crisis counsel

The Secret Treasure Buried in an Issues Audit

A rigorous issues audit is critical to identify organizational vulnerabilities that can stunt operations and tarnish reputations in a crisis. But issues audits offer other benefits – targeting management actions to reduce risk and opening the eyes of colleagues to the challenges faced by their counterparts.

A rigorous issues audit is critical to identify organizational vulnerabilities that can stunt operations and tarnish reputations in a crisis. But issues audits offer other benefits – targeting management actions to reduce risk and opening the eyes of colleagues to the challenges faced by their counterparts.

The essential first step of a crisis plan is an issues audit. Identifying vulnerabilities is critical to developing a crisis plan based on likely crisis scenarios. It also can be a revealing look into management, operational and capital decisions that can mitigate or eliminate risk.

(Reposted from April 8, 2019)

(Reposted from April 8, 2019)

Unmasking potential management, operational and capital decisions to reduce risk is an unappreciated dimension of issues audits. The chance to zero in on ways to reduce risk should be reason enough to conduct issue audits.

An empty wallet is the most common excuse for postponing a rigorous exploration of organizational vulnerability. A close second is a lack of time. Both are pallid justifications for avoiding the hard, but not necessarily expensive work to pinpoint problems and think about how to address them. 

Too many executives lull themselves into believing a major crisis won’t occur on their watch, which leads them to shuffle their feet on a crisis planning exercise. They fail to recognize that identifying vulnerabilities can be a window into actions that would materially lessen exposure – or even gain a competitive advantage.

CFM’s approach to crisis plan development results into two deliverables – a strategy to address likely and consequential crisis scenarios and a list of smart investments to mitigate risk. This provides a very different approach to an annual capital investment plan. Instead of sets of competing priorities from different divisions, top executives would have a prioritized list of investments that would make a material difference in an organization’s risk profile.

A common compliment by managers after completing a CFM-managed issues audit is that it produces a lot more than an agenda of what to worry about. It also sheds light on what you can do to ease or even eliminate worries. This is the secret treasure buried in an issues audit. 

“I was skeptical that an issues audit would do anything more than show us what we already knew,” said one manager who participated in a CFM issues audit. “What I failed to see until I went through the process was what the issues audit told us about how we could avoid risk. That’s priceless.”

A crisis plan based on realistic crisis scenarios is reason enough to conduct an issues audit. An added plus is a roadmap to risk-reducing capital investments or management steps. A typical rigorous issues audit lasts four hours, including time set aside for coffee and donuts. How else could you get so much value for a four-hour investment of staff time? 

There is an even more subtle benefit from well-conceived issues audits.  Bringing together the full cross-section of organizational top management induces a learning moment and a collaborative spirit. The team participating in the issues audit leaves the session knowing more about the operational pain points of their colleagues than any seminar or staff meeting could teach.

“I came into our issues audit knowing about my problems,” one senior official recounted. “I left with a deeper understanding pf the problems my counterparts face. What I thought would be a perfunctory meeting turned into an eye-opening opportunity.”

An issues audit would be worth the time and expense just to pinpoint the crisis scenarios in a crisis plan. Added value as a keen-eyed management tool is a bargain. Strengthening the camaraderie and collaboration of your staff can be a priceless benefit.

If you haven’t undergone an issue audit to identify your vulnerabilities, what are you waiting for?

Gary Conkling Image.jpg

Gary Conkling is principal 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.

 

Presidential Lessons on Leadership in Crisis Management

Four US presidents who faced nation-threatening crises displayed crisis management traits that serve as examples for contemporary crisis preparation and response.

Four US presidents who faced nation-threatening crises displayed crisis management traits that serve as examples for contemporary crisis preparation and response.

Leadership in a crisis involves skills admired in the abstract, but shunned in practice when feathers are flying. In our current moment, crisis leadership too often are AWOL.

In Leadership for Turbulent TimesDoris Kearns Goodwin traces the evolution of four Presidents from their formative period to the crucible of crisis that defined their legacy. In her narratives about Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson, Goodwin points out the traits that each President employed as he led the nation out of crisis.

The traits she identified from the four presidents are case studies for any leader charged with managing a crisis – careful listening, empathy, thoughtfulness, patience, preparation, dramatic action, humility and personal responsibility. 

Careful Listening: Lincoln surrounded himself with a “team of rivals.” Teddy Roosevelt and Franklin Roosevelt consumed huge volumes of information, but they listened most carefully to human stories. Johnson chose to retain John F. Kennedy’s Cabinet as a sign of respect and ensure he understood the priorities of his predecessor. Listening for all four men was how they learned, especially in a time of crisis when time was the enemy.

Empathy: All four Presidents assumed the role as the representative of Americans at large, not special interests or regional preferences. In their own ways, each President tried to put themselves into the shoes of the soldier, the overworked and underpaid coal miner, the dispossessed farmer and the downtrodden minority. They thirsted for real-life stories that revealed real-life circumstances. From those stories, they developed an empathy that informed and humanized their decision-making.

Thoughtfulness: Each President found a way in the midst of crisis to carve out a space to think. They understood the crisis they faced had both transactional and transformational dimensions. They gave thought to how to address the immediate aspects of crisis while identifying the underlying cause and possible remedies.

Patience: When the Presidents decided on a course of action, they didn’t immediately spring into action. In some cases, they waited for the right moment for public opinion to congeal. In other cases, they took their time to consider options, reactions and precedents. They exercise what you might call creative patience.

Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin has traced the traits of four US presidents that enabled them to meet and overcome major crises in the history of the country. Those traits are applicable to all leaders facing crisis today.

Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin has traced the traits of four US presidents that enabled them to meet and overcome major crises in the history of the country. Those traits are applicable to all leaders facing crisis today.

Preparation: When a final decision was made, support staff was mobilized to put the necessary steps in place. FDR created the Civilian Conservation Corps and demanded that 125,000 unemployed and unmarried young men would be recruited, trained and transported to untended American timberlands within months. Few thought it was possible, but it happened because of expert preparation and coordination.

