Crisis Management: When the Shine Comes Off the Apple

In my experience, clients who’ve already come under attack by activists and the media before tend to be more understanding of the situation than you might expect. They are usually much more open to counsel, and they also tend to be more accountable and transparent than they are portrayed.

On the other hand, I’ve also had the chance to work with some organizations that until a particular crisis situation, they had been considered media darlings. Some have been popular brands, or as emerging growth companies, they had never experienced a downturn in their business to that point. Others have been organizations that have operated in a fashionable industry or sector.

That was until the shine came off the apple, so to speak, with a first major crisis of negative publicity that stunned them.

One of the more common misunderstandings when it comes to crisis communications is the issue of whether or not the organization at the center of the story actually did anything wrong.

In those instances where the company is at fault, like a product recall or a problematic decision, the course of action is relatively simple. While it still may be complicated and difficult, the way through to the other side is fairly obvious. You own up to it and communicate corrective or preventative actions. And you commit to full transparency.

What If You are Not to Blame?

What most people don’t realize, however, is the vast majority of true crisis situations are scenarios where the organization is not at fault, where it’s being falsely or errantly portrayed as being the problem. Usually, a destructive narrative has taken hold, and there’s just enough truth in it to make it very difficult for the organization to prove its innocence in the court of public opinion.

Companies and organizations who have been through this sort of thing before tend to know what to expect, and how to respond, and perhaps even more importantly how not to respond.

But if the organization at the center of a negative publicity flap has never been through this before, they can be surprised to find out their relationship with the media is not quite what they thought. This leads to soul-searching revelations for some managers that they may have been over-confident in their own charismatic qualities, or over-trusting of the media, or had a dangerous sense of invincibility.

I remember one company that was faced with a situation where a Hollywood celebrity and a group of activists were protesting one of the company’s facilities. The group attracted a swarm of media, which led to national coverage. While the company was used to receiving national media attention, what it wasn’t used to was negative national media attention.

The thing that sparked the protests was not very complicated. Management had to make some difficult cost-cutting decisions to keep its operations going. If it didn’t do so, the company’s future was at stake.

I would end up meeting with the CEO of the company to determine what we could do to help.

We had a frank conversation, and in the end, it became clear there were no easy choices. I knew that I couldn’t tell the CEO what he wanted to hear. I had to tell him to essentially take ownership of the decisions that were made, and to explain why and how those decisions were in the best interest of the employees, customers and the very future of the company.

What he wanted to hear was that there were some simple words he could say that would make everything go back to where they were before the crisis, and that the media would return to treating him and the company like rock stars.

I tried to explain that being honest, candid and frank was his best hope for doing that, but he was too preoccupied with his dilemma. There were other consultants in the room as well, each advocating a complementary strategy for HR and legal. The whole time, the CEO just looked distracted and gobsmacked.

At times like this, it’s very important to give someone in this CEO’s position a chance to process. What we couldn’t give him was more time to decide. As we spoke, a protest in another city was launched in front of one of his facilities, and the media were on hand.

After we talked about his options, with a puzzled look he just blurted out, “I thought they liked us.”

At that point, it became clear to everyone in the room that leadership was so stunned by the manner in which the media seemed to have turned on them so quickly that they couldn’t make any firm decisions on this day.

We wished the company’s managers the best and went on our way. To my knowledge, the company never did engage outside crisis communications support.

Having the Right Perspective is Readiness

Here are some things this CEO should have known before this crisis happened:

  • The more visible you become, it is more likely that at some point, your organization will face a negative publicity crisis.
  • The positive coverage you receive today, and the negative coverage you may receive someday have nothing to do with whether the media likes you or doesn’t like you.
  • No matter how positive the coverage, it is a mistake to assume that the driving force is the power of your personality or the uniqueness of your culture. If the coverage is positive, it’s because there is something about your story that supports a narrative the media wants to tell today but for whatever reasons may not want to tell tomorrow.

In short, when your organization is considered a media darling, that is the time to understand you are vulnerable to an effort by someone at some point to take it upon themselves to try to take the shine off of your reputational apple. Just understanding this will go a long way towards helping to ready you for a crisis of negative publicity.

What do you think?  Let us know on Twitter at @OBrienPR

When You’re Tapped to be the Company Spokesperson

Let’s say your background and training is that of an engineer, or a sale exec, or a lawyer, or maybe an accountant, but here you are, your company has selected you to be spokesperson on a particular issue. Perhaps that issue is a pressing one and this situation has already reached high levels of intensity going in.

