Crisis Communications

Props to Chipotle for Cooking Up Real Food Safety

 Chipotle took a hit for slacking food safety procedures that resulted in sick customers, but now the company has responded with food safety steps that are significant and verifiable, which should ease concerns for patrons who have stayed away.

Chipotle took a hit for slacking food safety procedures that resulted in sick customers, but now the company has responded with food safety steps that are significant and verifiable, which should ease concerns for patrons who have stayed away.

We chopped Chipotle for mishandling a food safety crisis that sickened customers. Now it's time to give the Mexican fast food chain props for taking savvy steps to rebuild its reputation for "making better food accessible to everyone.”

In full-page print ads, Chipotle Founder and Co-CEO Steve Ells owns the crisis as he lays out specific ways the company will sharply improve its food handling practices. 

“In 2015, we failed to live up to our own food safety standards, and in so doing, we let our customers down. At that time, I made a promise to all of our customers that we would elevate our food safety program.”

The ad lists eight “important advancements” that include improving supply chain food handling, employing new technology in prepping food, training farmers to meet stricter food safety requirements and improved in-store food handling procedures.

The list goes further, citing actions that crisis counselors often recommend – credible, validated third-party evaluations and inspections.

Ells says Chipotle managers and field leaders will need certification from a nationally recognized institution, which he added is a “first for any national restaurant chain.”

Restaurant inspections will “dramatically increase,” conducted by both Chipotle inspection teams and independent auditors.

Chipotle will implement an advanced electronic tracking system to monitor food sources and be able to trace supplies that should be removed or not accepted.

Chipotle will also create an advisory council comprised of industry experts charged with “continually reviewing procedures and providing insight into new food safety advancements.” An unsolicited suggestion, expand the advisory committee to include an online panel of Chipotle consumers and listen to their concerns, praise and ideas. 

It wasn’t that long ago that Chipotle’s sharpest critics suggested scrapping the brand and starting over. Instead, Ells chose the path of weathering the storm, which has included a significant drop-off in business, and emerging with a redoubled commitment to food safety. The ads are in effect the coming out party for the Chipotle brand and its new standards.

The actions Ells laid out aren’t flashy, but they respond directly to consumer questions (and fears) about the fresh food Chipotle serves. Maybe the chain should have figured out sooner that fresh fast food has higher risks than processed food. Chipotle’s response, at least as described, appears genuine and likely to be effective in reassuring wary customers to return.

With the painful lesson that fresh food demands greater vigilance now learned, Chipotle can embark on being the brand that leads the way on both. If it does, Chipotle will have converted its crisis into an opportunity to become better than before.

Media Training, Crisis and Self-Confidence

 Media training is more than just learning the techniques of giving a great interview. It is about gaining the self-confidence to give a great interview.

Media training is more than just learning the techniques of giving a great interview. It is about gaining the self-confidence to give a great interview.

The value of media training isn’t in memorizing what to say in advance, but achieving the confidence to say what needs to be said in an actual crisis situation.

Media training includes tips on how to craft and deliver a key message in a media interview. Trainees learn about crisp phrasing and avoiding jargon. They see themselves on video so they can self-correct distracting mannerisms and weed out excessive “ums” and “likes” in their speech. They recognize the benefits of practicing instead of winging interviews.

However, the most profound value of media training is building self-confidence. The most common comment I receive after media training is, “Now I feel confident that I can do it."

Being a spokesperson is not rocket science, but it can be nerve-racking. The best words and clearest delivery can be undone by a shaky countenance or an inappropriate facial expression – failures usually attributable to a lack of confidence.

Being a spokesperson is like being an actor. No matter how marvelous the script and staging, what counts is your performance. And great performances usually flow from actors who have meticulously prepared and go on stage with the relaxed confidence to awe an audience.

Actors spend time in front of mirrors to master how they look and practice their lines so the words fall off their tongues naturally. Spokespersons should follow suit. Media training gives them the basics. Their self-confidence carries them to the higher plateau of success.

Self-confidence can easily migrate to over-confidence. One successful interview doesn’t guarantee another. A self-confident spokesperson remembers what gave them self-confidence, even up to and including follow-up media training. You can never be too well prepared.

A key part of self-confidence is being comfortable with your role, and spokesperson roles aren’t monolithic. Giving an interview to a print reporter can be very different than giving one live to a television reporter. Appearing on a news talk show or an online forum are very different experiences and require different kinds of preparation to build confidence.

The variability of spokesperson roles is a cue to seek customized media training that offers a realistic experience like the situation you will face. We have provided media training to public officials who routinely were subjected to ambush interviews, to high-profile business leaders who speak in a wide range of settings and to nonprofit  executives appearing on talk radio shows.

While the challenges vary, one thing is always the same – you want to leave a media training session with the confidence you can be the spokesperson who does the job.

To be honest, sometimes trainees realize after the experience that they can’t do the job. That’s important to know, too. It takes a lot of self-confidence to have the courage to say you aren’t the right person to be under the hot lights. 

Gary Conkling is president and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.

Why Attorneys and PR Counselors Should Play Nice

 Clients in crisis have enough stress without enduring a squabbling attorney and PR counselor who fail to provide advice to minimize liability while preserving a reputation.

Clients in crisis have enough stress without enduring a squabbling attorney and PR counselor who fail to provide advice to minimize liability while preserving a reputation.

One of the biggest challenges in responding to a crisis is balancing lawyerly advice about courtroom liability with PR counsel about the court of public opinion.

Avoiding or minimizing legal liability can come at the expense of tarnishing or losing a reputation. For some clients, losing a reputation is more costly – and more permanent – than an adverse verdict.

Advising clients to say nothing can be a safe legal position, but a precarious reputational position. It is incumbent for attorneys and PR counselors to respect what each other does and offer clients constructive counsel that protects their full set of interests.

Wise attorneys recognize the power of words, so they carefully shape their messages. Experienced PR counselors understand the judicial process. That should form the basis for mutual respect and a healthy working relationship.

Attorneys and PR counselors are both advocates, each with a different target audience and parallel lenses to view the crisis. Judges and juries – not to mention opposing legal counsel – are a key audience. But so are the people affected by or interested in the crisis and its cause, which can include coworkers, neighbors, customers, regulators and, of course, the news media.

In law school, attorneys are taught how to parse words in cases and frame arguments. They don’t always learn the power of what is not said – or of not saying anything.

Journalists and PR professionals typically get a superficial picture in their training of how the legal system works. Most never spend time in an actual courtroom, watching a trial or diving into briefs supporting lawsuits. Few have covered a criminal or civil matter from beginning to end for a news outlet. Some have never heard of attorney-client privilege or appreciate its significance to protect clients and communications.

