crisis planning

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.

 

Managing an Issue Requires Mastering It First

Managing an issue effectively requires mastering it thoroughly – from what could go wrong, how to get credible information on the run and who can deliver a message that conveys confidence that you know what you’re doing.

Managing an issue effectively requires mastering it thoroughly – from what could go wrong, how to get credible information on the run and who can deliver a message that conveys confidence that you know what you’re doing.

Mastering an issue is the first step toward managing the issue. If you don’t understand an issue forwards and backwards, you will have a hard time marching forward or avoiding an attack from the rear.

When issues explode, the first instinct is to jump in to douse the fire. Too often, how you douse the fire can make the conflagration worse, not better, with deadly results. Knowing how to address a chemical exposure can mean the difference between harming or detoxifying a firefighter.

The confusion surrounding a crisis allows little time for homework, which is why preparing in advance for an issue meltdown is so important. That’s the only way to have the time it takes to master an issue.

To master an issue requires understanding what could go wrong. If you operate a restaurant, food security is critical. Where is the food you serve to customers sourced? Who inspects your food supplies, especially if you are buying fresh food from local sources? What are your food security protocols when supplies are delivered, refrigerated and checked for freshness?

If you think that is too much, think for a moment about Chipotle’s continuing brand challenge because it couldn’t get a handle on what was causing its customers to get sick.

More Valuable CFM Resources

More Valuable CFM Resources

Issue mastery involves documenting what you know and do. Sticking with the restaurant example, it would be smart to create a video showing the proper procedures for accepting food deliveries, storing food and handling its preparation to serve to customers. The video could be used for employee training or as a checklist to follow if a food contamination incident occurs. The video could be B-roll to share with the media tracking a food contamination story or content that can be quickly posted to a website.

In the process of mastering an issue, organizations can discover holes in the preparation or flaws in their facilities. A manufacturer may learn that emergency responders aren’t versed or trained on how to combat an environmental spill in their plant. Playing out a crisis scenario may reveal something basic like a circuit breaker is located inside a building where chemical processing occurs that could be interrupted by a power outage. Far-fetched? Not really. Both of those shortcomings were uncovered after an incident in a Portland-area manufacturing facility.

Mastery of an issue goes beyond technical knowledge. It means knowing who you can contact in a crisis to get information, an analysis of the facts and recommendations on how to address a specific issue. Advance planning is good, but never perfect. It is hard to know precisely what underground tank will leak, what company official will be outed as an embezzler or what employee will do something disgusting on a social media post. Go-to resources might include a hydrologist, a forensic accountant and a crisis communications expert.

Like most activity, mastery requires practice. Baseball hitters have batting practice. Issue managers should have crisis training exercises. A crisis plan can be just pages full of words. They need to become a process that can be quickly launched, smoothly undertaken and easily adapted to circumstances on the ground. A great example is the crisis team in a Seattle company that thought it had all its bases covered, but when it underwent an exercise, company officials sadly overlooked little details – like a crisis situation room equipped with outdated computers and bad Wi-Fi connectivity.

Issue mastery doesn’t include writing vacuous statements in advance. It should include clear responsibilities for who will be the fact-checker, who can write meaningful statements for press releases or Twitter posts and who can get statements cleared through the command hierarchy of an organization. Saying nothing isn’t useful. Saying something pertinent is useful when it is said in a timely manner.

Because the world doesn’t stand still, issue mastery demands continuous learning. New challenges arise that must be anticipated. New facts are established that must be considered. New players enter the field – from competitors to regulators – that must be taken into account.

Mastery of an issue isn’t evident unless the crisis spokesperson is capable to reflect it. Different kinds of crisis can require different types of spokespersons. Regardless how many spokespersons you have, they need to undergo thorough communications training. They need to learn how to project issue mastery through their words and body language.

One final dimension of issue mastery is comprehending who will care the most about an issue. Injecting an audience-centric perspective into issue mastery will help ensure you master the facts and externalities that matter to people impacted most directly by the issue. If your database is hacked, the customers or clients on that database will want to know what was compromised and what they can do about it. If a truck crashes spilling toxic chemicals, nearby residents, schools and businesses will care about how big the spill is, how far it spread and the dangers it poses.

Mastering an issue takes time. Waiting for a crisis to do your homework is usually too late. Seize the one advantage you have – the luxury of time to understand an issue thoroughly, identify potential resources to call in a crisis and train one or more spokespersons on how to deliver an effective message that conveys confidence you know what you are doing.

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

Focus on Victims, the Truth in Crisis Response

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Power of 1 Voice: Everyone Is a Spokesperson

Everybody with has a possibility of being a spokesperson — even if they don’t realize it at the time.

Everybody with has a possibility of being a spokesperson — even if they don’t realize it at the time.

[This article originally appeared in the March edition of PR Tactics]

On Thanksgiving evening, I watched shoppers hold their smartphones high above their heads as others jostled, pushed and complained. While someone was recording them, cashiers good-naturedly answered questions about their stress levels. They were also sympathetic with those shoppers who were frustrated that some early bargains were already sold out.

Once uploaded to YouTube, people might largely ignore that content, or it could easily appear on “Good Morning America” the next day. How plausible is that? A survey of professional journalists by Arketi Group found that 91 percent of journalists say they use the Web to search for news sources and story ideas, and 34 percent admit to spending their time online watching YouTube.