Dramatic Action: In a crisis, actions matter more than words. Sometimes the actions are bold and risky. Lincoln issued the emancipation proclamation at a pivotal moment in the Civil War. Teddy Roosevelt intervened in a major coal strike. FDR called a special session of Congress to establish new banking regulations. Johnson pushed for passage of the Civil Rights Act. Each dramatic action solidified the perception that these four men were leaders. They were able to accomplish what most people thought impossible – 200,000 new recruits, an arbitrated end to a destabilizing coal strike, federal insurance for bank deposits and the first civil rights legislation of any consequence since the end of the Civil War.

The last two qualities Goodwin identified may be the most important.

Humility: By almost any standard, the Roosevelts and Johnson were not humble. Lincoln came closest to humble, but even he seethed with ambition. In the face of crisis, however, each in their own way displayed humility in service of their objective. Lincoln abided the advice of political opponents. Teddy Roosevelt endured the insufferable attitude of coal company owners. Johnson let GOP Senate Leader Everett Dirksen play the lead role in passage of the Civil Rights Act. These four presidents put their egos in their pockets, at least for a while, to achieve a greater good than could have achieved on their own.

Personal Responsibility. All four Presidents assumed full responsibility for their actions – and the potential for failure. Lincoln’s confidantes warned the emancipation proclamation could redouble the resolve of the Confederacy and led to mass defections from the Union army. Teddy Roosevelt knew his intervention in a strike was outside his constitutional authority. In his fireside chats, FDR admitted some of the policies and programs he initiated were experimental and may not work as intended. Good to his word, Roosevelt modified or ended programs that didn’t work. Johnson was told civil rights legislation would never make it out of a Congress dominated by Southern lawmakers. He told Martin Luther King, Jr. that he could make it happen.

Goodwin’s book focuses on presidential crisis management. However, the principles of effective crisis management don’t change because of different job titles. Any crisis is a fundamental challenge to a reputation, a brand or an identity.

The most significant change in managing a crisis since the eras of Lincoln, the Roosevelts and Johnson has been the advent of the internet, digital media and smartphones. Time is an even greater enemy to a smart response to a crisis.

The only known antidote is more thoughtful advance preparation that includes identifying potential crisis scenarios, go-to resources and an internal crisis team leader. Preparation also should include updated contact lists, a trained media spokesperson and a ghost website with information and imagery that can be shared immediately.

What Goodwin’s treatise on leadership teaches is the imperative of CEO involvement in crisis management. Only the CEO can provide the moral authority as well as the administrative approval for bold crisis responses. Only the CEO can speak for an entire organization, including its consumers, stakeholders and employees affected by the crisis and the response. Only the CEO can see beyond the crisis to the future. Only the CEO can invoke the mission and purpose of an organization as guidance for every person involved in a crisis response.

Gary Conkling Image.jpg

Gary Conkling is principal 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.

 


The Secret Treasure Buried in an Issues Audit

A rigorous issues audit is critical to identify organizational vulnerabilities that can stunt operations and tarnish reputations in a crisis. But issues audits offer other benefits – targeting management actions to reduce risk and opening the eyes of colleagues to the challenges faced by their counterparts.

A rigorous issues audit is critical to identify organizational vulnerabilities that can stunt operations and tarnish reputations in a crisis. But issues audits offer other benefits – targeting management actions to reduce risk and opening the eyes of colleagues to the challenges faced by their counterparts.

The essential first step of a crisis plan is an issues audit. Identifying vulnerabilities is critical to developing a crisis plan based on likely crisis scenarios. It also can be a revealing look into management, operational and capital decisions that can mitigate or eliminate risk.

Unmasking potential management, operational and capital decisions to reduce risk is an unappreciated dimension of issues audits. The chance to zero in on ways to reduce risk should be reason enough to conduct issue audits.

An empty wallet is the most common excuse for postponing a rigorous exploration of organizational vulnerability. A close second is a lack of time. Both are pallid justifications for avoiding the hard, but not necessarily expensive work to pinpoint problems and think about how to address them. 

Too many executives lull themselves into believing a major crisis won’t occur on their watch, which leads them to shuffle their feet on a crisis planning exercise. They fail to recognize that identifying vulnerabilities can be a window into actions that would materially lessen exposure – or even gain a competitive advantage.

CFM’s approach to crisis plan development results into two deliverables – a strategy to address likely and consequential crisis scenarios and a list of smart investments to mitigate risk. This provides a very different approach to an annual capital investment plan. Instead of sets of competing priorities from different divisions, top executives would have a prioritized list of investments that would make a material difference in an organization’s risk profile.

A common compliment by managers after completing a CFM-managed issues audit is that it produces a lot more than an agenda of what to worry about. It also sheds light on what you can do to ease or even eliminate worries. This is the secret treasure buried in an issues audit. 

“I was skeptical that an issues audit would do anything more than show us what we already knew,” said one manager who participated in a CFM issues audit. “What I failed to see until I went through the process was what the issues audit told us about how we could avoid risk. That’s priceless.”

A crisis plan based on realistic crisis scenarios is reason enough to conduct an issues audit. An added plus is a roadmap to risk-reducing capital investments or management steps. A typical rigorous issues audit lasts four hours, including time set aside for coffee and donuts. How else could you get so much value for a four-hour investment of staff time? 

There is an even more subtle benefit from well-conceived issues audits.  Bringing together the full cross-section of organizational top management induces a learning moment and a collaborative spirit. The team participating in the issues audit leaves the session knowing more about the operational pain points of their colleagues than any seminar or staff meeting could teach.

“I came into our issues audit knowing about my problems,” one senior official recounted. “I left with a deeper understanding pf the problems my counterparts face. What I thought would be a perfunctory meeting turned into an eye-opening opportunity.”

An issues audit would be worth the time and expense just to pinpoint the crisis scenarios in a crisis plan. Added value as a keen-eyed management tool is a bargain. Strengthening the camaraderie and collaboration of your staff can be a priceless benefit.

If you haven’t undergone an issue audit to identify your vulnerabilities, what are you waiting for?

Gary Conkling Image.jpg

Gary Conkling is principal 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.

 

The Time You Save Is Your Best Friend in a Crisis

In a crisis, you lose control of events. You are forced to respond quickly. But you can only respond quickly if you have prepared to respond well in advance of an actual crisis. Time isn’t your side, but you can make saved time your most valuable ally by preparing for when a crisis strikes.

In a crisis, you lose control of events. You are forced to respond quickly. But you can only respond quickly if you have prepared to respond well in advance of an actual crisis. Time isn’t your side, but you can make saved time your most valuable ally by preparing for when a crisis strikes.