Clients deserve fulsome advice, even to the extent of differing views. An attorney and PR counselor may have sharply varying viewpoints on how much the client should say and when to say it. Dispensing their counsel in a respectful, professional manner gives clients a fuller view of their options and the risks and opportunities attaching to those options.

Self-confident attorneys and PR counselors serve their clients well when they collaborate and do their best to arrive proactively at a consensus that doesn’t equate to stonewalling or self-indicting confessions.

One of the most vital conversations is what can be said or done that provides reassurance to the people most impacted by a crisis. Earning trust in the heat of a crisis depends on meaningful actions and clear statements. This is as valid to consider as the ultimate liability for the crisis.

Despite coming from different universes, attorneys and PR counselors can be good teammates. And for the good of their clients, they should be.

In a crisis, clients already have enough stress. The last thing they need is a pair of squabbling advocates. However, attorneys and PR counselors don’t always play nicely together in the sand box. They have been called the “oil and water team.” Attorneys discount PR counselor understanding of the law. PR counselors think lawyers are rigid impediments to clients telling their story. Clients facing crisis shouldn’t settle for either stereotype. There are attorneys and PR counselors who know how to work together in the best interests of their collective clients.

An important part of crisis planning and preparation is to ensure your attorney and PR counselor have track records of collaboration and mutual appreciation that winning in court, but losing in the court of public opinion still equals a loss.

Gary Conkling is president and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at@GaryConkling.

‘Over-Exaggerating’ the Truth

 Disgraced U.S. Olympian swimmer Ryan Lochte lost three endorsements, standing as a stark example that reputations take years to earn can be tarnished in an instant, especially when you lie about being robbed at gunpoint.

Disgraced U.S. Olympian swimmer Ryan Lochte lost three endorsements, standing as a stark example that reputations take years to earn can be tarnished in an instant, especially when you lie about being robbed at gunpoint.

Need a case example of how lying can cost you dearly? Look no further than Olympic gold medal swimmer Ryan Lochte whose fabricated story about an armed robbery in Rio led to the loss of four prime endorsements by Speedo, Ralph Lauren, skin care firm Syneron-Candela and Japanese mattress maker airweave.

Lochte reportedly earned $2.3 million annually from his Olympic swimming sponsorships leading up to the 2012 Olympics in London, according to The Washington Post. One expert estimates Lochte's lifetime lost earnings from the four dropped sponsorships could be as much as $20 million.

In an interview with NBC’s Matt Lauer, Lochte took responsibility for the incident involving three other U.S. Olympians following a night of reverie that took a pit stop at a Rio gas station. Lochte admitted he was intoxicated and damaged a bathroom door. He was less definitive about other damage in the bathroom.

Lochte, who returned his hair to its normal shade of brown, also admitted “over-exaggerating” his encounter with a security guard who pulled his gun and pointed it at him. Lochte initially said he and his fellow swimmers were yanked from a cab and robbed at gunpoint. Now, he says, the guard confronted them after hearing loud noises in the bathroom and drew his weapon after Lochte acted aggressively. Lochte claims he was still drunk when he spun his robbery story.

While Lochte managed an apology to Brazil for not telling the truth, Brazilian authorities and news media are understandably not satisfied. Lochte’s untruthful tale touched a nerve in a country highly sensitive about its chronic crime rate. They correctly note Lochte only confessed to lying after surveillance camera video showed what really happened – or didn’t happen.

Intermixed in his apology, Lochte said some of the right things. But probably not enough of them. For one, he failed to say how it would make the situation right. That would require more than paying to repair the damage. It might take an act of attrition or a contribution to a cause dear to the heart of Brazilians. (Speedo said the company is donating $50,000 of Lochte’s fee to Save the Children, which will direct the money to add Brazilian children.}

Ralph Lauren removed Lochte's image from its website congratulating U.S. Olympians it sponsored. The company said Lochte’s deal was for the 2016 Olympics and wouldn’t be renewed.

The U.S. Olympic Committee has warned that punishments may lie ahead for Lochte.

At age 32, Lochte’s Olympic career is probably over anyway. His actions, which he described as “immature,” have put a serious dent in his reputation as well as his pocketbook. In the trade, he would be called “damaged goods.” Self-inflicted damaged goods.

Lochte may recover his reputation, and we sincerely hope he does take steps to do that. But his actions and prevarications are a stark reminder that reputation matters – and take only a few seconds to blow up.

Actions Speak Louder Than Reputations

 When your actions, reputation and reality don’t align, you are courting trouble. Actions guided by values speak louder than reputations based on puffery and promises.

When your actions, reputation and reality don’t align, you are courting trouble. Actions guided by values speak louder than reputations based on puffery and promises.

Your reputation should shadow your reality, not precede it. When reputation gets out in front of reality, you are courting scrutiny to see whether the two match up – and scorn when they don’t.

Remember, actions speak louder than reputations. Actions guided by solid values enhance reputations.

It is all about the difference of earning a reputation versus projecting a reputation. There are tangible dimensions to an earned reputation as opposed to the airy lightness of a projected reputation.

A useful exercise is to measure the gap between your reputation and your reality. This gap analysis can affirm an earned reputation or expose a hot-air projected reputation. If the perceived gap between reputation and reality is significant, you have a credibility problem.

“Effectively managing reputational risk begins with recognizing that reputation is a matter of perception,” according to a Harvard Business Review article. “When the reputation of a company is more positive than its underlying reality, this gap poses a substantial risk. Eventually, the failure of a firm to live up to its billing will be revealed and its reputation will decline until it more closely matches the reality.”

“To bridge reputation-reality gaps, a company must either improve its ability to meet expectations or reduce expectations by promising less,” the HBR article continues. Some companies panic and resort to financial tricks, sleight of hand or outright fraud to mask the gap, which can result in an even greater fall. Think Enron.

Because your reputation is your most valuable asset, managing your reputation should be a top priority. Reputation management should be based on actions, not promises. Actions to build or defend your reputation should center on actions that align with your core values and who you want to be.

When clients ask me about how to respond to a crisis situation, I advise to start by thinking about the organization's core values and let them be the guide for action. If you say your customers come first, then act like it when responding a crisis that may put customers at risk. If you say you want to be a good neighbor, then act like a good neighbor.

A brand promise – such as healthy, locally sourced fresh food – is only as good as the actions to fulfill that promise. Chipotle discovered the hard way that a brand promise rings hollow unless you ensure that locally sourced fresh food is also healthy food.

One of the best ways to earn a reputation is by solving other people’s problems. Another reputation-burnishing effort is to undertake steps that eliminate problems down the road, as Tillamook Cheese did when it chose to eliminate use the growth hormone rBst in its dairy herds.

