Issue management

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.

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.

Don't Forget Editorial Board Visits

A savvy media relations strategy should include editorial board visits, affording a chance to offer the context and your opinion about the facts.

A savvy media relations strategy should include editorial board visits, affording a chance to offer the context and your opinion about the facts.

Much energy is devoted to wordsmithing press releases which could be better channeled into thinking more broadly whom to brief in person.

Notwithstanding the decline of newspaper readership and ad space, their editorial columns still have an impact. Editorial writers are worth the time to meet with and tell your story. Remember, the newsroom and the editorial staff aren't marching to the same drummer. In a savvy media relations strategy, you need to sing your song to both. 

While news releases bring attention to facts, events or developments, editorial board visits provide an avenue to express an opinion or to share the context behind the facts, events and developments.

Sharing your views doesn't automatically translate into a favorable editorial. But it does ensure your views are taken into consideration when an editorial is written.

A newspaper's editorial slant is usually obvious, but never should be taken for granted. There are plenty of examples of a pro-business paper writing an editorial lambasting a business.

Just as it is necessary for you to tell your story about a project, it is imperative you provide your perspective on the project — the way you hope the public or key groups will see the project.

An effective news release zeroes in on key points, starting with your best fact. An effective editorial board meeting should hew to the same discipline and hone in on what's really important. The exercise of framing snappy news releases and editorial board key messages should simplify and sharpen the focus of all communications. 

Proponents most often have a lot to say. But reporters and editors, just like the general public, want you to cut through to the bottom line. What are you proposing, doing or committing to that is significant? Winnowing down what you say increases your odds of getting across your desired message.

Questions or conversation can explore other relevant ground in an editorial board meeting. That's when you are apt to have an opportunity to rebut an opponent's claims or clear up a point of confusion.

Editorial board visits take time to arrange and prepare for. It is time and energy well spent, especially if the editorial on your topic is favorable or sympathetic with your point of view.

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.

Looking Past the Chaos of Crisis

When events are out of control, focus on what you can control — gathering corroborated facts, aggressively addressing the problem at hand and proactively communicating. 

Energy is wasted trying to control a crisis. By definition, a crisis means events are out of control. 

Chaos can paralyze otherwise prudent, resourceful leaders. Real leadership requires looking past the chaos to deal with a crisis and preserve a reputation or brand. 

While others are in a daze, leaders look for facts. What happened? How did it happen? What needs to be done? 

Solid facts usually illuminate the path of what to do. Then it takes courage to follow the path, even if the chief financial officer or legal counsel argues for caution or delay. Acting decisively on good data is a sign of leadership and it builds credibility with those impacted by the crisis.

Sharp Nails in our Memories

The words you choose make a difference, so pick them wisely to connect, convince and compel your audience.Words matter, and well-chosen words are remembered.

Or, as French philosopher Denis Diderot put it, "Pithy sentences are like sharp nails that force truth upon our memories."

Despite irrefutable evidence that chiseled phrases stick in people's brains, many communicators are casual or careless with the words they choose. They write as if the words on their pages will have little effect, which becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Word selection demands attention to detail. Here are some of the details that require your attention:

Managing an Issue, Avoiding a Catastrophe

Managing an issue is harder and takes longer than just responding to one, but it can save your reputation, avert a catastrophe and protect your hindquarters.Circumstances such as angry neighbors, pesky protestors and petition drives force many organizations to respond to public issues, even when they are ill prepared. 

Issues management can mean the difference between a crisis turning into catastrophe. Issue management is the phrase PR professionals use to describe the process of anticipating a messy public process or debate and taking proactive steps to respond.

Issue management isn't rocket science, but it takes discipline and a forward-looking approach. Hoping the problem will disappear or fantasizing the fuss will blow over aren't strategies with much long-term prospect. Here are some basic tips that can help save your brand, reputation and hindquarters:

Engaging Your Critics, Even When it Hurts

A common question is whether and when to engage your critics. It is the wrong question.

Asking that question implies the conversations by critics depend somehow on your involvement. You may have stimulated their criticism with something you said or did, but their conversation is proceeding on its own propulsion, whether you are engaged or not. 

The right question isn't "whether and when;" it is "how and where."

Not all criticism merits frontal confrontation. Someone who voices his or her displeasure on your Facebook page might be dealt with best offline, especially if you can satisfy the complaint quickly. That person is likely to follow up his or her own critical post with a laudatory one about you.

Sometimes critics need to be confronted. They may be spouting inaccurate or distorted information about you. That requires your direct engagement at the point of criticism or anywhere else that misinformation may have been planted.

People always have talked behind somebody's back. The only thing that has changed with the advent of the Internet and social media is that those conversations occur right in front of your face.

Taming an Issue Before It Roars

Your best opportunity to tame a thorny subject is before it becomes a public issue.

Issue management is often associated with public relations and lobbying exertions to corral an issue that has erupted into a public debate, prescriptive legislation or regulatory action, all of which can be messy and expensive. There is considerably more room to maneuver before an issue reaches the front pages, a bureaucrat's desk or the legislative bill hopper.

This requires anticipation — and a different bag of tricks.

It's not just who you know, it's what you know

Tamping down an issue that has exploded into the public consciousness and morphed into new rules or laws usually involves talking to the right people. The goal is influence.

Anticipating an emerging issue involves reading and talking to critics to develop a keener understanding of an issue and of expectations how to resolve it. The goal is information , which can be used to change a practice or behavior before it festers into a public sore point. The change might even be significant enough to give an organization or individual a marketing advantage.