Crisis communications

Time to Dust Off and Update Your Crisis Plan

If your organization has a crisis communications plan, this is a good time to review and update it. If you don’t have a crisis plan, don’t wait to start preparing one because crises have a bad habit of occurring when you least expect them.

If your organization has a crisis communications plan, this is a good time to review and update it. If you don’t have a crisis plan, don’t wait to start preparing one because crises have a bad habit of occurring when you least expect them.

The start of a new year is a perfect moment to dust off your crisis communications plan – or get busy preparing one.

The essence of a crisis communications plan is to anticipate the unexpected. When a crisis occurs, your ability to control events will go out the window. Your time frame for responding will shrivel. Your judgment will be tested.

One of the most underrated benefits of a crisis communications plan exercise is to identify vulnerabilities that you can eliminate or at least mitigate through proactive steps.

Here are our tips on reviewing your crisis communications plan:

  • Check your contact lists to update current phone numbers and email addresses and add or subtract people.
  • Review your potential crisis scenarios to see if any modifications are needed or new scenarios added because of an emerging vulnerability.
  • Don’t overlook competitive threats as the source of a potential crisis.
  • Ensure designated crisis team leaders, spokespersons and go-to fact-finders are still in place and prepared.
  • Consider a crisis drill to test your organization’s preparedness and revive awareness of the need for a crisis plan.
  • Suggest spokespersons undergo a media training refresher course – or receive media training – to sharpen their key message delivery skills under pressure.
  • Double-check your media monitoring key words and assess whether you are listening in all the right places.
  • Freshen or enhance the content stored away on your ghost website.
  • Search your Twitter followers to ensure you have the media and community contacts you would need in the event of a crisis.

For organizations without a crisis communications plan, our best advice is to put one in place as quickly as you can. Get professional help if possible, but don’t procrastinate. Crises have a bad habit of happening without warning and when you least expect them.

Useful crisis plans start with a candid assessment – what we call an issue audit – of all of the potential vulnerabilities facing an organization. Think about what could happen, what might trigger it and how it might affect your organization. That explanation will be the basis for a crisis scenario.

The next step in crisis plan development is to assess the probability and consequence of various scenarios. A crisis scenario that is highly likely to occur and could pose devastating consequences deserves more attention than an unlikely crisis with inconsequential impact.

The crisis plan is built around those higher probability-consequential crisis scenarios. The plan will have elements that apply to all or most scenarios, such as a crisis team leader, an identified situation room and a rapid decision-making crisis team. Each scenario will identify elements that apply specifically to that crisis such as the go-to fact-finder, background information and community contacts.

A crisis involving financial misconduct should trigger different internal resources and external contacts than an environmental spill that threatens a nearby water source or residential neighborhood.

Grabbing a crisis plan template off the internet can give you a picture of how to structure your crisis plan, but don’t use it as basis framework of your plan because it is too generic and lacks the specificity of real scenarios.

We advise skipping the wordsmithing exercise of holding statements. Unless you are clairvoyant, you won’t know exactly how or where a crisis will break. Anything you could dream up to say in advance will probably be off point or so general as to be useless when an actual crisis occurs. A better approach is get your ducks in a row on how you will field calls, how quickly you can get the facts on what happened and get timely management sign-off on how to address the crisis.

In a crisis, actions speak louder than words. A crisis plan should be built on how to respond, not just on what to say.

One final bit of advice. The guiding star for any crisis plan should be an organization’s mission and values. If you say you put customers or patients first, then let that pledge inform and guide your actions. Protecting your reputation in a crisis depends on the actions you take that reflect the reputation you want to maintain.

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.

News and Yesterday's News

News delivered late is yesterday's news, and nowhere is bad timing more damaging than in crisis response.

News delivered late is yesterday's news, and nowhere is bad timing more damaging than in crisis response.

In comedy, a badly timed punchline ruins the joke. It's the same in news. Deliver it on time, it's news. Deliver it late and it's yesterday's news.

Nowhere is bad timing more damaging than in crisis response. But sluggish media relations can be just as harmful. The most serious casualty is a lost opportunity to tell your story when a key audience may be listening or watching.

Here are some of the most common, albeit lame reasons for tardy media engagement:

  • Arthritic approval structures in organizations, especially large ones.
  • Obsessive word-smithing over language in a press release that will never see the light of day.
  • A reticence to share some facts until all facts are known.
  • A forlorn belief that the story will blow over.
  • Worries about legal exposure.
  • Waiting for the right moment.
  • Not wanting to look pushy.