The 2016 presidential election has highlighted reputations and realities that are out of sync. Jeb Bush was deemed the GOP frontrunner before winning a single primary. He raised millions of dollars in campaign contributions on the basis of his reputation, but when the voting started, his reputation imploded. He became the proverbial hollow suit.

Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton has campaigned as highly competent, but she has been tagged for her handling of classified emails on her private server as extremely careless. GOP nominee Donald Trump touts himself as a winning businessman despite a record of bankruptcies, failures and a continuing lawsuit alleging fraud by Trump University. Not surprisingly, a majority of voters view both Clinton and Trump as either untrustworthy or unfit.

The 2016 Olympics in Rio offer some sterling examples of men and women who have paid the price and earned their glory in the pool, on the track and in other venues. Some Olympic stars have to live up to their reputations, while most Olympians earn their own reputations based on their performance. Some win medals. Others compete and never get to the award podium. Still others are indelibly imprinted on our memories because of their actions.

 In an instant after their legs tangled, they fell to the track and helped each other up, Abbey D'Agostino of the United States and Nikki Hamblin of New Zealand earned a reputation as true Olympians. (Photo Credit: AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

In an instant after their legs tangled, they fell to the track and helped each other up, Abbey D'Agostino of the United States and Nikki Hamblin of New Zealand earned a reputation as true Olympians. (Photo Credit: AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

Abbey D’Agostino, a 24-year-old Dartmouth graduate, and New Zealand’s Nikki Hamblin were total strangers before running the 5,000-meter race in Rio. Twenty minutes into the race, their legs crossed and both fell to the track. Instead of worrying about their medal chances, the two women helped each other to their feet and hobbled to complete the race, finishing far behind other competitors. In an instant, they showed their true mettle by reflecting the traditional Olympic spirit of good sportsmanship.

Two days earlier, in the men’s 10,000-meter race, Mo Farah fell after his feet and got tangled with Galen Rupp’s. Perhaps sacrificing his own medal chances, Rupp slowed down to be sure Farah, his friend and long-time training partner, was okay. Farah gave him a thumbs up and went on to win his second consecutive Olympic gold medal in the event. Rupp put his values and his actions ahead of his reputation, and by doing so he ended up enhancing his reputation.

Gary Conkling is president and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at@GaryConkling.

A Crisis Response Do’s and Don’ts List

 It helps to have a reminder of what to do and what not do when a crisis erupts. Living out your core values is one of the best ways to respond.

It helps to have a reminder of what to do and what not do when a crisis erupts. Living out your core values is one of the best ways to respond.

When a crisis hits, it pays to know what to do – and what not to do. So we’ve created a simple chart to serve as a guide for the Do’s and Don’ts of crisis response.

At the top of our list of “Do’s” is drawing on the core values of your organization to navigate your response. A crisis can be a calamity, but it also can be a crystallizing moment to show your organization’s true mettle, especially if you act out the values you profess.

Another key item on our Do’s list is empowering a crisis team leader to take command and be a focal point for assessing the situation, gathering verifiable facts and directing actions and communications. Preferably, organizations have developed crisis plans, which identify potential crisis scenarios and designate someone as the crisis team leader. This is not a role suited for on-the-job training or random selection. You want someone in charge who has prepared and knows how to proceed.

There is no generic crisis. Each one is unique and can affect an organization differently. That’s why our Do’s list includes an impact analysis and verifying key facts.

What isn’t unique to a particular crisis is the need to monitor traditional and digital media, inform staff and stakeholders and let your actions “do the talking.” Twitter has become the go-to social network for crisis communications, so it pays to get comfortable with it before crisis strikes. It also is important to make sure that crisis communications are outwardly focused, not just inward-looking. How does the crisis affect key constituents or customers and what are you doing to address the cause of the crisis and prevent it from recurring?

The Don’t list is equally important to keep in mind. Don’t dissemble, lie or try to shift blame – even if the crisis may not be your fault. A crisis isn’t a time for speculation or jokes. To the greatest extent possible, you need to talk, not deny. And don’t let the lawyer make all the decisions. Sometimes the court of public opinion is just as important as a courtroom.

The first minutes and hours after a crisis strikes – or you become aware of a crisis situation – are crucial. Our Do’s and Don’t list can be a valuable reminder in the chaos of what it takes to do the right thing, protect your reputation and live your core values. 

Gary Conkling is President and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at  garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.

Focus on Victims, the Truth in Crisis Response

 A Union Pacific spokesman apologized for the “inconvenience” of an oil train derailment in Mosier that closed a school, shut down a sewer system, drained the water supply and leaked into the Columbia River.

A Union Pacific spokesman apologized for the “inconvenience” of an oil train derailment in Mosier that closed a school, shut down a sewer system, drained the water supply and leaked into the Columbia River.

Jim Lukaszewski, who bills himself as “America’s crisis guru,” says crises breed “mindless commentary” by the media and often other PR professionals. “They didn’t act fast enough.” “They didn’t have a crisis plan capable of responding to something of this magnitude.” “The response should have been executed much more cleanly with fewer hiccups.”

“Total nonsense,” Lukaszewski says. “Crises are always messy, sloppy, stupidly expensive and miserable affairs to manage. Mistakes are constantly made in responding.”

His point: Forget the criticism, which is inevitable, and focus on reacting fast and communicating. Make what you say rise above “bloviation,” focus on victims and share the truth.

Some of the most tempting bait for crisis response ridicule is how long it takes for remedial action. Lukaszewski pointed to the 120 days it took BP to shut off its Gulf of Mexico oil leak, which invited criticism from the highest levels. In the absence of credible and frank crisis response, news agencies hired their own underwater teams to capture images of the leak.

Wishing it would take less time isn’t an effective crisis response. Explaining as honestly as possible what and how long remediation will take would have been the most appropriate approach, even if it still courted criticism. Better yet, perhaps BP should have hired the underwater crew to monitor its response, missteps and all.

The most immediate response that matters, according to Lukaszewski, is caring for victims. You can earn a lot of goodwill for sensitively addressing crisis impacts on neighbors, employees or customers. These are actions you can show with real-time tweets, video and live streaming that counter negative imagery arising from the crisis. There are almost the only actions you can control in a crisis.

Lukaszewski warns against going silent when a crisis hits.  “Silence is always the most toxic strategy choice,” he says. “There is no rational excuse for silence by honorable companies. Silence becomes the focus of the coverage,” even if the crisis response is “splendid."

The Union Pacific oil train derailment in Mosier serves as a good local example of what Lukaszewski calls "bungled crisis communication.” A UP spokesman issued a timely statement that apologized for the “inconvenience” of the derailment, which resulted in burning overturned railcars and an oil spill into the Columbia River.

The word “inconvenience” appended to an apology seemed woefully inadequate. UP failed to mention damage to Mosier’s water and sewer systems. Sewers were shut off and the water system was dry. UP also failed to acknowledge the disruption to the community, which was scary for a nearby school and costly for local merchants.

