Wednesday, April 29, 2009

There’s No Substitute for Preparation

We do a lot of crisis communications work, helping clients prepare for crises that may never happen – or are already well underway.

A prominent local attorney found himself in hot water recently, and the initial newspaper story reflected a common, understandable – but completely avoidable – mistake in handling the media during a crisis. In the story, the lawyer’s secretary was quoted describing what services he was still providing for his clients. No real harm was done, but I cringed when I read it, because it had the makings of a real disaster. It was clear that the poor woman just happened to pick up the phone when the reporter called, didn’t know what to do, and was too polite to end the call quickly enough.

Based on our experience, here’s what we would have recommended:
  • Get the reporter’s name, where they work, why they are calling and their deadline.
  • Tell the reporter that someone from the company will respond to them as quickly as possible.
  • Notify the designated person inside the firm (or outside, like us) about the call immediately. This is crucial, because the inquiry is not going to just “go away.” If it’s TV, their next option may be to show up in your reception area with cameras rolling, a la ’60 Minutes’.
  • Avoid answering questions, regardless of how innocuous they seem, or engaging in any further conversation.

The reporter may try to press you by saying they are “on deadline.” However, in this initial call, that does not require you to offer a response. You do, however, need to respond in a timely manner. (Ultimately, the response may be no response – but at least make that a conscious decision.)

From there, take a few minutes to think it over. What’s our key message? How do we want to communicate it to the reporter? Phone call? E-mail? What about the other reporters who will follow? Who else do we need to talk to? Board of directors? Boss? Employees? Customers? Regulators? How will we deliver the message to them?

Bottom line: Don’t feel pressured, take a deep breath, and think through what you want to do. You may not have all day, but believe me, there’s at least enough time to avoid making a damaging, irreversible mistake.

There’s a lot more to this, so if you want to know more about what else you could do here, or what you could be doing right now to prepare for or mend a crisis, shoot me an e-mail or give me a call.

Posted by David Preston

Friday, April 17, 2009

Make a Good First Impression

A likable, well-regarded professional I know left her old firm and started a new one, with her name on the door. They got off to a good PR start by sending out a press release and getting some ink. But when I tried to send a congratulatory note, things got tough. A quick search didn’t turn her up on LinkedIn, or any other social networking site, and a Google search directed me (and any new business that might be out there) to the old firm. Directory listings sent me to the same place.

OK, here we go – the website address! Oops, I need a username and password to get in? That’s probably where the phone number is, too.

Hmm. Give me a call if you’re trying something new – I’ll make sure this doesn’t happen to you.

Posted by David Preston

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Khe Sanh

A little-noted passage in President Obama’s Inaugural Address perhaps served to close an important chapter in our nation’s history.

Citing American battlefield victories to highlight the bravery and define the sacrifices made on our behalf by previous generations, the President said, “For us, they fought and died in places like Concord and Gettysburg; Normandy and Khe Sanh.”

The first three battles are well known to Americans, but the inclusion of Khe Sanh may well have been the first time that a Vietnam-era battle was included with the others – certainly in such a high-profile setting.

Forty-one years ago today the Marines at Khe Sanh stood their ground and won a savage 10-week battle there. Like Iwo Jima, Okinawa and the Chosin Reservoir, every Marine knows the story of Khe Sanh. It is another example of why the Marines are the Marines.

Khe Sanh was a base, with a dirt airstrip, in the northernmost reaches of South Vietnam. In January 1968, a few days before the Tet Offensive, the Marines at Khe Sanh were surrounded and attacked by tens of thousands of communist troops. The base was subject to an artillery barrage that hit the ammo dump and made the airfield – which the Marines relied on for resupply – completely unusable.

Meanwhile, the North Vietnamese advanced towards the perimeter of Khe Sanh, crawling through tunnels and trenches covered by jungle, drawing the noose tighter around the base. Finally, after two months, with the Marines still holding on and a relief force making slow progress, the communist troops retreated into the jungle under a blistering air and artillery bombardment. On April 8, the Marines and the relief force linked up near Khe Sanh.

President Obama’s inclusion of Khe Sanh with these other hallowed examples reflects his generational outlook that perhaps now is a good time to bring down the curtain on the proxy fights left over from the 1960s – battles that have overshadowed the last 30 years of American politics, and still echo in today’s debates about Iraq and Afghanistan. Looming over it all, the question: “Where did you stand on Vietnam?”

To his credit, the President moves beyond the political to a higher level of basic truth – that the bravery and sacrifices made in Vietnam are part of an American tradition that began at Concord, was confirmed at Gettysburg and reaffirmed at Normandy.

President Obama‘s careful, thoughtful style reflects a deep understanding of the power of words. He deliberately included Khe Sanh in the Inaugural to deliver the same message he sent by visiting Baghdad yesterday: The politics and noise that come with our democracy should never obscure the noble character of those who serve to protect it. And further, that the Marines at Khe Sanh, and everyone who served in Vietnam, should take their rightful, historic place alongside those who came before – and after.

Posted by David Preston