Many crisis communications plans are larded with placeholder statements, which if used in an actual crisis would sound like platitudes or put-offs. Too few crisis plans include the elements of most value in a crisis – the elements that preserve time.

The essence of any crisis is loss of control. The fire is burning. Social media is exploding. The phone won’t stop ringing. Time is not on your side.

The best anyone can do is respond quickly. However, you can only respond quickly if you have prepared to respond quickly, if you have baked ways to preserve time into your crisis communications plan.

Here are some tips on how to preserve time for the crisis in your future:

Have a Crisis Communications Plan
You can’t bake anything into your crisis communications plan if you don’t have one. It’s surprising how many organizations lack a crisis communications plan of any kind, let alone a competent one. In some cases, the task has been sloughed off or postponed until “later when we have more time.” In reality, the time before a crisis is the most precious and plentiful asset you have to deal with an eventual and probably inevitable crisis.

Anticipate Your Crisis Scenarios
A nonprofit doesn’t have to worry about an exploding railcar and a railroad doesn’t have to worry about child neglect. That’s why crisis plans need to be anchored to crisis scenarios that an organization might realistically experience. The best way to anticipate relevant crisis scenarios is to identify them through a comprehensive, candid issues audit. Brainstorming about all the bad things that could happen may not seem like a great way to spend part of a day, but it can be a very productive use of your time. Acknowledging your vulnerabilities is the first step toward preserving your time in dealing with them.

Prioritize Your Vulnerabilities
After you identify your potential crisis scenarios, you should rank them by probability and impact. That enables you to focus on the most likely crisis scenarios with the highest impact. It avoids wasting time expending energy for unlikely and low-impact scenarios.

Mitigate Your Vulnerabilities
A byproduct of identifying crisis scenarios and sorting them by priority is flagging actions that can mitigate a potential crisis. Making a high-consequence, high-impact vulnerability less likely through proactive action is the greatest time saver of all.

Know Your Go-To Resources
When a particular crisis hits, it helps to know where to look for the answers you need. The go-to resources for a financial crisis will be vastly different than for an environmental spill. Who do you turn to internally? Are there external resources that can be tapped? Is there data that is relevant and useful? Knowing who to call and how to reach them can save valuable time and prevent crippling confusion during the first hours of a crisis.

Stock Up on Crisis Tools
Just as you prepare for a natural disaster by stowing away basic necessities, do the same for your crisis moment. Video or infographic explanations of safety and security procedures can be brand-savers if they are ready to go when a crisis occurs. They can be stored on a ghost website that can be activated in a crisis moment. A critical part of the crisis planning process is anticipating what tools you may need in a specific crisis, then developing them so they can be accessed in a flash. Something as simple a B-roll video can be invaluable by giving eager television reporters with a deadline something to use on air in place of what they can salvage off the Internet or from someone’s smartphone. 

Designate a Crisis Team Leader
Name somebody as your crisis team leader, so you don’t have to fumble around when a crisis occurs assigning someone the task. A crisis team leader can become the internal advocate for preparing and updating a crisis plan that is relevant and realistic. The crisis team leader’s job description should include learning about crisis response and applying that knowledge to the vulnerabilities and potential crisis scenarios of their organization. They should be ready to step into action when a crisis strikes, saving time through their advance preparation. 

Maintain Current Contact List

Outdated contact information is frequent time-wasting toe stub in a crisis. Phone numbers and email addresses change, so you need to update your contact list frequently. The crisis team leader should make sure the contact list is complete, including external numbers such as the local hospital emergency department, emergency response personnel and key contractors.

Conduct Crisis Response Drills
There is no better way to test your crisis plan than to conduct a drill. A dry run will reveal weaknesses and overlooked details in your plan, which can be fixed and save time in an actual crisis. Drills should include, when possible, emergency responders that would be called into an action during a real crisis. In cases involving hazardous substances, you want emergency response personnel to know what they are dealing with – and how to deal with it safely. Fresh eyes can point out problems, such as a shutoff switch located inside instead of outside of a room where hazardous materials are processed. Safety-proofing operations can save time by minimizing potentially catastrophic effects of a crisis.

Make Your War Room War-Ready
Not all crises require a war room, but a large crisis does. This is the place where actions are coordinated – from addressing the cause of the crisis to fielding calls from affected parties and the news media. The war room should be big enough for the designated crisis team to function there, have Internet access and one or more landlines to handle calls that come through the organization’s phone system. The rise of smartphones and laptops make war room preparation a lot easier, but not entirely foolproof. Think about what you would need and ensure it is available in the war room. Update your planning frequently. For example, Facetime and Skype offer opportunities to give live interviews or feeds without leaving your own desk.

Create Your Own Alert System
Speedy response demands real-time channels of communications. Twitter remains the most reliable way to keep eager and attentive audiences informed. However, you can’t just turn on Twitter. You have to cultivate a following, especially among news reporters and editors so they receive your tweet updates. It is easier to direct new listeners to your Twitter feed if it is established. If you have built a Twitter following, you will understand how the platform works.

Utilizing a channel such as Twitter can save time by avoiding having to make one-on-one follow-up contacts or organizing press briefings. The direct message feature of Twitter also allows personalized contact.

Train You Designated Spokespersons
Whether it’s the crisis team leader or someone else in an organization, including the CEO, make sure they have undergone media training. Effective media training includes learning how to craft and deliver a key message and performing in a simulated interview with reporters. The best media training is customized to an organization’s circumstances and crisis scenarios. Even staff members – and especially the CEO – who may have experience dealing with the media should undergo media training to hone their skills and recognize the tension that can exist in interviews involving a crisis. Conducting media training before a crisis hits is time well preserved.

There is a lot of work to do to make sure you are ready for a crisis. None of the work involves dreaming up vanilla-flavored placeholder statements. Use your time wisely to prepare wisely. The time it takes will be the invaluable time you save when a crisis occurs.

[CFM Strategic Communications is one of the leading crisis counselors in the Pacific Northwest with experience in assisting clients prepare crisis plans, test their effectiveness, make spokespersons media-ready and counsel on internal and external responses during a crisis. Contact us to see how we can help you.]

Gary Conkling Image.jpg

Gary Conkling is principal 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.

