Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Notes on Central Falls, and Crisis Communications

A busy week in Central Falls, R.I. with the superintendent of schools, and later the court appointed receiver for the city, helped reconfirm some fundamentals of the PR business, and bring a new twist to some old lessons.

Who are you?
A thoughtful, self-aware answer to this question lays the foundation for everything else. It goes beyond the cliché of “What is your brand?” to a deeper question about you, your organization and its values. Without this core understanding, it is almost impossible to deliver your message consistently and effectively.

Know the Key Point you’re Trying to Convey…
In Central Falls, the schools superintendent Fran Gallo was able to identify the issue at hand: “I need the flexibility it takes to run the high school in a way that gives the students a chance to succeed.” Pretty simple. And the reporters got it. The next day, Gallo’s pull-out quote on the front page of the Providence Journal likewise summed up her main point, illustrating the other side of the same coin: “In the past, when we wanted to make changes, the contract was an immediate barrier.”

… And Don’t Get Tired of Saying It
Most human beings with good social skills learn early on that repetitive = boring. But when conducting multiple interviews -- particularly one after the other, as was the case in the Central Falls schools matter -- you have to say the same thing every time. If you don’t, every media outlet will have something different, and your message gets muddy.

Give the Communications Team as Much Time as Possible to Mount the Learning Curve

Your communications advisor should have the time not just to learn the facts, but to get to know the client. What are they comfortable saying? What’s their voice? What’s the back story? Is there any area that seems harmless, but is actually a trap in disguise? The sooner communications is brought into crisis planning, the better the result.

Summarize – and on one page, if possible
Reporters don’t have a lot of time these days (see below), and neither do citizens, so it’s important to answer the question “What’s this all about?” quickly and clearly. I like to do it on one page. This summary of the agreement between the school department and the teacher’s union in Central Falls is a good example of laying it all out one page.

There’s no Substitute for Preparation
I’ve been doing this for a long time, but I never, ever speak with a reporter without preparing ahead, even if the circumstances only allow for a few moments to collect my thoughts. There’s no such thing as doing an effective interview without preparation. Whenever someone says, “I’ll just wing it” or, “I know what to say,” what I hear is, “Just give me the keys so I can drive this interview into the ditch.” As much as anything, last week was about taking the time to prepare for the interview.

Be Responsive
A reporter’s existence these days is a lot harder than it used to be. Most newsrooms in 2010 are very thin, with reporters who cover several stories a day – so their existence can be daily scramble. In addition, there are very few reporters who actually cover a “beat.” This means that quite often a reporter is assigned to a story in an area where they have little, if any, background or expertise. In both instances for Central Falls, we made an extra effort to get news outlets the information they needed right away, to take the time to answer background questions and to make the principals available for interviews at a place and time that fit into their schedules. Reporters will tell you that they will always be fair, but my experience is that when you work to accommodate them in this way, they will be even more “fair.”

Pick Good Clients
In the end, it’s always great to get a note like this from a client: “I can't imagine where we would have been without your valuable help.” The best clients are those who know they need your advice, and appreciate your counsel in their time of need. If they value what you have to offer, your job will be that much easier, and their message that much clearer.

Posted by David Preston