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

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