Kavanaugh Defense Serves as Crisis Communication Case Study

Brett Kavanaugh’s fiery defense before the Senate Judiciary Committee last week should go down as a classic crisis communications case study. The Supreme Court nominee said what he wanted (or was told) to say instead of delivering a message and demonstrating empathy that could have allayed concerns by some of his doubters. [Photo Credit: Associated Press]

Brett Kavanaugh’s fiery defense before the Senate Judiciary Committee last week should go down as a classic crisis communications case study. The Supreme Court nominee said what he wanted (or was told) to say instead of delivering a message and demonstrating empathy that could have allayed concerns by some of his doubters. [Photo Credit: Associated Press]

As crisis communications cases go, there is no better example to study than the defense mounted last week by Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Supporters, including President Trump who nominated Kavanaugh, praised his fiery demeanor as appropriate for someone who feels unjustly accused. Critics said his emotional, defensive and at times partisan performance raised questions about his judicial temperament.

No one can dispute there was a sharp contrast between Kavanaugh’s hot defense and the cool, measured testimony of his accuser, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford. It wouldn’t be unfair to conclude that Ford, who admitted she was terrified to testify in public before a national television audience, exceeded expectations as a credible witness. She calmly gave her testimony, answered questions clearly, admitted what she couldn’t remember and showed deference to her questioners. She politely asked for a promised break.

Some commentators summed up the hearing as a “she said/he said” moment, and from an evidentiary point of view, it was. However, on a perception scale, Ford looked credible as an accuser, while Kavanaugh came across as ticked off as the accused. It was a hearing with two “victims.”

The most cogent post-hearing analysis was that Kavanugh offered a Trumpian rejoinder. He denied the accusation of sexual misconduct and focused on what he called the “search and destroy” nomination process, which he blamed on Democrats and left-leaning news media. Maybe “search and destroy” was a clever sound bite Kavanaugh came up with himself, or more likely it was a sound bite recommended by Trump, who used the phrase himself in a tweet after the hearing ended. Senator Tom Cotton repeated the phrase in his appearance Sunday on “Face the Nation.”

There is certainly nothing wrong with sound bites. However, Kavanaugh (and whoever advised him) may have seriously misjudged the tenor of the moment and what a large part of the audience watching wanted to see and hear in response to Ford’s allegations. That misjudgment earned Kavanaugh a follow-up background check by the FBI, which Trump and Senate GOP leaders had previously denied.

Kavanaugh’s miscalculation is the crux of the crisis communications case study. He indulged in what he wanted (or someone wanted him) to say, rather than exercising the discipline to deliver an appropriate message.

We can argue over what an appropriate message would be in this circumstance. No one would have faulted Kavanaugh for expressing frustration over the nomination process, but his main job at the hearing was to declare his innocence and show respect for Ford and her claim. That was in his remarks, but it got lost in the ashes of his incendiary comments. Whatever respect he attempted to show Ford was negated by his disrespect for Democratic Senator Amy Klobuchar when she asked him about his blackout drinking. 

A key principle of crisis communications is to project you are in control, even if you aren’t. Kavanaugh failed to do that. If anything, he seemed mad that he had to appear to defend his “good name.”

Another principle is to show empathy. Kavanaugh’s attempt at empathy fell flat. He said he believed Ford may have endured an attempted rape “by someone, at some time and in some place.” That was a barely cloaked way of saying Ford could not corroborate he was her assailant, even though she said she was 100 percent sure it was him. His denial also had the ring of a talking point when GOP Senator Lindsey Graham used the same phrase, with the same, perhaps unintended, dismissive conclusion.

One of the hardest things for someone to do in a communications crisis is to admit wrongdoing. Kavanaugh lawyered up and didn’t admit to anything other than he liked beer as a teenager and still does.

Kavanaugh’s shortcomings as a crisis communicator were amplified by Ford’s performance. She remained under control despite the sensitive nature of her allegation and her previous attempt to tell her story out of the limelight. She readily admitted gaps in her memory. Surely Kavanaugh’s training as a lawyer made him aware that nothing occurs in a vacuum. The hearing was set up, perhaps unintentionally, to hear two sides of the same story – and assess the veracity of both storytellers. He didn’t need to convince his supporters; he needed to have an impact on his doubters.

Maybe the biggest gaffe by Kavanaugh was failing to perceive how the back-to-back testimony would be viewed, especially by women. Ford had nothing to gain by testifying; he had everything to lose. Ford’s detailed account had the ring of authenticity – being shoved into a bedroom, thrown on a bed and “grinded upon” by Kavanaugh as he and his buddy, Mark Judge, laughed – even though some details were blurry or missing. Kavanuagh’s denial was absolute and he acted as if he never knew Ford. He talked a lot about how he “worked my butt off” to get good grades and play sports. He projected an image that raised more doubt about him than her.

Regardless whether you think Kavanaugh is innocent and the victim of a “smear campaign,” there is plenty of room to question his approach to the hearing. If his nomination was assured before the hearing, his performance raised or underscored doubts. Ford can look forward to returning to her life as a college professor. Kavanaugh has to pray he can hold onto his reputation and his nomination.

Without changing any of the facts, Kavanaugh could have emerged from the hearing no worse off or possibly even in a strong position. He could have used a good crisis counselor.

Gary Conkling Image.jpg

Gary Conkling is principal 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.

 

Finding the Warm and Fuzzy in a Promotion Gone Bad

Build-a-Bear’s “pay-your-age” marketing promotion drew huge crowds, long lines and eventually disappointed kids at many of its stores when the company failed to anticipate the popularity of its event, forcing it to shut down.

Build-a-Bear’s “pay-your-age” marketing promotion drew huge crowds, long lines and eventually disappointed kids at many of its stores when the company failed to anticipate the popularity of its event, forcing it to shut down.

Build-a-Bear CEO Sharon Price John saw a dream promotion turn into a chaotic nightmare, leaving lines of angry customers and their disappointed children locked out of oversold stores.

Then John had the guts to do something most CEOs shrink from doing – she went on national TV, owned the fiasco and apologized, while still managing to work in the Build-a-Bear brand story. She either has great instincts or a good communications coach.

Whether instinct or coaching, John gave a pitch-perfect demonstration of an effective mea culpa that other CEOs should study and emulate when they face a crisis situation. Here are the lessons taught by John and her PR team:

Lesson #1 – don’t dawdle.