If the content is interesting enough, then someone will pick it up. In my experience, it first emerges in a community discussion on Reddit, where readers pick it apart from every conceivable angle. Then The Smoking Gun or BuzzFeed gets wind of it, helping it go viral. In hours, days or sometimes months, traditional journalists see it pop up in their news feeds, prompting another wave of attention. 

In an era in which everybody spends their time gathering and disseminating information to their respective spheres of influence, everybody who those quasi-journalists come into contact with has a possibility of being a spokesperson — even if they don’t realize it at the time.

While it is common for organizations to have policies prohibiting personnel from speaking with the media, how can they enforce these policies when every word could end up on Twitter, Facebook or someone’s blog? What guidance can they give someone who is snapping pictures or shooting video on company property, or a customer who is thrusting a smartphone in their face while asking questions?

Every employee can benefit from guidance and training in an organization’s messages and delivery techniques. The CEO probably knows more than others, but 100 or 1,000 employee voices have the potential for an even greater impact – positive and negative.

Sticking to command and control communications policies that attempt to funnel all communications to approved spokespeople is counterproductive. Consider the power of people throughout the organization welcoming the chance to tell a consistent story that taps into their passion. Then consider the risk of those same employees who are left to flounder in an environment in which they are under constant scrutiny.

Interacting with storytellers

This all became clear to me several years ago when I helped an oil and gas exploration company pursue shale plays throughout the United States. In Texas, people were enthusiastic about extracting oil and gas by fracturing – or fracking – the shale thousands of feet below the surface, but people in areas such as Virginia, Pennsylvania and Ohio were suspicious.

Out front of this effort were the “landmen,” the corps tasked with securing contracts with landowners. In a series of training sessions designed to help educate landowners, build trust and diffuse anger, we heard early warnings of how smartphones were changing everything. The landmen described landowners holding their smartphones up and recording their interactions – some were well informed and some were aggressively unfriendly. 

What had been a messaging and education training session evolved into something that closely resembled a media training session. If everyone – including the community that we were seeking to influence – was a journalist with the ability to reach a worldwide audience quickly, then all of our frontline people should be trained to interact with those storytellers.

With practice, many of the same techniques that are effective in managing interactions with professional journalists can be equally effective with citizen journalists. Here are five tips for all employees to keep in mind:

  • Prepare for the unexpected. Unlike most interactions with professional journalists, which are planned and scheduled, interactions with citizen journalists can come at any time. This means that organizations should keep the lines of communication open with people throughout the organization who interact with the public. If you are not providing them the information or context they need, then you are setting them up to look foolish, and you will look foolish, too.
  • Define what you want out of these interactions. It comes down to three questions: What do you want your community to know? What do you want them to believe? What do you want them to do as a result of the interaction? Left untrained, employees may not think that the person recording them with a smartphone presents an opportunity to build awareness or encourage positive feelings. Establish objectives and you will realize that it is infinitely easier to achieve positive outcomes.
  • Practice three-dimensional storytelling. Typically, message guidance from organizations is long on claims and short on personality, which reinforces negative perceptions that many companies are self-centered. Change that by working with your community of spokespeople to make your messages personal. First, whittle down your messages to three or four ideas that are central to what your organization is all about. Next, come up with proof points – data that makes those messages bulletproof. Finally, challenge spokespeople to come up with anecdotes, experiences and observations that make the messages tangible, human and authentic.
  • Think beyond messages. If a person is thrown into a tense situation, then it is only natural that their facial expression, posture and tone of voice will reveal feelings of anxiety and stress. Good luck with having people perceive your information positively in that situation, as negative non-verbal and voice cues will trump the meaning of what you’re saying. Through role play – preferably recorded and played back – your employees can see how they interact and can practice maintaining an optimistic overall disposition, even in chaotic situations.
  • Use bridging techniques responsibly. With some practice, spokespeople throughout the organization can grasp the idea that they can manage interactions by bridging to the ideas they want to emphasize. The potential downside of this technique is that it can seem evasive and manipulative if people ignore the questions. We recommend spokespeople always acknowledge the question and briefly respond in 10 seconds or less, then bridge.

Most organizations have a few trained spokespeople ready to interact with the media. When journalists call, they can funnel the questions to the approved spokesperson. Few organizations disseminate these skills broadly so that every public-facing person knows how to handle challenging questions with the expectation that any interaction could be recorded for a worldwide audience.

This loosening of the command and control approach to the role of spokesperson is the next step in our profession’s evolution. Organizations that adapt and train frontline personnel will multiply the impact of their communications. 

Which is louder: the voice of one spokesperson or the combined voices of all your employees?

Twitter Now a Crisis Tool of Choice

Twitter has become the tool of choice in a crisis. Reporters and law enforcement use it to broadcast updates. Organizations use it to show how they are dealing with a crisis. Sources use it show bad behavior.

Hashtags, which make tweets easier to find, are a major reason for Twitter's emergence as a critical crisis communications channel. Now Twitter's ability to convey images and video adds to its utility and power.

A less obvious advantage is that Twitter is a perfect companion for people with a smartphone that can capture and publish information in real-time. That advantage becomes a necessity in environments, such as the riots in Ferguson, Missouri following the police shooting of an unarmed black youth, when cameras are banned.