Communication is vital skill for crises

The Oregon Department of Human Services building in Salem. Image via Google Street View.If you find yourself in a hole, the first thing to do is stop digging. Instead, state officials last week dug deeper.

Word broke that they had decided to ship a 6-year-old Oregon foster child — a U.S. citizen whom we identified by the pseudonym of “Susana” — to Mexico to live with her father, an Oregon prison parolee. That decision quickly evolved into a public debate, one in which officials deserve an F for their communication skills.

The Oregon Department of Human Services is not unique in mishandling a communications crisis. Few organizations are prepared, as a crisis requires different skills — and more internal clout — than day-to-day public relations.

A communications crisis can happen to any organization — an employee scandal, a food-borne illness that affects customers, a product defect, the closure of a revered program, a financial downturn or widespread layoffs.

A savvy organization anticipates the unexpected. That sounds counter-intuitive — to prepare for the unexpected. But well-run organizations, just like smart parents and families, think through crisis scenarios: “If this, then that ...”

As of Friday, “Susana” was still in the U.S. The public and political outcry surrounding her planned placement in Mexico certainly qualifies as a communications crisis, one that DHS could and should have anticipated.

I’m no expert in crisis communication. But based on nearly 40 years as a journalist observing governments, businesses and nonprofits from the outside, I offer these suggestions:

• Be honest; be forthcoming. Don’t attempt to control the news; otherwise, you’ll be seen as manipulative and disingenuous.

The U.S. Army learned that lesson in Iraq after creating the disastrous mythology around Jessica Lynch.

• Move quickly. Minutes matter, let alone days. Get as much information out as soon as possible.

If something turns out to be inaccurate, correct it as soon as possible. But don’t sit on it.

Again, that is a lesson from the Army in Iraq. Its official news sources had to keep pace with social media, instead of distributing news on the Army’s traditional, slower timeline.

• Bring out the top officials — the governor, the agency director, the CEO. The public, and the press, want to hear from them instead of their representatives.

Castleview Hospital — a small but top-ranked hospital in Price, Utah — handled communications brilliantly during a 2007 mine disaster. The top administration held frequent news conferences, patiently answering every question until reporters had no more.

• Have a crisis-communications consultant on call. That outsider might possess more clout to convince management to move quickly and talk openly.

• Take responsibility. Don’t point fingers; don’t blame or criticize others. You’ll just make yourself look bad.

• Provide as much information as possible. Really.

Your reputation, and thus your work, is at stake.

• Plan for the unexpected. Remember Murphy’s Law and anticipate what could go wrong.

If DHS had followed such guidelines, the agency would have made sure Director Erinn Kelley-Siel was interviewed for last Sunday’s news story about “Susana.” Top-level openness might have quelled the ensuing controversy before it started.

If not, Kelley-Siel would have held follow-up press conferences to detail the placement process for foster children such as “Susana.” She would have explained the factors involved, how those factors are ranked and who makes and reviews the placement decisions. Oregonians would have understood whether DHS gave extra consideration to “Susana’s” situation because of its international scope or whether it was handled as routine.

• Gov. John Kitzhaber would have held a press conference to explain why he was asking Kelley-Siel to review the placement.

• The court system could have seized this opportunity to explain the judge’s role in placement decisions.

When top officials embrace questioning and criticism, instead of responding with defensiveness, the public feels reassured.

When the public feels reassured, it’s easier for public officials to do their jobs.

When public officials are confident in their jobs, they don’t mind being second-guessed about a decision.

And the best decision will be made for “Susana.”

Dick Hughes, who has worked and volunteered in child-welfare organizations in the United States and Mexico, is editorial page editor of the Statesman Journal. Contact him at dhughes@StatesmanJournal.com or (503) 399-6727.This post originally appeared on the Statesman Journal website, and was reposted with permission.