The Build-a-Bear “pay your age day” promotion-gone-bad occurred on Thursday. By Friday morning, John’s PR people had arranged an exclusive on-air interview for her with NBC’s Today show. The pure-gold interview lasted nearly five minutes on a network show that generates $500 million in annual advertising revenue.

Lesson #2 – show remorse and empathy.

John didn’t hide behind her CEO desk. She sympathized with the families and their crying, confused kids who didn’t a get a bear, regardless of the price and long lines. “It’s heartbreaking. I’m a mom of three. I know the most disappointing moment is when a kid is super-excited and something doesn’t happen.” That’s about as close as you can get to convert a crisis into something warm and fuzzy.

“CEO Sharon Price John wasted no time to go on national TV to apologize for a marketing promotion gone bad and use her apology as a platform to reinforce her company’s brand mission.”

“CEO Sharon Price John wasted no time to go on national TV to apologize for a marketing promotion gone bad and use her apology as a platform to reinforce her company’s brand mission.”

Lesson #3 – create realistic context.

John apologized and squarely placed the blame on her company’s failure to anticipate “unprecedented crowds” to take advantage of the promotion. While not totally satisfying, it was at least a somewhat credible explanation. John went on to explain that Build-a-Bear has offered its iconic customizable bear for a pay-your-age price as part of its ongoing “Count Your Candles” promotion.

"[The promotion] was based on the creation of a pay-your-age, count-your-candles birthday program because up to one-third of our sales are actually associated with kids' birthdays. It's their most special day,” John said. “And the birthday program for our birthday treat bear, that's an ongoing, all-year-long promotion where you come in during your birthday month and pay your age. And this particular day was just the day to kick it off and to introduce it to people. So we had actually put the information out there."

Lesson #4 – offer something tangible.

John said $15 vouchers were distributed to families who were unable to buy bears and Build-a-Bear “Bonus Club” members were able to go online to obtain a voucher. She added the “Count Your Candles” promotion would continue and the $15 vouchers would be good through August. She snuck in a commercial plug wile applying some salve to the self-inflicted marketing blunder. "We were not able to provide the service we wanted ... and we are doing our very best ... to make sure we can do what we can to make it right," she said. 

Lesson #5 – state your values.

John took advantage of her self-created opportunity on the Today show to remind people of what Build-a-Bear stands for. "First, I want to say that we are in the business of making sure kids have the best experience possible,” John said. “Our entire mission is about adding a little more heart to life. And our objective was to actually just make sure we could increase the accessibility for kids to make their own furry friend and take it home."

Too many CEOs – and PR professionals – forget a crisis is more than just a mess – it is an opportunity to tell your brand story, preserve your reputation and build trust.  

 

There Are No Throwaway Questions in Interviews

The last question in a media interview could be the most important. It certainly isn’t a throwaway question. It might be an ambush.

The last question in a media interview could be the most important. It certainly isn’t a throwaway question. It might be an ambush.

Wary reporters have taken to a tactic of asking an out-of-the-blue question at the end of what otherwise might be a routine interview. Whatever the purpose, such questions can send well-rehearsed spokespeople skidding off script, blurring their key message and making the wrong kind of “news.”

For that reason, media training these days includes “ambush interview” techniques and how to combat them.

Ambushing spokespeople is one way reporters are responding to rote, opaque or superficial statements. Those of us who coach spokespeople are responding by adding training to address what can be a very disorienting – and potentially disheartening – end to an interview.

It is important for spokespeople to remember there are no throwaway questions in an interview. Each question is a live-stakes interaction and should be treated with respect – and awareness.

Ambush questions tend to occur when entities or spokespeople are evasive, non-responsive or arrogant. It is a reporter’s way to get-even or level the playing field. Instead of regarding ambush questions as impertinent or a trap, spokespeople should view them as reporters trying to do their job.

The best way to avoid being ambushed is to say something when being interviewed. A well-prepared spokesperson should have a key message centered on action, not evasion. Reporters may still push for more detail or question the motivation for action, but that’s where solid preparation comes into play. A spokesperson should have practiced to parry with a reporter or a press conference full of reporters.

Former President Bill Clinton, no stranger to high-pressure interviews and ambush questions, stumbled over NBC correspondent Craig Melvin’s direct question about whether he personally apologized to Monica Lewinsky. While his interview with Melvin was nominally about the new book the former President has co-written with James Patterson, Clinton should not have been surprised about Lewinsky questions. In the shadow of the #MeToo movement, he absolutely should have anticipated a question about whether and how he apologized to Lewinsky.

In reality, Clinton ambushed himself by failing to prepare or not preparing well enough. It is a common mistake that can keep a crisis grinding on for another news cycle or rekindle an old ember into a fresh fire.

Whether it is the first question or the last question, each question can have a purpose – and maybe an underlying motivation. Spokespeople need to protect themselves and the organization they speak for by:

  • Knowing their subject
  • Mastering their key message
  • Anticipating questions
  • Preparing for obvious and not-so-obvious questions
  • Practicing

You are less likely to be surprised if you go into a media interview with something newsworthy to say – and say it in a clear, plainspoken way. The trickier you try to be, the more you invite in-kind behavior from reporters. If you try to brush them off, don’t be surprised if they try to ambush you.

Gary Conkling Image.jpg

Gary Conkling is principal 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.

 

 

Digital Media’s Impact on Crisis Response

If someone asked how has digital media affected crisis response, the answer is simple: Crisis response must be immediate and center on action, not words. The only way that’s possible is to anticipate likely crisis scenarios and be prepared to respond.

If someone asked how has digital media affected crisis response, the answer is simple: Crisis response must be immediate and center on action, not words. The only way that’s possible is to anticipate likely crisis scenarios and be prepared to respond.

Digital media has disrupted traditional communications, including crisis response. The immediacy of digital media demands urgent response. The visual intimacy of digital media requires demonstrable response.

Speed and substance are the traits of an effective crisis response in the digital era. You don’t have time to dawdle and you can’t equivocate over meaningful action to address the crisis.

Before digital media, organizations had time to contemplate how to respond to a crisis, what to say and whether to engage with reporters and editors covering the crisis. Now, news of a crisis can rip across the internet before you know what to do or say or any reporter or editor writes a story. That’s why a speedy and action-centered response is imperative in the digital age.