There was no way UP could escape scathing criticism for the derailment and subsequent oil leaks. But it could have gained some respect by an early acknowledgement of the damage that had been done and its commitment to make things right. Instead, UP’s actions seemed more intent on clearing the track to resume train traffic.

A good strategy would have been to have people with UP jackets or vests omnipresent in Mosier, listening, monitoring teams assessing damage and doing whatever possible to demonstrate regret for the accident, not just the inconvenience caused by the accident.

A glance at UP’s Twitter feed revealed no tweets about the derailment or Mosier cleanup efforts. Instead there were tweets about UP’s online Railroad Trivia, including who was president of the railroad in 1906.

As Lukaszewski says, it is hard to plan for a major crisis. They always stumble in unexpected directions. But what you can plan for is dealing with the crisis as honestly, quickly and with as much care as possible. That doesn't take training or a crisis play, just guts and determination. 

Customize Your Crisis Plan with Risk Scenarios

 Because organizations face very different kinds of vulnerabilities, you need scenario-based crisis plans centering on real risks with a high potential to occur and large consequences when they do occur.

Because organizations face very different kinds of vulnerabilities, you need scenario-based crisis plans centering on real risks with a high potential to occur and large consequences when they do occur.

A fast food restaurant, an industrial helicopter company and a nonprofit child welfare agency don’t share the same vulnerabilities, so why should they have the same crisis plan? They need unique crisis plans built around risk scenarios each might actually face.

A fast food restaurant should prepare for a food safety crisis response, not one involving a helicopter crash or child abuse. That sounds obvious, but in practice many organizations settle for a crisis plan based on a template they plucked up somewhere online. Scenario-based crisis plans may or may not look like the crisis plan templates you can find online. This is a case where function is more important than form.

There are common elements in crisis plans, such as up-to-date phone lists, a designated crisis team leader and protocols on how to field press calls. While not unimportant, those are not the defining characteristics of a savvy, effective crisis response.

Here are some of critical characteristics of scenario-based crisis plans that you won’t get from a template:

Conduct an Issue Audit

A scenario-based crisis plan begins with an issue audit where key staff members and stakeholders meet to identify the spectrum of vulnerabilities facing their organization. Candor is critical so you don’t leave off a sensitive issue everyone would prefer  to ignore. The issue audit should cover the waterfront of potential operational, financial, legal, competitive and reputational risks.

Assess Probability and Potential Consequence of Risks

After a range of risks have been identified, they need to be assessed to determine how likely each is to occur and, if it does occur, how seriously it could hurt the organization. This is what risk managers and insurers do, but many organizations don’t have anyone to manage risk or the wherewithal to insure against risk. The key deliverable from a risk assessment is to create a hierarchy of risks in which those with the highest likelihood to occur and the largest potential impact are put on top.

Measure Your Perception Gap

Conducting perception gap research is essential to understand reputational risks. You may think your reputation is spiffy, but stakeholders or customers may disagree. Knowing there is a perception gap and why that gap exists is valuable information that can inform crisis scenario planning and an actual crisis response. The cost of perception gap analysis can be spread because its findings are also worthwhile for organizational branding, management decision-making and employee training and recruitment.

Determine What Risks You Can Control

An often overlooked aspect of crisis preparation is crisis avoidance. Look at your list of potential risks and assess which ones have factors that you can control. Are there ways you can improve safety in your operation? Can you install more reliable safeguards for your processes? Is there a way to diversify your revenue stream? How can you differentiate yourself from competitors in a way that will build goodwill with customers? The answers to questions like these about your list of vulnerabilities should generate a management action plan that at once increases organizational viability and lessens or eliminates a potential crippling organizational vulnerability.

Write a Crisis Plan Based on Highest Risk Scenarios

Craft crisis scenarios that are likely to occur, could wreak the most damage and over which you have little control. You should add scenarios that you could eliminate or mediate, but haven’t. Each crisis scenario should anticipate how and by whom it might be triggered, which can a valuable guide on where to look for the cause of a crisis and what steps to take to address it.

Get Specific in Crisis-Scenario Responses

Because you have identified high-likelihood, high-impact risks, it makes sense to be as specific as possible on how to respond. Where will you go to get the facts and how will you vet them? Who needs to be alerted about the crisis? What resources will you call on to assist with your crisis response? How will you organize internally to address the crisis? Who will be your spokesperson? What process will you use to ensure timely, accurate and trust-building crisis updates? Is there useful background information you can prepare in advance to release to the public when a Crisis scenario occurs?

Include Crisis Plan Checklist

Don’t forget to add basics such as internal and external contact information, designating a crisis team leader and media training for spokespersons and key fact-finders. Fact-finders may not be the persons you want in front of reporters and TV cameras, but they will understand their role better if they have experienced the pressure of responding on deadline to harsh questioning.

Evaluate Whether Your Crisis Plan Aligns with Your Values

A crisis will only become an opportunity if an organization’s response aligns faithfully to its professed values. The most memorable crisis responses are ones that closely correspond to an organization’s values. Are the actions outlined in step with those values? Will you do everything expected based on your values? Can you point to specific responses that demonstrate your commitment to your values? 

Run a Crisis Plan Fire Drill

A crisis plan isn’t an abstract manual; it is a realistic how-to-guide. Your organization won’t be fully prepared until you test your crisis plan, find out our kinks exist and iron them out. The best way to do that is to conduct an organizational fire drill involving a high-risk, high-impact scenario.

Keep the Crisis Plan Fresh

Crisis plans don’t have unlimited shelf life. Build in a timeline to review the plan, asking questions about newly emerging crisis scenarios and whether your media-training spokespersons are still available. Make sure to update contact lists regularly. Think continuously about ways to prepare background information in advance that can be stored on a ghost website for when you need it. Visual explanations and videos take time to produce, so don’t wait until a crisis strikes to get into the director’s chair.

Follow these steps and you will be as ready as possible for a crisis that could affect your organization. A disciplined crisis planning process is beneficial even if a crisis scenario occurs out of the blue. Your organization will have developed the mentality and muscle tone to respond as a unit with speed, accuracy and commitment.

Gary Conkling is president and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at  garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.

Restoring Public Trust in DEQ

 Long-time DEQ Director Dick Pedersen has resigned, leaving even bigger questions about the environmental agency’s future amid a controversy over its sluggish response to excessive levels of arsenic, cadmium and chromium in Portland neighborhoods.

Long-time DEQ Director Dick Pedersen has resigned, leaving even bigger questions about the environmental agency’s future amid a controversy over its sluggish response to excessive levels of arsenic, cadmium and chromium in Portland neighborhoods.