What do you do?

Hopefully, it’s safe to assume that you have the support of the organization from the top and into the communications function. You should expect to receive some level of guidance and coaching from your communications people.

But what, specifically, should you expect from your team and from yourself?

Messaging

The first thing you need to know is what is the company’s messaging on this particular issue. Do you have a set of key message points that were developed by your public relations people on the issue? Were you part of the process to develop and fine tune those messages? And, do you have the proper support information to back up those messages?

Questions and Answers

Along with a key messaging document, you should also have a list of possible questions you may receive on the issue, along with recommended responses that are consistent with the key messages that have been developed.

Coaching and Simulation

If there is time, you should expect to receive coaching and an opportunity to simulate media interviews and other scenarios where you may be required to deliver the company’s story on the issue.

Resources

As with any big matter, no one can reasonably assume that you or any one person would have all of the answers to every question. But going in, you should know who within the organization may have some of those answers.  And you should know what external resources can be accessed to help further tell the full story on the issue at hand.

These are the basics, and they apply in both crisis and non-crisis scenarios. What are your stories about the time you were tapped to be spokesperson. Let us know at @OBrienPR on Twitter.

The Most Potent Word in Journalism

It’s one of the most potent words a headline writer or a reporter can use, and if it’s used to describe you or your organization, it’s clear what the writer thinks, but more importantly what that writer wants the reader to think. You’re guilty.

The word is, “Denies.”  As in, “The company denies wrongdoing.”

Let’s put this proposition to the test. Let’s say a headline writer wants to make you look bad for not walking on Mars. Yeah, the planet that no one from earth has ever visited. All he has to do it feature the headline, “Sarah Doe Denies Walking on Mars.”

The word itself suggests that the accusation is truth and that you are denying the truth. If you are described as denying anything, this frames you as defensive, guarded, trying to hide something, and therefore, guilty in the court of public opinion.

When you are described as a denier of something, it’s designed to put you in a bad light.

On the other hand, if a headline writer or reporter does not want you to look so bad, they may substitute the word “denies” with the words, “accused of.” As in, “Sarah Doe Accused of Walking on Mars.”

That would give you just enough wiggle room not to come across so negatively. In this case, the seeds of doubt are planted in the credibility of the accuser and not in the culpability of the accused.

These words suggest that the accuser could be making it up, using false allegations on which to frame you or your organization, and possibly that you should be given the benefit of the doubt.

So, what do you do when a headline writer frames you as denying something?

The first rule of thumb would be, don’t make it any worse, and this can happen very easily. Once you or your organization has been described as denying an accusation, you can’t do anything preventative. The accusation and characterization are already in the public domain, and they are already working to shape perceptions.

What you can do, however, is avoid playing into the hands of your accusers by engaging according to the ground rules they have already set by creating a narrative designed to work against you.

If you “double down” or try to explain away or dismiss something that you cannot prove, you can reinforce the negative narrative that is already unfolding, whether that narrative is fair or not.

This happens in the court of law all of the time. How can a defendant prove that he did not do something if he did not do it? For this reason, the justice system itself places the burden of proof on the accuser, not the accused.

In the court of public opinion, the rules are completely the opposite. This “court” usually places the burden of proof on the accused.

What you have to know going in is that you are not obligated to accept the premise of the accusations. The decision not to accept that premise and not to engage as your critics expect may be your first and most effective course of action. You don’t have to accept their premise or their “facts” associated with the accusations.

Once you know your messaging, craft them and deliver them according to your perceptions of the situation and not those of your critics.

Take the high road.

The worst thing you can do is try to split hairs on which accusations have merit or have some element of truth, and which ones do not. Once you do that, you have committed to the narrative your critics have already created, and you very well could be endorsing it. And by then, you are likely so far down the rabbit hole of that narrative that it will be very difficult to change course, and even more difficult to change perceptions.

It’s better to create your own narrative. If that narrative finds certain common ground with other points of view, so be it. But it’s very important to make it clear that your narrative is the right one and it’s yours, not the baseless one created by your critics.

One other thing, if you find that you or your organization are accused in this way, don’t be in such hurry to respond that you risk creating more problems. There is a big difference between a timely response and a hasty one. A thoughtful, careful response is much more effective than a kneejerk one.