Responding quickly is not the same as responding impulsively. Quick response is rooted in solid preparation – anticipating crisis scenarios, thinking in advance what resources would be needed in the vortex of a crisis and role-playing how you would actually respond. Good crisis plans have updated call-down lists, an identified crisis team leader and a ghost website with useful information that can be activated during a crisis.

Don’t waste time dreaming up platitudes posing as “placeholder” statements to plump up your crisis plan. Words matter much less than actions. Realistic crisis scenarios should be the foundation of a crisis plan – and, when appropriate, inspire management actions to lessen the likelihood or even prevent a crisis scenario from occurring.

As digital media has stolen the luxury of time and stripped value from words, it also has raised awareness that a crisis can befall anyone, anywhere, any time. Thanks to digital media, you may not find out about the crisis from a phone call or a dutiful coworker, but from monitoring social media after someone posts explosive video shot on a smartphone.

The evolution of digital media should send everyone scurrying to the file cabinet where their crisis plan is locked away. Pull it out, dust it off and make sure it meets the unforgiving demands of digital media. If you don’t have a crisis plan, there is no better time than now to prepare one, taking into account digital media and its implications.

For CEOs who still feel invincible and pooh-pooh crisis planning, put together a clip of corporate crises compounded by tardy and scattershot responses. That should disabuse him or her of any thought that a crisis can’t implode a reputation or sink a bottom line in the bat of an eye in digital media’s unrelenting 24/7 news cycle.

Gary Conkling Image.jpg

Gary Conkling is principal 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.

 

Let Your Ghost Website Prep for a Scary Crisis

Ghost websites don’t have to hide in the closet. They can be catalysts to update your crisis plan, test your crisis readiness and double-check your third-party validation. Ghost content might even turn out to be clever, shareable marketing material.

Ghost websites don’t have to hide in the closet. They can be catalysts to update your crisis plan, test your crisis readiness and double-check your third-party validation. Ghost content might even turn out to be clever, shareable marketing material.

Ghost websites are essential hardware for your crisis communication plan. They contain content you store away for a scary crisis.

Ghost content can be as basic as B-roll that you can feed TV reporters for use as “wild footage” in their crisis coverage. Content can be more advanced such as videos that show processes or safety features. There can be backgrounders, animations, frequently asked questions and answers, media clips and infographics.

Good crisis plans call for creation of ghost websites as a cupboard of content to draw upon when crisis hits. But ghost websites also can play valuable roles in crisis preparation itself.

The best crisis plans contain sound advice for how to respond to a crisis, not just what to say. Brainstorming for content to place on a ghost website should center on what you may need to describe, explain or demonstrate – and how best to show it. What you may need to describe, explain or demonstrate should lead you to go-to people and resources that can provide answers. Reaching out to go-to resources for ghost website content is like a dress rehearsal for a crisis, when getting and verifying information in real time is at a premium.

Restocking ghost website content presents a perfect opportunity for reviewing the overall crisis plan. Looking to see if you are missing useful B-roll footage or whether you should update an infographic are cues to make the same assessment of a crisis plan’s call-down phone list or the crisis scenarios that anchor your plan.

Ghost website content doesn’t need to be stored away in the closet. Its creation can be a catalyst for sharper thinking, improved validation and even clever marketing tools

Ghost website content doesn’t need to be stored away in the closet. Its creation can be a catalyst for sharper thinking, improved validation and even clever marketing tools

Some of the most important ghost content you can develop is third-party validation of your products, product claims or safety processes. This validation should be checked routinely and updated as necessary. The review should trigger a wider reflection on additional ways to validate claims or emerging best practices, which in turn can alter approaches to a crisis or point to smart management actions.

Crisis scenarios can be very different and require significantly different kinds of crisis content. Ghost website content is a simple way to hammer home that point to a crisis team, as well as prepare for a crisis. Ghost content to deal with an environmental spill (showing your environmental stewardship) is not the same as what is needed to deal with financial fraud (showing your financial safeguards).

Reviewing ghost website content scenario by scenario can reveal pockets of knowledge you need to fill in or expose actions you should take to prevent or reduce the likelihood of a crisis.

In a crisis test drill, activating and pushing out appropriate ghost content can measure how well your social media platforms are positioned for crisis response.

A crisis manager could recruit a group of print and electronic editors to discuss the kind of validated content they would value in a crisis situation. The discussion could include a show-and-tell of ghost content. Their comments and insights could be useful in grooming or adding to a crisis plan’s ghost content.

Since a goal for effective crisis response is to preserve and even enhance a reputation, invite marketing staff to riff on ghost content ideas, which might double as marketing content. There is nothing wrong with repurposing ghost content for current usage, making it familiar when it returns as part of a crisis response.

Employing ghost website content as a catalyst in the crisis preparation process can sharpen the resulting crisis plan. It also will strengthen the ghost content you have created for that scary day.

Gary Conkling Image.jpg

Gary Conkling is principal 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.

 

Two Contrasting Examples of Saying Something Stupid

Retiring radio legend Don Imus tells Anthony Mason of CBS that he regrets his flip, bigoted remark about the Rutgers women’s basketball team, which cost him his job at the time. He also recalled meeting privately with team members and their parents, apologizing to them and promising never to repeat his mistake.

Retiring radio legend Don Imus tells Anthony Mason of CBS that he regrets his flip, bigoted remark about the Rutgers women’s basketball team, which cost him his job at the time. He also recalled meeting privately with team members and their parents, apologizing to them and promising never to repeat his mistake.

All of us have said something stupid or insensitive. Most of us don’t do it on purpose or practice it as our key message.  Most of us are not Rick Santorum.

Appearing on CNN’s “State of the Union” the day after thousands of young people took to the streets to demand an end to gun violence, the former GOP senator and presidential aspirant from Pennsylvania said student survivors of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School should learn CPR instead of protesting. Santorum said the students were pushing for “phony gun laws” that wouldn’t stop school shootings.

Regardless of your point of view, it would be hard to imagine a more tone-deaf or badly timed comment in the wake of massive nation-wide student-led protests. Recognizing the significance of what was happening, the National Rifle Association turned off its propaganda engines for the weekend. President Trump praised the students for exercising their First Amendment rights.

Santorum was part of a panel discussing the student protests, so perhaps he thought it was his job to lob a grenade into the conversation. Whatever his motivation, he sounded like a nincompoop.