The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality is in trouble. The agency was slow to identify and respond to warnings of high concentrations of arsenic, cadmium and chromium in Portland neighborhoods. Its respected director has resigned. Knowledgeable observers say DEQ has a shortage of scientific and technical personnel and may face difficulty recruiting the talent it needs.

That would be a lot to handle any time, but it’s an especially heavy load in an election year when Oregonians vote on a new governor. Chances are good DEQ will take its licks on the campaign stump as candidates try to make hay out of the agency’s shortcomings.

In recent times, DEQ has operated below the public and political radar. Some critics say that’s because DEQ has been timid in pushing environmental goals and willing to bend to compromise with industry.

While current concerns center on DEQ’s role in maintaining air quality, the agency also is in charge of water quality, waste management, hazardous material use reduction, vehicle exhaust inspections, spill clean-up and sustainability. DEQ is involved in issues as far-ranging as odor suppression and evaluating the environmental impact of coal exports. It also is engaged in the climate change conversation.

The immediate controversy has angered neighborhoods, school officials and candidates for offices in Portland and Multnomah County. The loss of Dick Pedersen, who has been as DEQ since 1996, raises questions about the future leadership of the agency. Before long, questions may arise about DEQ’s performance and competency in other ares of its responsibility.

Given all this uncertainty, what steps would you recommend DEQ take to regain public confidence? Governor Brown and the Environmental Quality Commission will select a replacement for Pedersen. What actions would you advise the new DEQ director to take to rebuild trust and the agency’s credibility?

Share your ideas and recommendations with us at garyc@cfmpdx.com. We will report on what you share with us, plus an idea or two of our own, in the Oregon Insider blog next week. If you prefer to share your ideas without attribution, we will honor that request.

Please send us your best thoughts by next Wednesday (March 9). We look forward to your comments on what DEQ and its new director should do.

The Value of Local PR Advice

 Cultural barriers and geographical distances can thwart effective communications, which is why it is wise to seek local PR counsel and follow its advice.

Cultural barriers and geographical distances can thwart effective communications, which is why it is wise to seek local PR counsel and follow its advice.

Companies and organizations ask for trouble when they fail to recognize the obstacles that can occur in communications between different cultures and geographies.

What is transparency in one culture may be completely foreign in another. The kind of language and quality of explanation that works in one part of the country may fall flat in the ears of consumers who live somewhere else.

The most fundamental obstacle is not knowing the local turf. Our colleague Ruud Bijl, who provides crisis counsel to clients from his home base in Amsterdam, wrote, "When a crisis occurs, corporate guidelines and cultural differences often cause an international company headaches.”

In his blog, Bijl cited the example of a Chinese toy company that was baffled by a West European company representative who recommended issuing an apology and recalling a defective video game. Toy company officials refused to do either and instructed their representative to respond only to complaints, even if that risked a long-term dent in the brand’s reputation. 

Encountering these kinds of obstacles doesn't require crossing international boundaries. They can occur anywhere. Cultural barriers can exist in the same city.

For example, a company with social service operations across America and a headquarters in the Midwest may feel like a fish out of water trying to communicate to stakeholders in a place like Oregon. The politics and sensitivities around the social services could be very different. And the company PR team may not have any existing relationships with key reporters or local influencers. Their attempt to deliver a complex message may be thwarted by not getting a reporter of a key publication to call them back on the phone.

Crisis response and media relations, like politics, is all local. You need to know the lay of the land and who to call. You should understand the local context for a problem or issue. Experience dealing with crises or touchy issues is valuable, but so is the good sense to seek some local assistance. 

Bijl advises that crisis communications plans take into account cultural differences and geographical distances so a crisis response team isn’t bogged down trying to identify and cope with those obstacles. The same counsel applies to a media relations or marketing program. Know your audience, understand how it gets trusted information and build rapport with those influencers before you roll out a campaign or respond to a crisis.

For large, complex and multi-location organizations, that may not be possible without competent local assistance. The cost of hiring and following the advice of a savvy local PR team is well worth it if you can avoid running into a communication brick wall.

Manage Issues from the Front, Not Rear

 Detective Danny Reagan chases down bad guys on  Blue Bloods , but you may not be able to catch up to a bad problem that you should have anticipated and might have avoided.

Detective Danny Reagan chases down bad guys on Blue Bloods, but you may not be able to catch up to a bad problem that you should have anticipated and might have avoided.

The best position in which to manage an issue is from the front, not the rear. If you are chasing an issue, chances are you won’t catch up before you go over the cliff.

This is a painful lesson that some organizations learn the hard way. For some, it takes more than one mistake to learn that it is smart to anticipate problems and take steps before problems become crises.

Easier said than done, to be sure. But it can be done.

Chipotle is a poster child for the point. The company ballyhooed fresh food from local sources. You don’t have to be rocket scientist to anticipate potential problems in food safety that could – and apparently did – lead to serious health outbreaks at more than one of the burrito chain’s outlets.

Jack in the Box learned its lesson from a 1993 E. coli outbreak that killed four children, infected 732 people and left 178 victims permanently injured with kidney and brain damage. The fast food chain, which owns the Qdoba Mexican Eats franchise that is a Chipotle competitor, installed food safety measures up and down its supply chain. Jack in the Box hasn’t experienced a major problem with food safety since then.

Qdoba promises “food for people who love food,” which isn’t as enticing as food made with fresh, locally sourced ingredients. Company execs decided a weaker tagline was better than sicker customers.

Issue management is not reserved just for customer-facing problems. It applies equally to issues with neighbors, constituents, stakeholders and employees.

The Southeast Portland glassmakers that used cadmium and arsenic in their processes could easily have anticipated air contamination, regardless of whether they were operating within the boundaries of their air permits. While the businesses showed good judgment by suspending the use of those chemicals once data emerged that there was a problem, they would have displayed greater judgment by insisting on regular independent testing so they could detect the problem earlier.

Some problems are obvious; some are not. That’s why we advise organizations to undertake issue audits. An issue audit is a no-holds-barred process to identify and vet all kinds of potential problems – legal, financial, technical, operational, environmental and competitive. The list of problems then should undergo an evaluation to determine the most probable risks and the ones with the most serious potential consequences.

That is invaluable, if sometimes inconvenient information.

The matrix of problems should be assessed by a risk/benefit test. The risk with the highest likelihood of serious consequence is where you start. If you determine, the cost to remediate the problem is far cheaper than the outfall of a crisis involving the problem, then it is a no-brainer decision to fix it. That’s a great way to get ahead of a problem.

Some problems may be too expensive or technically challenging to fix. You have to employ different tactics to stay ahead of their curve toward crisis. That might involve an open house or creation of an advisory committee. It could require meeting with affected people one-on-one. Such tactics take time, but it could be time better spent than facing a battery of TV cameras and angry questions.