Organizations that understand the value of media relations in this media-rich digital age overcome those obstacles to timely news delivery. They streamline how news releases are written and approved. They focus on key messages, not press releases. They know opportunities come and go, but some stories don't fade away. They pay attention to legal counsel, but don't enslave themselves to it. They understand that if they don't tell their story, somebody else will.

Most important, smart organizations see effective media relations as a critical strategy. Direct communication with your target audience is vital, but that audience also pays attention to third-party coverage and commentary to provide context and validation.

In a world of profiling communications channels, media relations has gotten tougher. But one thing remains the same. News is news. Old news isn't news, just like a mangled punchline isn't funny.

Being Prepared for the Q/A

Question and answer sessions are opportunities to earn trust, but for executives who wing their answers, they can be Bermuda Triangles.

Question and answer sessions are opportunities to earn trust, but for executives who wing their answers, they can be Bermuda Triangles.

Too many CEOs and senior executives turn into wingmen when they approach question and answer sessions. They wing their answers and go down in flames, along with an opportunity to build trust. 

It takes a great deal of self-confidence to manage an organization, regardless of its size. But self-confidence isn't enough to prepare for a Q/A session with a key audience, especially an audience with an attitude and some tough questions. The only way to be ready for Q/A is to prepare – a lot.

Smart executives go to great pains to prepare for Q/A sessions. They make sure they are grilled with the toughest and widest range of questions and get help on framing solid, effective responses.

Depending on the significance of the Q/A, practice sessions can last for a day or more. Some executives may say they don't have that much time to devote to preparation. They fail to realize they could be spending a whole lot more time on damage control if they bomb in their Q/A performance.

Here are the most frequent problems: 

1. Caught off guard by a question.

The question may come from left field, but so what. Left field is still in the ballpark. Good prep work will identify even the most outlandish questions, so you have thought about them and have an answer at the ready.

 2. Don't have the information readily at hand.

If you are stumped by a question, it is better to admit it than try to bungle through an answer. However, if a question is fairly obvious – say, it's about the safety features of a proposed facility, the audience will expect you to have an answer. Failing to answer is tantamount to appearing evasive or, worse, uninformed. The people who prep you should have the license to remind you what you should know, which is usually why you are the one standing up giving the answers at a Q/A. 

3. Give inarticulate or incomprehensible answers.

Answering a question effectively includes giving an answer the audience can understand. Muddled facts, cloudy descriptions or cryptic references don't cut it. The purpose of an answer to a question is to satisfy the person who asked the question. Your answer may not always make them pleased, but it should never leave them confused. That's why you practice polishing your answers in a prep session.

4. Don't tell the truth.

Believing your own opinions can be dangerous when you are speaking into a microphone to a crowd of people. They don't hold many Q/A sessions in country clubs, so executives need to prepare for a different kind of social engagement. The best advice is to tell the truth – and to make sure of your facts when you prepare for the Q/A. 

5. Striking a patronizing tone.

When you know a lot and the audience may be a lot less informed, the temptation arises to give patronizing answers to questions. Unfortunately, audiences have the collective ability to topple you off your smarty-pants pedestal. Good preparation involves converting complex information or nuanced points into clear language.

6. Coming across as untrustworthy.

Just like any good speaker, you need to build rapport and trust with your audience. In a Q/A, that often involves bridging into your answer with some kind of empathetic comment. It can be as simple as "That's a great question" to "You raise a very discerning point." Framing answers in human terms helps to establish rapport because you demonstrate you have taken the time to think about the issue in more than a rote way. Thoughtful answers breed trust, even if they don't always generate agreement.

Newspapers May be Dying, But Newsrooms Aren't Morgues

Willamette Week and The Oregonian drew praise from a top journalism periodical for their aggressive coverage of an influence peddling scandal, which serves as a reminder than newspapers aren't dead and media relations is very much alive.

Willamette Week and The Oregonian drew praise from a top journalism periodical for their aggressive coverage of an influence peddling scandal, which serves as a reminder than newspapers aren't dead and media relations is very much alive.

Columbia Journalism Review usefully reminds us that spunky local news media are still capable of exposing wrongdoing in their own backyards, as Willamette Week and The Oregonian did in the unfolding scandal involving former Governor John Kitzhaber and Cylvia Hayes.