Former GOP Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum said student survivors of the Parkland, Florida school shooting would be better served by learning CPR instead of protesting.

Former GOP Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum said student survivors of the Parkland, Florida school shooting would be better served by learning CPR instead of protesting.

Coincidentally, Santorum’s comment came the same day as an interview aired on “CBS Sunday Morning” with outspoken radio legend Don Imus. At age 78, Imus is ending his 50-year career on radio and fighting a battle with emphysema.

During the interview, he unhesitatingly answered a question about his flip and bigoted remark in 2007 about the Rutgers women’s basketball team. The remark cost him his job. It also caused him to reflect on such remarks.

"It did change my feeling about making fun of some people who didn't deserve to be made fun of, and didn't have a mechanism to defend themselves," he told CBS’ Anthony Mason. "I'm not full of sh*t. If I've done it, I'll own up to it. And then I have some sorta weird relationship with the audience. I think they saved me most of the time."

Later in the interview, Imus recalled how he met in person with the Rutgers team and their parents and apologized. “I sat and listened for four or five hours. And there was nothing I could say other than, 'I'm sorry,' and promise them that I would never give them a reason in their lifetime to be sorry that they forgave me. And I haven't."

The contrast between Santorum and Imus couldn’t be starker. Imus said something stupid and hateful, paid a price for it, owned it and sought redemption. He said he regretted ever saying what he said, adding “[be]cause I knew better.”

Santorum apparently felt it was his duty to say something stupid and dismissive in defense of his point of view. It seems unlikely Santorum will seek out student survivors of the Parkland school shooting and apologize, or even regret what he said because he knew better.

All of us say stupid things. What matters is what happens after you say something stupid.

Gary Conkling Image.jpg

Gary Conkling is principal 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.

Combatting Online Fake News That Travels Faster Than Truth

New research shows fake news travels farther, faster and deeper on Twitter than the truth, creating a nightmare for reputation managers who face a daunting challenge in fighting back. [Photo credit: Reuters]

New research shows fake news travels farther, faster and deeper on Twitter than the truth, creating a nightmare for reputation managers who face a daunting challenge in fighting back. [Photo credit: Reuters]

This is real news that should send shivers down the backs of anyone concerned about their reputation – false news moves through Twitter “farther, faster, deeper and more broadly” than the truth.

The disquieting finding by a team of researchers at MIT and published in Science is based on tracking the online life of “news” trafficked on Twitter. Real news and false news were judged by a collection of online fact-checkers that included Snopes.com and Politifact.com. The study authors found a false rumor is retweeted and spreads 70 percent more than a true story.

To put that into context, a true story may reach 1,000 people while a false rumor could gain an audience of up to 100,000 Twitter users.

While experts speculate on what propels falsehoods to travel faster online than the truth, reputation managers should worry about how to counter a campaign based on fast-moving, unverified fake news. Especially as technology “improves” to automate mass dissemination of fake news, turning a cascade from a single tweet into a volcanic eruption.

The Washington Post story on the MIT findings recalled a 2013 incident when someone hacked into the Associated Press Twitter account and “reported” explosions in the White House injuring President Obama. The report was untrue, but before anyone knew the truth, the Dow Jones index dropped 100 points – in just two minutes.

Fake News Case Study   The New York Times provides an example of how a 35-year-old Austin, Texas man with only 40 Twitter followers unlashed a viral cascade of false news, which wound up being promoted by President Trump.  https://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/20/business/media/how-fake-news-spreads.html    

Fake News Case Study

The New York Times provides an example of how a 35-year-old Austin, Texas man with only 40 Twitter followers unlashed a viral cascade of false news, which wound up being promoted by President Trump. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/20/business/media/how-fake-news-spreads.html

 

MIT researchers discovered that false news isn’t just spread by usual suspect bots. Some of the most viral contagions of fake news start as retweets from random individuals, which means the job of “monitoring the web” is pretty close to impossible.

Twitter collaborated with the researchers, which is itself a rarity, allowing them to trace the online lineage of 126,000 tweet cascades, spread by 3 million Twitter users.

Skeptics can question the sample and the differentiation between true and false stories. But the underlying fact remains that clicky false stories seem to have more online appeal and, therefore, represent a reputation-busting tool in the hands of unscrupulous or alienated people. It is a reputation manager’s worst nightmare. Someone tells a falsehood about you or your organization, you respond with verifiable facts, but the false narrative still dominates.

As noted in a previous Managing Issues blog, falsehoods that rise to the level of defamation can be dealt with by demanding that a social media platform removes the offending tweet. Many damaging falsehoods aren’t necessarily defamatory. They misstate facts or tell only part of the story. Debates over environmental issues and climate change are a great example of false or misleading narratives that come from either side of the debate.

Big lies by big actors usually get fact-checked. Big lies by lower profile actors seldom get fact-checked, which means the maligned party has the burden of trying to clean up the mess. Even lies exposed by credible fact-checkers can get shifted to their respective political lane of media outlets and never be seen by the other side of a polarized citizenry.

As social media moguls explore how to limit fake news, one tool reputation managers should consider when faced with a cascade of false news is to fight back on Twitter using promoted tweets. You would be, in effect, marketing your truth.

Use tools like video that attract the most attention on social media, including Twitter. Don’t whine. Find credible third parties who can verify your facts and attest to your veracity. Punch back hard, but fairly. Tell viewers the stakes. When appropriate, include a call to action such as shaming the person or organization responsible for the fake news – and those who help promote it, either unintentionally or on purpose.

Don’t be afraid to cross news channels to tell your story. Seek earned media coverage from print and TV outlets by stressing you are doing the only thing possible to combat the spread of false stories.

The worst thing to do is nothing. If you don’t defend your reputation, don’t expect anyone else to defend it. Purveyors of falsehoods may seem to have the upper hand in an online gunfight, but if you wage an honorable defense, you might receive more help than you expected.

Gary Conkling Image.jpg

Gary Conkling is principal 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.

 

Be Prepared Before Your Chickens Come Home to Roost

KFC was embarrassed when its UK and Irish fast food restaurants ran out of chicken and were forced to close. Good reminder to imagine what could go wrong and prepare before your chickens come home to roost

KFC was embarrassed when its UK and Irish fast food restaurants ran out of chicken and were forced to close. Good reminder to imagine what could go wrong and prepare before your chickens come home to roost

If you run short of chicken at a home barbecue, it can be embarrassing. But it is far more than embarrassing if the world’s largest fried chicken fast food restaurant runs out of chicken.