In an era when everyone with a smartphone is the equivalent of an investigative reporter and social media moves at light speed, getting in front of an issue is more important than ever. Detective Danny Reagan may catch the bad guy on every episode of Blue Bloods, but don’t count on the same script when you are chasing a really bad problem that you should have anticipated and might have avoided.

Gary Conkling is president and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at  garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.

Good Communications = Good Business

 A recent Fortune 500 company survey says chief communications officers are gaining more access to C-suite decision-making. That's a good trend, but it's also an old trend that somehow got sidetracked.

A recent Fortune 500 company survey says chief communications officers are gaining more access to C-suite decision-making. That's a good trend, but it's also an old trend that somehow got sidetracked.

A recent corporate survey reflected a growing reliance in the C-Suite on chief communications officers. While this is encouraging, it is about time. Or, more accurately, about time again.

"These best-in-class corporate affairs officers shoulder a broadening scope of responsibilities and an increasing mandate to act as high-level strategic advisers to CEOs, and they frequently serve as members of the senior leadership team," according to a Korn Ferry Institute survey.

Good news, but the public relations profession in the United States began as senior advisers, usually reporting to the president of a company. Only over time did PR became a department that was shuttled down the hall. PR became a corporate function, not a source of valued advice.

In fact, heads of PR departments struggled to be in the room when key corporate decisions were made. Sometimes they were given directions, but never consulted on matters revolving around communications.

There may be many explanations for why the role of a senior communications officer has been resurrected and accorded more respect. Certainly one reason is the rise of online content marketing and the eclipse of traditional advertising. Customer engagement puts a higher premium on two-way communications, and brands can be negatively impacted by an ill-advised CEO tweet or an inappropriate or ill-timed post on Facebook by a staffer.

In a digital world where everyone with a laptop, tablet and smartphone is an editor, communication strategy and style plays a larger role in cultivating and maintaining a brand.

Internal communications is no longer just about a bland note from the CEO or pictures from the holiday party, but a forum for continuous improvement and an advance warning system of competitive trouble.

A communications crisis can happen any time, requiring companies to respond rapidly using tools like Twitter to provide real-time updates to the media, employees and impacted communities.

While companies certainly need hands on deck to pitch stories, write ads and engage on social media, they also need a voice or voices at the very top level to ensure corporate strategies reflect sound communication strategy. That's where senior PR counselors started and, hopefully, that's where they will return.

Embedding smart communications into an overall corporate strategy is good business. And it has been good business for a long time.

Headlines Reinforce Crisis Response Reality

 It shouldn't take a football team threatening not to play to spark a proactive response to a crisis, something University of Missouri President Tim Wolfe should have known.

It shouldn't take a football team threatening not to play to spark a proactive response to a crisis, something University of Missouri President Tim Wolfe should have known.

Fresh front-page headlines tell an old story – how you respond to crisis affects your reputation as much or more than the crisis itself.

University of Missouri President Tim Wolfe was pressured to resign after his indifferent response to on-campus racial incidents, including snubbing a group of protestors who surrounded his car demanding an opportunity to talk face-to-face.

Chipotle faces a sharp business drop-off after the trendy burrito chain cavalierly responded to more than 40 of its customers in Oregon and Washington coming down with E. coli food poisoning. The company’s sluggish response to the crisis will put a dent in its "food with integrity" slogan that has attracted a loyal following, and it will give fuel to its critics who have mocked the restaurant’s high-calorie menu in the Chubby Chipotle campaign.

Then there’s GOP presidential candidate Ben Carson, who has drawn rebukes from his Republican rivals and even more investigative intensity in the past week. Carson found himself under the microscope after complaining about excessive scrutiny following press reports that questioned the accuracy of his statements about a scholarship to West Point and a violent past as a teenager.

Looking overseas, the initial response by Egyptian and Russian officials to the downed Metrojet passenger plane over the Sinai Peninsula in retrospect looks like an effort to avoid rocking the tourist boat. While the plea not to rush to judgment made sense, the quick dismissal of a terrorist act contradicted their own words. It took action by British Prime Minister David Cameron – who suspended British carrier flights to Sharm el-Sheikh – to bring to light the very real prospect of a bomb that brought down the plane. Now, the Russian government has suspended flights as it tries to find a way to bring home more than 25,000 Russian tourists.

In this situation, the Russians are displaying the same head-in-the-sand reaction to a damaging international report about state-sponsored doping by the country's track and field athletes.

If you are Russia, maybe you don't care what other people think. But for most of us, our reputation is our most valuable asset. Preserving that reputation in a crisis situation is a priority.

While no two situations are alike, there are universal crisis response fundamentals that apply to all of these situations. Chief among them is responding proactively by acknowledging the crisis and its repercussions, accepting responsibility and taking demonstrable action to address the cause of the crisis.

If Wolfe had acknowledged and denounced the inexcusable racial incidents that occurred on the University of Missouri campus, he would have placed himself on the same side as those who were deeply offended. In light of the racial tensions sparked by events in nearby Ferguson, Missouri, it is incredible that Wolfe could be so tone deaf.

Wolfe's resignation – spurred in part by the Missouri football team refusing to play this weekend – belatedly reflected empathy for the situation when he urged his departure to be the start of a healing process. Better late than never, but a proactive crisis response is always best.

Slow-Walking a Fast-Breaking Crisis

 In the fable, the tortoise wins the race by slow, steady movement. In real life, slow-walking a crisis response is doomed to lose the race of telling your story.

In the fable, the tortoise wins the race by slow, steady movement. In real life, slow-walking a crisis response is doomed to lose the race of telling your story.

In the fable, the hare, after a fast start, loses the race to the slow-moving, but steady tortoise. In the real word of crisis response, the tortoise almost never wins.

We live in a real-time world where crises can erupt or be inflamed by an iPhone video. Trying to respond by telegraph just doesn't cut it. If you can't keep up, reporters will look for and find news sources who will, with or without all the facts.

Smart crisis response involves gathering your facts, crafting your message and telling your story. A slow-walking response to a fast-breaking crisis can bury your facts, message and storytelling in the blur. Worse yet, a slow-moving response can become another trigger that propels news velocity.

Large organizations that haven't anticipated cruising in the crisis fast lane struggle to approve key statements or proactive steps. Legal considerations often play an outsized role in bogging down a crisis response that can play a significant role in the court of public opinion.

Complex corporate structures and attorneys, however, don't have to be obstacles, and they shouldn't be excuses. The solution requires open-eyed crisis preparation, starting with an acknowledgement that a crisis can and probably will happen and the response must be in the same time zone.