The narrative that print media is dying a slow death may still be valid, but that doesn't necessarily translate into newsrooms as morgues. Reporters may face different challenges and incentives to post stories quickly online, but the basic journalistic motivation of digging up the truth remains.

It is true that many local newspapers are reluctant to take on stories that can involve scandal and public embarrassment. But that was true before the advent of digital media. If anything, the digital era has upped the ante for reporters and their editors to find and follow stories that attract attention.

CJR, one of the most respected voices in American journalism, credited "aggressive accountability reporting by local media" for toppling Oregon's popular governor who had just won an unprecedented fourth term in office. The CJR article noted, Kitzhaber blamed the news media for a rush to judgment on allegations he and his fiancée engaged in improper influence peddling.

The article and the episode should be big hints that media relations remain a critical element in effective strategic communications, especially in a crisis. Hoping that bad news will escape the media's attention or blow over after a one-day negative story doesn't even qualify as wishful thinking. It is more like lighting a match near an open gas tank.

News media can fairly be judged on whether they make a robust effort to cover the news. But don't assume that sleeping dogs never wake up or that a friendly looking pooch may not have a little pit bull in him.

Build Trust, Don't Dig a Deeper Hole

Brian Williams and John Kitzhaber followed a crisis response path that dug their holes deeper instead of rebuilding trust through a full admission.

Brian Williams and John Kitzhaber followed a crisis response path that dug their holes deeper instead of rebuilding trust through a full admission.

As recent crises of integrity have revealed, an explanation or apology that falls short of a full admission usually is a spark rather than a fire extinguisher.

NBC News anchor Brian Williams' incomplete apology and Governor John Kitzhaber's incoherent explanation fueled a controversy, not quelled it. The apology and the explanation became part of the controversy, not part of the solution.

It is always easy to second-guess decisions or lack of decisions. But here are some tried-and-true crisis counsel maxims that would have been useful for Williams and Kitzhaber to consider:

1. Believe a crisis can happen to you.

No one is invincible. No one is immune from crisis. The loftier your position, the more likely you are to face a crisis.

2. Recognize when a crisis starts.

A crisis doesn't begin when the first reporter calls with a question. It starts when you realize something has gone wrong, or that you have done something wrong. The crisis Williams faces started in 2003 when he misreported the incident in Iraq. The crisis that felled Kitzhaber began when he failed to separate his work sufficiently from the work of his fiancé.

3. Own your misstep.

Blaming a faulty memory or shifting responsibility inevitably come across to the public as evasive or even big fat fibs. They don't demonstrate the person at the center of a crisis is owning the situation, taking steps to find out what went wrong and making it sure it doesn't happen again. Owning a situation isn't the equivalent of a Get Out Jail Free card, but it is the first step to maintaining or regaining shaken confidence. It signals you are taking the matter seriously and doing something about it.

4. Provide a clear resolution.

Trust comes from actions, not words. What you say can and will be analyzed. What you do can be seen and assessed. That's a huge difference. It undoubtedly would have been painful for Williams to admit he embellished his reporting and for Kitzhaber to admit he turned a blind eye to potential or actual conflicts of interest. But that pain of the moment would have been far less painful that the longer term damage each is facing because they didn't deal with the fundamental problem at the heart of their respective crises.

5. Balance your liability against the value of your reputation.

Many full admissions are thwarted out of fear of increasing liability in a courtroom. Too often these fears overwhelm the price paid in the court of public opinion when public figures fail to come clean. Their careers are at stake, which may exact a greater price than a fine or even a jail sentence. Legal maneuvering has its place, but sometimes it has the aura of guilt looking for a way out. If you know you have stepped over the line, you are going to be admitting it someday, somewhere — why not make it here and now? If you know the truth, tell it.

6. Anticipate what could go awry.

We chastise children for failing to consider the consequences of their actions. We shouldn't expect less of adults. Williams surely knew, especially since there were witnesses, that his puffed up account of the Iraq helicopter downing would eventually come to light. Kitzhaber is an astute political animal who certainly could foretell the results of a murky personal and professional relationship with the love of his life. In the end, both surrendered their trust because they looked away instead of into the mirror of their own actions.

Sermonizing about Williams and Kitzhaber is less useful than a Sunday School lesson about where crisis starts, how it ignites and how it can be halted. The stories of Williams and Kitzhaber are cautionary tales, much like biblical parables. They point out the way to oblivion, as well as the road to redemption. 