KFC found out how embarrassing when it closed more than 800 restaurants in the United Kingdom and Ireland because of a chicken shortage resulting from a clumsy switch in UK distributors. In a full-page advertisement, the fast food giant deadpanned, “A chicken restaurant without any chicken. It’s not ideal.” The company with a Kentucky colonel as its mascot offered an apology, reported progress on getting its chicken supply in order and mocked itself by re-ordering its famous three-letter name to a cheeky “FCK.”

One wag mocked the chicken chain by noting, “Now we know why the chicken crossed the road. KFC was closed.”

As disasters go, a few days in Britain without KFC is not a huge loss, except perhaps for the employees who presumably lost wages. But the chicken-free episode serves as a reminder that it doesn’t take a parking lot shooting, food spoilage or a flash mob to put your operation in the news in a bad light. Sloppy logistics can do the job, too.

In truth, you can be under a dark cloud without ever doing anything wrong. How you respond determines whether your reputation will be darkened.

Food supply and food security issues aren’t strangers to restaurant operators. They are calamities that occur often enough so they can be anticipated. That includes having some prepared responses in the freezer, both in terms of operations and communications. With advance planning, you can do better than say “FCK.” For example, you might have a video on ice that shows where you source your food supply and how you check to make sure no adulterated food enters through your restaurant receiving door.

We call this crisis preparation, but you could call it thinking ahead. Imagine what could go wrong that disrupts your daily routine – or your business future. Some of the potential disruptions can be avoided through proactive steps, such as installing stronger food inspection procedures and requiring a higher degree of food preparation hygiene. Other disruptions may be unavoidable and require contingency planning, which includes how to manage crisis news coverage or a social media frenzy.

In the digital age, you can have a crisis on your hands without a TV station film crew at your door. A customer with a smartphone can turn your place of business into a live streaming broadcasting studio. Nobody has to wait until the 5 pm newscast or tomorrow morning’s newspaper. They can see what’s happening on their laptops and mobile devices almost immediately. That’s what happened when KFC store operators posted signs in their windows explaining they were closed because they ran out of chicken.

Most crises are not fatal. KFC will round up enough chickens to reopen its UK and Irish restaurants and straighten out its distribution glitch. But reputations can suffer if a crisis is mishandled. KFC blended an explanation with humor and probably skated by any long-term damage, except for some ribbing from competitors and an occasional reference in chicken-crossing-the-road jokes.

Chances are pretty good no one higher-up the pecking order at KFC thought the chain would run out of chicken. That’s why an issue audit is so important because it gets more than the roosters around a table to imagine what could go wrong.

As Murphy’s law notes, “If anything can go wrong, it will.” The law draws its name from Captain Edward A. Murphy, an engineer on an Air Force research project to test the amount of deceleration a person could endure in a crash. Adherence to Murphy’s Law led to a relentless search for mistakes and resulted in a spotless project safety record.

Human aptitude has a cousin – human ineptitude. It’s just the way we are. The best we to overcome ineptitude is to show an aptitude for preparing for the worst. You never know when your chickens will come home to roost.

 

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.

Disciplined Repetition and Relentless Consistency

If you want to get your point across and remembered, don’t talk louder, apply disciplined repetition and relentless consistency to what you say in a media interview, speech or briefing.

If you want to get your point across and remembered, don’t talk louder, apply disciplined repetition and relentless consistency to what you say in a media interview, speech or briefing.

Getting your point across in an interview or controversy takes more than talking louder. It requires disciplined repetition and relentless consistency.

As an issue manager or a crisis spokesperson, you cannot expect people to be sitting on the edge of their seat waiting to hear your key message. Disciplined repetition increases the odds that your key message will actually be heard and remembered.

Relentless consistency helps to guard against message migration, which is what can happen when a message is shared from person to person like in the game called Telephone.

My former boss, Ron Wyden, insisted on repeating his key message at least three times in a press interview, speech or question-and-session session. He contended, with some empirical evidence to back him up, that if you make your point once, only some people will get it. When you mention it a second time, the point gets wider notice because it sounds familiar. On the third mention, most people will have absorbed the point – and many will have stored it away. Alert reporters will get the clear signal this is what the speaker wants to get across.

This is not a reflection on the collective intelligence of audiences or reporters. It is a fact that we retain less of what we hear than what we see. Disciplined repetition recognizes this human fact.

The discipline to repeat key messages involves overcoming the natural sense that you are belaboring your point. You are belaboring your point on purpose so it stands out and sticks.

Disciplined repetition also involves practicing how to say the same thing more than once without seeming to have a script. This is where sound bites play an important role in forming the core of a message that can wrapped up in various ways. Here’s an example:

The Federal Communication Commission’s decision to eliminate net neutrality will mean telecommunication companies can put big guys in the fast lane and shove little guys into the slow lane.

Regardless what the FCC or telecommunications companies say, ending net neutrality may result in different users forced onto different and sometimes slower lanes of the internet.

If net neutrality hadn’t existed, a startup like YouTube may never have been able to compete financially with Google for access to the fast lane of the internet.

Relentless consistency reinforces key messages and avoids confusing audiences. Too much information can bog down audience comprehension, burying a key message under a heap of facts and extraneous material. The desire to share “all the facts” or provide “useful context” only succeeds in overloading your audience and blurring what you really want them to remember.

Sticking to your message over multiple interviews or briefings keeps your message prominent and is a cue of what you view as most important to know. It also reduces the chance that a reporter or stakeholder will leave the room thinking one of your side points was your main point.

The best example of this was my client who, with the best of intentions, refused to stick with a key message, choosing instead to follow the lead – and sometimes take the bait – of reporters. The result were muddy interviews that often didn’t even wind up in the final stories, especially for TV news.

One of the best aids for relentless consistency is a great visual image – an illustration, map or chart. Visual images have more impact than words alone because people see them as you are talking. If the images are well conceived and well designed to reinforce your key message, your chances of making a clear impression are amplified.

You can count the number of times in this blog I used disciplined repetition and relentless consistency to see preaching in practice.