Crisis preparation should include specific ways to speed fact-finding, conduct legal reviews and approve actions and statements. One or more officials must be identified to take the lead in the event of a crisis and undergo stress-testing before they show up in front of microphones.

Stress testing and incident exercises based on likely crisis scenarios go well beyond basic media training. They teach how to stay cool while walking on hot media coals, often with only shreds of verified information and sometimes after being ambushed by reporters. Being out front on a cascading crisis requires mental quickness that eclipses the sedentary pace of sitting down for a one-on-one media interview or chatting up financial analysts.

Ordinary question-and-answer prep doesn't prepare a spokesperson for answering a question in the form of a video shot by an eye-witness to the crisis event.

Many corporate leaders don't want to be embarrassed by "failing" their stress tests with their top lieutenants looking on. But failure in this kind of media training is the first step toward success. Moreover, it is much better to fail in front of a few people you know than to fall flat in front of a bank of reporters.

If the thought arises that a slow-walked response could allow time to pass so the crisis goes away, think again. There are too many media incentives and too many communications channels for any crisis of note to disappear.

You wouldn't saunter to safety in the face of a swelling wave ready to pound the beach. You shouldn't saunter on crisis response, either.

Really Owning a Crisis

 Mary Barra took responsibility for GM's mistakes, telling employees, "People were hurt and died in our cars." 

Mary Barra took responsibility for GM's mistakes, telling employees, "People were hurt and died in our cars." 

Crisis response gurus offer plenty of advice about owning a crisis, but there are too few high-profile examples of people following that advice. General Motors CEO Mary Barra has provided a great example.

"People were hurt and died in our cars," Barra told GM employees, as reported by The Detroit News.  "We didn't do our job, and as part of our apology to the victims, we promise to take responsibility for our actions."

Check. Check. Check.

This is the CEO of a major U.S. corporation speaking, not a PR flunky or a third vice president.

Barra makes a simple, candid declaration about corporate failure that caused people to lose their lives.

She offers an apology tied to tangible restitution to the victims of that corporate failure.

Yes, GM just reached a $900 million settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice to end a criminal investigation. However, that doesn't detract from her statement. It might even enhance it.

GM is admitting its wrong, agreeing to make it right with those most impacted and taking actions to prevent such neglect and customer indifference from occurring again. Barra previously had fired 15 GM employees and disciplined five others for "incompetence and neglect." Under Barra, the automaker has attempted to change its internal culture regarding safety. In the settlement, the company agreed to an independent monitor of GM's safety procedures.

This isn't the first time Barra has expressed contrition for the ignition defect that has been linked to 124 deaths and nearly 300 injuries. But it perhaps is the clearest, most resonant statement she has made – and one that serves as an excellent example of what it means to own a crisis.

Ethics and Crisis

 A crisis can test your ethics. An ethical crisis response can turn a mess into a reputation triumph.

A crisis can test your ethics. An ethical crisis response can turn a mess into a reputation triumph.

A crisis is an unwelcome way to prove your mettle and test your ethics.

The chaos of crisis will challenge your calm, creating an opportunity to perform under pressure amid events out of your control. But crisis also will tempt you to cut corners, blame scapegoats and bend the truth. Your core values may take a backseat to expediency. Your ethics is one of the best tools to carry around in a crisis. 

Acting ethically in crisis, while hard, is the right thing to do. Ethical behavior is the path to a burnished reputation.

Johnson & Johnson's handling of the tainted Tylenol incident is the perfect example of a crisis response based on values. James E. Burke, CEO of J&J, challenged all his employees to put "Patients First," the company's brand promise. Pulling Tylenol from shelves, meeting with thousands of care providers and patients and developing the tamper-proof container were the fruits of following that core value.

Your ethics will be on the line when you are called on to stand in front of microphone, admit a mistake and take responsibility for a mess. Your reputation can take a hit if you hide out, shift responsibility and blame others.

People know stuff happens. They tend to judge based on what you do after stuff happens. Sluggish responses, fingerprinting and denial often leads to a cascading drop in credibility.

Here are four tips on how to integrate ethics into your crisis response:

Look in the Mirror
Before doing anything else, take stock of your reputation, your brand promise, what you stand for. Let that be your guide as you lead efforts to clean up a spill, stabilize a faltering operation or condemn a bad practice. Deputize everyone involved in the crisis response to follow the same guideline. Make an enhanced reputation your goal.

Be Proactive
Don't let events beyond your control define your response. Take charge of fixing what's wrong. Find a long-term solution. Communicate with your own employees and those who are impacted. Use tools such as Twitter that allow real-time communications.

Seek Advice
Owning a crisis doesn't mean dealing with it alone. It is a sign of strength, not weakness to seek expert opinions, consult your own employees and ask those caught in the crisis what they think should be done. Be curious and empathetic, not cavalier and impulsive. You may get conflicting advice, but you also will get invaluable suggestions.

See Your Actions in a Newspaper Headline
A simple test to assess your actions is to write the most slanted story and headline to describe them. If the result disturbs you, then reconsider what you do. Pursue actions that are unmistakably sound and reflections of your ethics, actions will are likely to produce headlines you would want your family and friends to read the next day.

Clinton and Bungled Crisis Response

 60 percent of Democrats don't regard the email issue as all that serious. What bothers voters is how Clinton has handled the issue.

60 percent of Democrats don't regard the email issue as all that serious. What bothers voters is how Clinton has handled the issue.

The continuing saga of Hillary Clinton and her private email server serves as a fresh reminder that how you respond to a crisis is what influences public opinion.

Lanny Davis, former counsel to President Clinton and a Hillary Clinton supporter, shared a telling observation from his recent visit to Iowa:

"I was attending the Iowa Cubs (AAA minor-league team) baseball game. Interestingly, out of dozens of people I sought out and talked to about [Hillary] Clinton, their focus was not concern about her use of emails or housing them on her own secure server, but rather, what they thought was her absence of immediate transparency and explanation as to what happened and why."

In a piece written for "The Hill," Davis attributes Clinton's precipitous 13 percent fall in the latest Des Moines Register poll to her mishandling of the email server issue. He bolsters that conclusion by noting the poll shows Clinton still enjoys high favorability ratings (seven out of 10 Democrats hold a favorable impression) and 60 percent of Democrats don't regard the email issue as all that serious.

What bothers voters is how Clinton has handled the issue. Her death-by-a-thousand-cuts response has allowed the issue to fester in public and opened the door to questions about her trustworthiness, a nagging worry that has some history with the Clintons.

What's most evident and disappointing is that Clinton has missed an opportunity to enhance her political reputation by showing she can be trusted. Instead, Clinton treated the issue initially as insignificant and later made light of her decision to use private email while secretary of state. She turned over emails only after pressure built to do so. She failed to see the potential danger in this issue and, therefore, didn't take bold steps to own it and see that it was vetted fully as soon as possible.