Don't Be Like That Marshawn Lynch

If you perform at press conferences like Seattle's Marshawn Lynch, don't expect to enhance your reputation or build rapport with the media.

If you perform at press conferences like Seattle's Marshawn Lynch, don't expect to enhance your reputation or build rapport with the media.

If you were looking for a punishing running back, you couldn't do any better than Seattle Seahawk's Marshawn Lynch. If you were looking for a model of how to handle the media, look elsewhere. Being the Beast doesn't work.

Throughout his career, Lynch has avoided reporters. Unfortunately for him, it is part of his job as a professional football player. Lynch has been fined for no-shows at press conferences. Maybe reticent CEOs should get the same treatment when they duck the press.

Amazingly, many heads of corporations, nonprofits and public agencies don't think meeting the press is part of their job or, if it is, don’t think it’s an important part. 

Wrong. Their job may depend on how well they perform in dealing with the media. 

Dealing with the media, especially as the head of a significant organization, is neither art nor science. It has a lot to do, however, with common sense and being personable. The media writes or posts stories that influence public perception. Leaving a bad impression because of indulgent or boorish behavior isn't productive or good for your organization. 

Leaders don't need a bromance with reporters to show respect for the job they do — or help them to do that job. Talking straight and being genuine build rapport and, over time, trust. And the time inevitably comes when you want to see something about your organization published, which is when the rapport and trust you have built will come in handy.

You won't always be happy about the coverage you receive, but it usually is the coverage you or your organization have earned. You will get a better shot of telling your side of the story if you make it easy for reporters to get your side of the story.

At a Super Bowl press conference, Lynch showed up, but told reporters the only answer they would get to any question is, "I'm here so I won't get fined." And that's what traditional and social media reported. 

The performance added to Lynch's already sketchy reputation as a media bad boy who happens to be a great running back. It did nothing to enhance the reputation of his foundation or the good work it is doing in his hometown of Oakland. Spouting canned answers and staring down the press awkwardly for several minutes was what you might call beastly. 

Lynch is a great example of what a great running back is like, but his Beast routine at press conferences is a failed strategy that will get you tackled behind the line of scrimmage.

Why Media Training Matters

Preparation is the key to successfully responding to the media during a crisis.

Preparation is the key to successfully responding to the media during a crisis.

You are standing in front of a bank of microphones and wall of TV cameras. Your words and how you express them will influence how the public, elected officials and employees view your organization. A lot is riding on your performance.

Even though the stakes are large, many spokespersons wing it. They enter the pit without any training and often without a realistic appreciation of the chaos they will encounter. They are entering the lion's den as bait.

Media training is intended to prepare spokespersons — and their bosses — to deal with the news media, cope with the pressures of social and digital media and manage the flow of information to a variety of external and internal audiences.

If crises are opportunities to demonstrate an organization's core values and enhance their reputation, then preparation and continuous practice are essential. Here is what media training should cover:

  • Building rapport with reporters. Spokespersons should understand the news media's role and how they do their job. Respecting deadlines, providing information in a timely manner and avoiding spin are ways that spokespersons build a positive relationship with reporters so they work with you instead of looking for ways to go around you. 
  • Understanding the value of sound bites. Reporters want facts. They also want great quotes. Spokespersons need to deliver both. An interview clip on a TV broadcast frequently lasts 10 seconds, which means there isn't time to offer a lengthy explanation. You need a short, quotable sentence or phrase that conveys your key message. This takes art, but mostly it takes the hard work to identify the most important fact and convert into a sound bite.
  • Knowing when not to take the bait. Good reporters have techniques to get you off message. Spokespersons must learn the skills to stay on message. They have to become like actors who perform their lines on cue without getting sidetracked by someone coughing loudly in the audience. Spokespersons also need to know how to redirect a reporter's question to stay on message.
  • Projecting the right emotion. The last thing you want is a spokesperson who smirks while describing a layoff. How you look when you speak speaks louder than what you actually say. Media training, which involves simulated interviews on camera, helps spokespersons see their posture, facial expressions and hand motions, which can reinforce the key message or distract from it.
  • Conveying confidence. It takes skill for a spokesperson to convey confidence in the midst of chaos. Media training provides tips on how to maintain composure and project a command of the facts, even if they are incomplete when you brief reporters. Confidence is critical to give key audiences — whether it's an adjoining neighborhood or an organization's own employees — reassurance that the problem causing the crisis is being addressed with their safety in mind.
  • Performing under stress. It's one thing to talk a good game and another to play one. Media training puts spokespersons under the lens of a camera so you can see how well you handle a question out of left field or new information that is shown to you without prior warning on a smartphone. Stress-testing spokespersons give them a taste of what a real crisis would be like. It separates the wannabes from the can-do spokespersons.

