ronald J. Alsop believes companies must protect their corporate reputation by refuting any harmful rumor that is picking up momentum on the internet. “Ignoring the spread of a detrimental rumor is extremely dangerous,” he writes. “The correct strategic response is to neutralize the attack with a factual response.” He cites Coca-Cola as one company which is a frequent target of many rumors, and which publishes denials and refutations on its own website, while others, including Nike, develop separate websites devoted exclusively to refuting rumors.
The electronic age has created entirely new problems for crisis managers and attorneys. “Thanks to modern technology, all a person needs to extract and use misinformation from a false, archived article is a PC, Google, a Twitter or Facebook account and a disposition to work someone else’s old material into an article on the theory that if Big Media reported it five years ago without repercussions, it must be true,” says John J. Walsh, senior counsel of Carter Ledyard and Milburn, New York. In most jurisdictions, after one year, statutes of limitation expire on libel and defamation claims against a publication.
Walsh notes that a media crisis based on an article or broadcast can occur without warning, and often can be precipitated by a whistleblower and a quick decision by the media to go public. He says the injured party can ask for a correction, a retraction or an apology. A correction by the publisher tells the public that a mistake was made and provides the correct facts. A retraction advises the public that specific statements are withdrawn, usually accompanied by an apology or at least a statement of regret.
8. Show compassion and remorse
It is not against the law to show compassion, sympathy, passion and remorse for victims and their families and friends. This often is when the public relations counsel and lawyers disagree. The public relations professional wants to win in the court of public opinion, and the lawyers are concerned about potential liability and losing in a court of law.
”Expressing sorrow or concern publicly in the wake of a tragic event is understandable. It is also critical,” says Jeff Braun, founder and president of Crucial Communications Group, LLC, a Houston, Texas-based firm specializing in crisis and emergency response communications training and support. “Empathy or caring is a key component of credibility. And establishing credibility must be the overriding goal of any communication. If your audience does not see you as a credible source, you won’t get your message across or be able to address people’s concerns. Empathy and caring accounts for half of a person’s credibility and is assessed in the first 30 seconds. You have to convince the listener that you are credible, believable, trustworthy, and even likeable.”
Compare what Braun recommends with how San Diego State University responded when a student opened fire in a classroom and shot and killed three faculty members who didn’t agree with his thesis. When the university refused to comment, the media interviewed a maintenance worker and two people who had been in the classroom when the shooting began. The university missed an opportunity not only to tell its story, but to express remorse and show compassion for the loss of three members of its family as well as their families and friends.
9. Build your reputation before a crisis
Never take any chance of losing your credibility with the media and public. That is why it is so very important to establish your reputation before a crisis and have credibility in the bank. Build relationships with the media so they know you are telling the truth in the face of challenges from adversaries.
According to Harris Interactive, a company’s reputation is often overlooked as a component of business growth. In today’s market, consumer trust is at an all-time low. Following the series of high-profile scandals that have irreversibly changed the corporate landscape, Hill & Knowlton believes the need to establish trust and confidence is more recognized than ever.
The degree to which a company will get the public to believe its story will depend on the company’s reputation before a crisis. Magazines will publish lists of ‘most admired companies’ or ‘best companies to work for,’ but this doesn’t always translate into winning public trust if the public relations department and the people who are in contact with the media have not established their reputation and credibility with the media.
During a crisis, it is important to listen to what the public and adversaries are saying and to be sure that they, and the media, understand what you are saying. Listening is essential to communicating, negotiating, resolving conflicts and even avoiding crises. You have to be an active listener to anticipate the actions of others. However, listening is hard work. For some people, it is very difficult, but it can be learned. Listening is truly an admirable and enviable art for those who listen well.
From our earliest development years, we all are taught how to speak, read and write. No one is there to teach us how to listen. Stephen R. Covey ranks listening as one of his “7 Habits of Highly Effective People.” “Seek first to understand, then to be understood,” he says. “Most people don’t listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply. They’re either speaking or preparing to speak.”
“The ability to listen to others is essential,” says Harvard University’s Dr. Lawrence Susskind, conflict resolution guru and author of “Dealing With an Angry Public. “When high-ranking spokespersons or executives are being assaulted by those who are fearful, anxious, and angry, they must put aside their own feelings and defensiveness so they can listen carefully to what people have to say.
“Good leaders, effective in times of crisis, must be as keyed into their audience’s interests as their own,” Susskind adds. “You will not be able to acknowledge the concerns of others if you cannot hear them. Listening must be active. This means reiterating what has been heard to be sure the message has been received.”
In any conflict or negotiation, you must be an active listener. Focus on the speaker and your adversaries, take notes, ask questions, and make eye contact so they know you are listening. Communication must be two-way. Communicate your expectations clearly, accurately, timely and honestly.
Remember that the less you say, the more someone else will be able to remember what you say. It is just as important for someone listening to you to fully understand your message as it is for you to understand what they are saying. Saul Alinsky, who wrote the bible on nonviolent disruption, Rules for Radicals, says it best: “If you try to get your ideas across to others without paying attention to what they have to say, you can forget about the whole thing.”
(“Communicating in a Crisis” is available from Amazon.com or your local bookseller.)
By Silvia Arto, Vice President of the Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communication Management, Chair of the European Regional
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