Clinton is hardly alone in missing opportunities to build trust through a crisis. Often times it is the smartest person in the room who makes the dumbest mistake when it comes to crisis response.

Whether the email episode will derail Clinton's trip to the Democratic presidential nomination and ultimately the White House remains to be seen. But without question, Clinton has made the journey harder by how she mishandled this crisis and missed a chance to make it easier.

First Call in a Crisis

 If you see something strange, ya gonna call Ghostbusters. If you are in a crisis, you should call your own employees first.

If you see something strange, ya gonna call Ghostbusters. If you are in a crisis, you should call your own employees first.

"If there's something strange
in your neighborhood
Who ya gonna call?
Ghostbusters"
                               – Ray Parker

That works for the movie, but if your organization finds itself in the midst of a crisis, the first people to let know are your own employees.

Too often, employee communication in a crisis is an afterthought. They are left finding out what's going on by reading news accounts or following someone else's tweets.

This is a badly missed opportunity because employees can be a trusted conduit for reliable information about a crisis. If employees aren't clued in, they can inadvertently become a conduit for inaccurate or confusing information through their iPhone pictures and social media chatter.

Many crisis preparation plans include excruciating detail on how and when to communicate with external audiences such as the news media, but glance over the value of timely internal communications. Few plans call for telling employees about a crisis first.

How a company deals with a crisis can enhance or tarnish its reputation. That is especially true for the company's workforce. If employees are left in the dark, their estimation of management can drop. Morale can sag as employees conclude they really aren't strategic partners in the enterprise.

Employees briefed on a crisis can do more than tell the company's story. They can help shape what the company does, offering practical advice about maintaining operations that could easily be overlooked in the chaos that dominates crisis situations.

Overloaded crisis communicators may think there isn't time to talk to employees when reporters or angry neighbors are calling every minute. But this really isn't a job that should be delegated anyway. The organization's top dog should seize the opportunity to share what is happening, explain the response and ask for constructive ideas.

There is a lot of confusion during a crisis. Don't be confused about who ya gonna call first.

Affirmations First, Then Explanations

 Ohio officials, including the governor, faced a crisis over safe water in Toledo. Direct, plainspoken affirmations would have helped reassure a wary public.

Ohio officials, including the governor, faced a crisis over safe water in Toledo. Direct, plainspoken affirmations would have helped reassure a wary public.

Affirmations work better than explanations in crisis situations. Affected audiences want to hear that you have fixed the problem, not necessarily how.

For knowledgeable people, this can be a challenge. Their instinct is to explain the cause of the problem and explain the solution. Those details are important, but in a real-time environment they serve best as secondary messages, not primary ones. People want reassurance you are on top of the problem. That requires declarative language, not jargon.

For example: "We deeply regret the incident, but we are fixing it and will take steps to prevent it from ever happening again. We also will make things right with those who have been impacted."

Simple words, but a powerful message that conveys the key elements of an effective crisis response – remorse, resolve, reform and restitution. Just as important, it qualifies as a sound bite with a chance to be seen on TV, heard on radio or viewed in a newspaper or online.

Following a strong, assertive statement, you can fill in the details – in priority order. In some crises, the priority is to make things right with those affected, such as airline passengers stranded on a runway for hours. In other cases, the priority may be on describing the fix.

The same rule applies to details – use direct, plainspoken language. If you are describing safe drinking water from the Willamette River, paint a picture of what happens. "We know how to treat water to make it safe to drink. We test water from any source coming into the treatment plant so we know what we have to treat. Then we test the water before it leaves the treatment plant to make sure we made it safe to drink."

That may seem sparse to technical ears, but it is train of events that average people can grasp. And it mentions "safe to drink"  – a bottomline message – twice in just 50 words.

The point of an interview is to get your point across to viewers or readers. Like any interaction, you have to be mindful of what audience will tolerate and be willing to absorb. In a crisis, people want to hear some empathy and hear about some action. The English language contains a lot of words. For this purpose, simpler ones are most appropriate.

If you want to be understood, skip the explain and stick with the affirmation.

Talking to Optimists and Pessimists

 If you wonder whether to speak to people who see the glass half full or those who see it half empty, just remember almost everybody wishes the glass was full.

If you wonder whether to speak to people who see the glass half full or those who see it half empty, just remember almost everybody wishes the glass was full.

Should you focus on what's wrong or what's right? Are you pessimistic or optimistic? Do you project gloom or hope? Which is likely to attract wider support?

Sadly, there is no easy answer. But there are clues.

You could argue Ronald Reagan ("city on the hill") defeated Jimmy Carter ("crisis of confidence") in the 1980 presidential election because optimism triumphed over pessimism.

Then again, few dispute H.L. Mencken's sardonic observation, "Nobody ever went broke underestimating the American public."

Pessimism and optimism may be polar opposites, but inseparable. They may be the devil and the angel that perch on our shoulders and whisper constantly in our ears.

Winston Churchill said, "The pessimist sees difficulty in every opportunity. The optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty." Harry Truman put it similarly, but differently, "A pessimist is one who makes difficulties of his opportunities and an optimist is one who makes opportunities of his difficulties."

With exceptions, most of us qualify as part-time pessimists and part-time optimists. We are influenced by what's going on in our personal lives and what's happening around us. If you had a wonderful family, a good job and a beautiful community, but lived in the shadow of a nuclear conflict, you would have cause for both optimism and pessimism.

The duality and ineluctability of optimism and pessimism forms a significant challenge for communicators. Do you appeal to the dark side or light side of an issue? Do you play on people's fears or try to lift their hopes? Do you describe what's wrong or point to how to make it right?

Helen Keller may have the best advice of how to approach such questions. "No pessimist ever discovered the secret of the stars, or sailed to an uncharted land, or opened a new doorway for the human spirit." Optimism, in the face of all reason, is part of the American personality.

The best way to combat fear is to shine light on hope.

Americans may seem like reluctant optimists, when their confidence sags as consumers or their faith in government wanes or their anxiety over foreign conflicts surges. But without question, Americans gravitate to voices of optimism and people with ideas.

That's why crisis responders need to accept responsibility, but acknowledge the need to move forward. That's why issue managers must recognize valid concerns, but repeat a project's or proposal's benefits.

For a while, cynicism may seem to be winning. But it is hard to sustain the downbeat. The optimist in all of us grows weary at constant doomsday talk. That's why an upbeat argument can win attention – and maybe win the day, too.

One thing that unites people who see the glass half empty and those who see the glass half full is they both want to see the glass full.

"An optimist is a person who sees a green light everywhere, while a pessimist sees only the red stoplight. The truly wise person is colorblind."  – Albert Schweitzer.

Relevant link: We Need Optimists, New York Times