Effective media training isn't like a lifetime vaccine. You need to undergo it more than once. Experienced spokespersons routinely tune up before a known major event or periodically just to keep their skills at the sharpest edge.

Think Before You Post Online

Venting on social media can feel good in the moment, but could bring your career to a jolting halt. 

Venting on social media can feel good in the moment, but could bring your career to a jolting halt. 

Think twice before you post.If you ever feel the need to sound off, find a secret spot and vent. Don't spew on social media.

The latest reminder of this online truth is Elizabeth Lauten, formerly the communications directors for a Tennessee congressman. After her Facebook bashing of the Obama daughters, Lauten finds herself embarrassed and unemployed. 

The spark that blew up Lauten's career was the sight of Sasha and Malia Obama looking and acting like teenagers when their father, the President, performed the annual ceremony of pardoning a turkey. Most people found this scene silly enough that they didn't watch, let alone let loose a social media mega bomb.

Many people may have shared Lauten's views about the girls' behavior, but only Lauten felt compelled to share her views about the girls – and gratuitously about their parents – with the world on her public Facebook account, and the world responded very quickly.

What did Lauten expect? Even teenagers could have predicted the blow-back she received from her Facebook posts. They've seen it over and over when someone posts an in-your-face screed.

Lauten's apologies won't win a crisis response award either. She took her Facebook page private and issued a sort-of apology. Lauten said after re-reading what she wrote, talking to her parents and "many hours of prayers," she realized her words were "hurtful." Her apology was aimed more at offended viewers of her post than the two young girls whom she directly offended.

A Republican Party operative added more gasoline to the fire by telling people to get over the incident, which he characterized as a mistake by a middling staffer for a rank-and-file congressman. That certainly was helpful context, especially in the world of social media where status doesn't matter.

The cautionary tale, acted out once again, carries the simple message of thinking before posting. Venting may be good for your mental health, but public venting often can land you in hot water. Or, as in Lauten's case, in the unemployment line. 

Getting Off the Front Page, Not Reporter Revenge

A reporter writes a negative story about your company, your boss or you. If getting even is the first thing that comes to mind, take a deep breath, go for a walk and find a better strategy.

Almost anything would be better than revenge. ​

If you think the reporter got key facts wrong or misinterpreted them, call the reporter and chat. Speak plainly. Have some evidence at hand that you can share to substantiate your point. For egregious fact errors, most responsible reporters will agree to a correction. For less significant errors, it may be enough to wise up the reporter so the mistake isn't repeated.

Occasionally a reporter is obstinate and won't acknowledge an error. You can take the next step and talk to his or her editor to press your case.

Responding to Crisis from the Heart and Head

When facing a crisis, should you respond with your head or your heart? A PR colleague argues for both, and with good reason.

A stiff response or an overly emotional response can erode, not build, trust — which is the critical measure of success in crisis communication. An effective response must combine a caring reaction with a rational set of actions. 

Joan Gladstone, who gives strategic communications counsel to clients from her San Diego base, says people affected by a crisis want more than timely, transparent information. They want to know you care. And they want to know you are doing everything possible to end the crisis and prevent it from recurring. They want assurances you are treating the victims with respect.

This requires a response from both the heart and the head.

Empathy can go a long way toward establishing a bridge between the crisis response messenger and the people paying attention. The absence of empathy sends an even louder message. Failing to express sympathy or remorse can be seen as uncaring, disregard or indifference. A simple phone call to victims or their family members can speak volumes.

Managing the Layoff Notice

The announcement by Microsoft this week of massive layoffs brought to mind my own experience at Tektronix when it began paring employees, signaling the start of its downward drift as a major employer. 

Laying off employees — whether it's one or thousands — is no fun. Communicating the layoffs is no fun either, but there are ways to make it less painful — for those losing their jobs and those staying. 

Painful Lesson #1

Let employees and other internal stakeholders (key vendors, consultants, strategic partners) know about layoffs before the general public. Nobody likes to get the news about a layoff their could affect them in a newspaper.

