crisis response

Conkling: Actions Speak Louder than Words in Crisis Response

Words matter in crisis response, but actions leave the longest lasting impression. President Obama recently came under scrutiny as some said he took too long to fit in a tour of flood-ravaged southern Louisiana in August. Meanwhile, Obama praised FEMA for stepping up disaster relief efforts in the last decade, a trend that has helped repair the agency's damaged reputation after Hurricane Katrina. 

Words matter in crisis response, but actions leave the longest lasting impression. President Obama recently came under scrutiny as some said he took too long to fit in a tour of flood-ravaged southern Louisiana in August. Meanwhile, Obama praised FEMA for stepping up disaster relief efforts in the last decade, a trend that has helped repair the agency's damaged reputation after Hurricane Katrina. 

"Actions speak louder than words in crisis response, and the actions that speak the loudest are ones that align and affirm an organization’s core values,” CFM President Gary Conkling told a group of Puget Sound water officials at a seminar Wednesday in Woodinville, Washington.

“Words spoken in a crisis response are important,” Conkling said, “but the actions behind those words are what leave the most lasting impression, especially with the people impacted by the crisis.”

CFM President Gary Conkling

CFM President Gary Conkling

He gave an example of a retaining wall failure at the construction site of a new water reservoir near a residential area. “One of the most powerful actions you can take is to knock on the doors of nearby neighbors to explain what happened, describe how you are fixing the problem and listening to their concerns,” Conkling said. “If a TV reporter team shows up later and interviews the neighbors, they can say they’ve already talked to you.”

“They may still have concerns, but that direct, one-on-one contact with the agency will be an important demonstration that the agency is on top of the problem,” he added. “That can be an important, maybe the most important part of the story."

Conkling also offered a number of other crisis response tips, including the following:

“No one wants to face a crisis,” Conkling said, “but if one does occur, worry less about how to control events and more about the quality of your response.”

“A crisis is a moment when you can demonstration your commitment to your values and mission,” he said. “It is an opportunity to build goodwill and loyalty that no amount of paid advertising could ever achieve.”

Owning, Fixing and Talking About Your Crisis

It is hard to fix a crisis you don't own.

It is hard to fix a crisis you don't own.

"Failing to own a crisis is like walking away from an opportunity to show your character, resiliency and values," CFM President Gary Conkling advised a group of water agency officials. "You will be choosing a road other than the road to redemption."

Conkling was invited to be the keynote speaker at a meeting of the Pacific Northwest Chapter of American Waterworks Association. The meeting was centered on strategic communications by water agencies. The title of his talk was "Owning, Fixing and Talking About Your Crisis." "I honestly believe crisis response is that simple," Conkling said. "Unfortunately, it isn't that easy."

A leading crisis communications counselor, Conkling said it is hard to "fix a crisis you don't own." "An insufficient apology or an evasive explanation won't put a crisis to rest," he explained.

Owning a crisis involves acknowledging what happened, expressing an appropriate emotion, apologizing and providing relevant detail about why it happened and why it won't happen again, Conkling said. "Owning a crisis doesn't involve saying you have everything under control, telling people not to worry or urging people to trust you."

"By definition, a crisis means events are out of control," he said. "You can't stop people from worrying. Your words don't elicit trust. Only actions can do that." 

Fixing a crisis relies on taking "demonstrable steps that show you own the crisis and are willing to deal with the root cause of the crisis." 

Talking about your crisis response "is easier when you have something to say," Conkling said. 

Sometimes it is smart, he said, to talk with stakeholders or neighbors before a crisis occurs. "People respect you for telling them what could happen," Conkling said. "The absence of an incident actually reinforces your trustworthiness. They assume the potential problem you discussed with them is being managed well." 

"A crisis may uncover something you wished would have stayed hidden," he said. "But your crisis response can demonstrate your openness to owning a potential problem and addressing it responsibly."

Gary Conkling Crisis Communications

If you are interested in having Gary Conkling speak to your organization about Crisis Communications, you can contact him here. For more Crisis Communications advice from Gary Conkling, visit the CFM Crisis Ebook.

Start the Customer Conversation Before an Ask

Gary Conkling gave a presentation designed to help water officials make a big splash with their marketing. Water utilities need proactive, out-of-the-box communications strategies to connect with constituents who care about clean water, but don't it much thought in their daily life.

Speaking at an Oregon Association of Clean Water Agencies conference in Salem, CFM President Gary Conkling urged water officials to concentrate on information that is useful and relevant to their customers, presented in easy-to-access and easy-to-understand ways.

"Your information needs to be presented simply, packaged effectively and designed imaginatively to pull readers to your content and connect with your agency," Conkling said. "And it's all not just about a website. Friendly, helpful counter clerks and service techs who deal directly with customers can project an agency that wants to help."

His presentation on "Mapping a Communications Strategy" was part of a workshop that also included discussions on how to win community support for water projects. Around 150 people from throughout the Pacific Northwest attended.

Conkling encouraged water officials to embrace a marketer's perspective in their communications, starting with grassroots research that enables them to develop "customer personas." "It is easier to see how to talk about water to a personalized face instead of a statistic," he said. "Your communications will be closer to the mark if you aim them at people who are your customers."

An advantage enjoyed by water agencies, Conkling said, is having a database of customers with whom the agency is in monthly contact. "Your database can be a platform for finding out what matters to your customers," he explained "and turning them into your community partners through regular engagement."

Since people aren't sitting on the edge of their seats waiting to hear from a local water agency, "you have to find useful and even entertaining ways to connect with them," Conkling said.

"It's a lot better to have the conversation already under way," he advised," than waiting for the moment when you need to ask customers to agree to a rate hike."

Conking leads CFM's public relations practice, which includes strategic communications counsel, managing public issues, crisis response and reputation management.

Turning Crisis into Reputation Opportunity

More than 50 people heard tips on how to turn a crisis into a reputation-saving opportunity at a crisis-preparedness seminar this week.

CFM President Gary Conkling shared five crisis-response tips, including the importance of believing a crisis can happen to you. "If you don't think it can happen to you," he said, "you won't take steps to identify and assess your vulnerabilities and prepare a response."

Organizations are more likely to prepare for crisis if they put their reputations first. "Once you realize your reputation is at risk," Conkling said, "you are more likely to develop and update a crisis response plan." 

Overall, Conkling explained, organizations should think more deeply and more often about their reputations. "They are hard to earn and easy to lose," he said. "You should be thinking routinely about actions you can take that avoid crisis and can be turned into opportunities that save or even enhance your reputation."

The crisis-preparedness seminar was cosponsored by Durham & Bates and the Ladd Group. It is part of an occasional series of presentations offering information of value to senior corporate, nonprofit and public agency leaders.

"We are not pitching business," said Christen Picot of Durham & Bates. "We are sharing information so we are viewed as valuable business partners."

 

Click here to download a .pdf of the Crisis Response handout.