Case Study: Updating an Assisted Living Facility’s Crisis Plan

What do you do if a resident of an assisted living facility “elopes” and no one can find him? Or when caregivers are accused of possibly mistreating patients and residents?

These are just two of the hypothetical scenarios we had to address recently when we helped an assisted living facility update its crisis communications plan and conduct media coaching for senior leadership.

We’ve found that the crisis planning process rarely changes, but the potential types of crises, challenges and unique characteristics of the operating climate change every time. We’ve found that even with organizations that have crisis plans in place, and senior managers who’ve been media-trained, it’s important to maintain constant vigilance against new communications challenges.

That’s what was on the mind of the senior leadership at an assisted living facility when they worked with us to develop an updated crisis communications plan.

The Approach

The approach we took was to conduct extensive interviews with key managers, staff members and other constituents to gain the best perspective on the types of possible crises that could happen, and to begin the process of analysis and prioritization on what challenges could be faced, what resources were available, and what resources may need to be added to effectively respond to the full range of crisis situations.

With that intelligence, and a treasure-trove of data from internal reporting, protocols and processes, and other background material, we were able to create an informational mosaic that enabled us to develop a crisis communications plan that was concise enough to be an actionable, useful resource in an actual crisis, while at the same time being extremely specific in the range of roles and responsibilities manager would assume during a crisis.

This particular crisis communications plan was developed to work in conjunction with other organizational and operational emergency response plans and policies.

The plan included the major levels of crisis categories, recommendations on monitoring and identification systems, an internal and external notification process, and the most efficient means for convening a crisis communications team in the minutes after, or even before a crisis situation unfolds.

Processes were created for mobilization and messaging, and then for implementation, scaled to meet the challenges of crises from mild to major.

After the crisis communications plan was complete, senior management, who were tapped with spokesperson duties, felt more comfortable and ready to engage in media coaching, which encompassed classroom-style training, along with role-playing and other interactive exercises.

This is a general overview of our approach. If you’d like to know more, or have a question of your own, we’d be glad to talk.  Please feel free to get in touch.

How to Answer the Media Question: “Do you have anything to add?”

Public Relations, PittsburghSo, you’ve just finished a grueling media interview. Some of the questions were easy, some were tough, really tough.  Like the one about expectations for the next fiscal year, and whether rising costs will affect customer service.

But you were ready, and overall, you feel you handled the interview well. The reporter across from you seems to feel the same way.

“Thank you for your time,” she says. Then she asks, “Do you have anything to add?”

This is a fork-in-the-road question for a lot of people. You wonder:

  • “Shouldn’t I just be glad the interview is over and say nothing?”
  • “If I do add anything, will that open the door to a new line of questions for which I’m not prepared?”
  • “Should I try to clarify a point or two that I might not have nailed?”

The answer to each of these questions is, “no,” “possibly,” and “no.”

When a reporter asks that question at the end, the interview is not yet over. You still have an opportunity to deliver your message.

To the second question, yes, your instincts aren’t betraying you. When a reporter asks this question at the end of an interview, she knows that whatever you say could open the door to some additional areas she may not have considered.

And to the third question, the reason you don’t want to spend your final remarks clarifying previous points is that you already know that those weren’t your best moments during the interview. When you revisit them, you’re just re-starting at a low point and could make it worse.  Your attempts at clarification could come across as defensive, flagging the earlier comments for more attention when the reporter begins to write the story.

Reporters typically ask if you have anything to add at the end of an interview to leave no stone unturned, while affording the interviewee (you) the courtesy of getting everything you want on the record. Remember, everything is on the record, including your chit chat as you escort the reporter and her crew to the elevator.

The best way to answer the question is to revisit your key messages. Recap your messages in a narrative form. Tell your story one more time in a way that suits you. Don’t worry about being redundant. Just quickly recap your story and then stop.

If there are some issues that may need clarification, you can incorporate those into your closing comments, but be sure to do that in a positive way, and not in a way that could create the impression you’re looking for a do-over.

Be strong, confident and to-the-point. Think of this question as an opportunity to make your closing arguments to a jury in a court room. Speak to the reader or viewer of the final piece, and not to the journalist herself.  And then close on a decisive end note.

If you’d like to discuss media relations or any communications topic, please feel free to get in touch.