There are always logistical, timing and legal considerations that go into how and when a layoff is announced. But here is the painful truth — there is always, always a negative, sometimes permanent reaction when the layoff announcement is made public before it is made personally. 

Employees are not dumb. They know when layoffs are looming. They may even understand why they are necessary for the greater good of the company or organization. What they can't forget — or maybe forgive — is being the last to know.

In a Crisis, Snap a Selfie

What better way to clear up confusion or go on the offensive in a crisis than to snap a selfie and post it on Instagram.

Jill Abrahamson, after her firing as executive editor of the New York Times, captured herself with boxing gloves and a punching bag.

Beyonce and her sister Solange documented themselves on Instagram skipping together following release of elevator video showing Solange in a punch-out with Jay-Z.

Does this mean Instagram is the new magic wand of crisis management? Hardly. But it is interesting.

Rule one in crisis response is to get out your story as quickly as possible – and to keep talking as long as the crisis lasts. Letting the story line get ahead of your story can be disastrous.

Ask former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki who was engulfed with a deepening scandal over delayed medical care for veterans and manipulation of wait time reports by local VA officials to cover up the truth and tune up their stats to receive incentive pay.

Don't Equivocate; Tell Your Story

The nagging question that won't go away is whether it is too risky to tell your side of a controversial story before someone else tells theirs. It is a question that has already been answered and punctuated by the realities of social media and 24/7 news cycles.

Hesitating to share your narrative leaves the door wide open for your opponent or antagonist to share his first. That automatically puts you on the defensive. You have to tell your story around the corners and crevices of your opponent's story.

"I know, but I don't want to ignite a story that may never see the light of day if I say nothing" is a common concern. The "lie low" strategy has a long and pocked history. It works sometimes, or at least for some time. Eventually the dirt under the rug is unearthed.

The unearthing process has become a whole lot more prevalent with the advent of smartphones that can capture your words or actions when you think nobody is listening or watching. They can be accidental captures or intentional, but when shared on social media they can become embarrassing moments for the whole world to see. 

Instead of fretting over whether to tell your story, spend your energy deciding how best to tell it. What should you say that will convey your facts in a credible context? Where should you say it? What additional information or links can you provide that reinforce your story? 

Training for a Marathon Issue

Most issues management advice centers on dealing with crisis, but most issues drag on for years, requiring strategies for a marathon, not a sprint.

Training for a marathon involves training for different slices of the race. How you run the first five miles is a lot different than how you run the last five. There is a reason elite marathon runners include sprinting in their training regimen.

Translating that thought into the context of managing an issue means having a long-term objective, as well as shorter-term objectives. You also may need one or more crisis plans for that mid-race leg cramp.

Marathon issues management plans apply to long-term projects that take years to complete and to complex, contentious issues that take time to resolve, such as the struggle to legalize same-sex marriage. 

Protracted issues and long lead-time projects face many ups and downs, which can occur because of economic cycles or catalytic events. There also is give-and-take as each side unleashes its strategy, which calls for a response. Managing an issue in this environment demands more than an A to B plan.

Don't Sanitize the Truth

Sanitizing your hands is smart. Sanitizing the truth in the middle of a crisis is dangerous.In many circles, tiptoeing around the truth is the norm. Public relations in a crisis shouldn't be one of those circles. 

Good PR shouldn't be about how well you can sanitize the truth. It should be about how well you can tell the truth to build trust. 

There are always other "considerations" — legal, logistical and hierarchal. However, the digital age puts a premium on rapid truth-telling, which should be considered as or more important than other factors in deciding what to say and when and where to say it.

Truth-telling implies having verifiable facts at hand. In a crisis, facts can be elusive. Explaining the urgency by which you are seeking facts is part of candid truth-telling. Meanwhile, you can demonstrate your engagement in the crisis in other ways, starting with a statement of remorse and actions to deal with the problem at hand.

The Crisis Plan Drill

Most organizations need a crisis plan that is more than a paper tiger but has been put to the test to make sure it works as an effective crisis response.Too many organizations don't have a crisis plan. Many that do haven't tested their plans with trial by fire.

A crisis plan must be much more than a notebook on the shelf. It must be a living document that reflects real-life circumstances and behaviors. It isn’t really a plan until it is pressure-tested.

The crisis plan drill makes the phone tree, key message drafting, press release writing, employee communications and coordination with emergency responders come to life. The drill will help you know whether your plan is paper-thin or tried-and-true.