Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Teaching about a Crisis

Back in August, when the days were long and warm, Marion Orr from the Taubman Center for Public Policy at Brown University asked if I was interested in teaching a class in Crisis Management and Communications beginning in September.  I agreed, and it was a great experience.  I’m looking forward to doing it again.  The students were thoughtful and engaged, and the weekly preparation for class gave me a chance to make certain that the counsel I was giving clients was the newest – and best – advice I could give.

On the first day of class, I outlined the semester, my goals for the class, and my approach to crisis communications.

I happen to share the view that quite often a crisis can present real opportunities to make an organization better over the long term – and for individuals to shine.  My goal for the students, then, was to prepare them to  be able to contribute, and to distinguish themselves, in a crisis.

Here are my expanded notes from the rest of that first class, a very basic, initial “How To” when it comes to the communications of managing a crisis.

The Class in a Nutshell

Fill the vacuum
  • It’s not going away
You can decline to comment if you want, but burying your head in the sand with a “no comment” will not make it go away.  More likely, it will give other people an opening to define and characterize you – almost always a bad idea.  At our firm, we usually recommend that a client take the opportunity to safely define themselves quickly, then step back and consider their strategic options.
  • Minimize and mitigate
Getting a “good” story out of a crisis, in the immediate term, is an extreme rarity.  Usually, you’re stuck with the following options: “bad” and “worse”.  The goal, then, is to do your best in the merely “bad” range, then work to get out of the spotlight as quickly as possible.

Step back and think strategically
  • Get perspective – Step back and take a deep breath
You may only have minutes to do this, but take the time to do so, because it’s important.  It’s amazing how many negative after effects of a crisis are self-inflicted.
  • Who’s the client?
When a person has done something wrong at an organization, human beings, being what they are, can sometimes be hard pressed to distinguish between the needs of the individual and the needs of the company.  Therefore, it’s important to determine whose interests are to be served.  Make sure this is clear in your mind, and in your approach.
  • How does this end?
Start addressing a crisis with an end in sight.  It makes it easier to get to a better ending, and return to the job of moving the organization forward.

Make your friends before you need them
  • Tell your story
Pro-active communications ahead of a crisis will pay enormous dividends when trouble hits.  Start today.
  • Carve out your real estate; have a presence; get some followers and talk to them
Not on Twitter and Facebook?  Get on. Now.  And get some followers.
  • Be a good citizen
Invite local officials for a tour.  Reach out to local reporters for a tour as well.  Engage in some strategic philanthropy with the community. Earn a reputation as one of the “good guys.”

Have a plan for the first 25%
  • Website up to date; assignments in a crisis; how to find people 24/7
There’s a certain “blood in the water” dynamic that the media brings to covering a crisis.  If your website is out of date, or incomplete, it gives them an incentive to see what else in the public realm might be out of date, and newsworthy:  Your corporate annual reports?  Your licenses?  Your inspections?  Your taxes?  Anything in the public realm could be fair game, if a reporter can find it and wants to pursue it.

Also, take a few minutes to decide who will do what when a crisis strikes, and how you can find them 24/7.

Now is not the time to save money
  • Dedicate the resources to succeed – even if you didn't do it before
US Airway’s brilliant post-crash handling of its passengers who landed in the Hudson a few years ago is exactly the way to go in a crisis.  Follow their example, within reason, and be prepared to spend some money on the resources necessary to weather the storm – even if you didn't follow the advice in the bullet above, and do it before.

Don’t take communications advice from your lawyers

I’m an attorney, so I know that lawyers have more narrow goals and needs in a crisis than the organization as a whole.  Their goals (limiting liability, keeping you out of prison) are very important, but they by no means cover the entire spectrum of what’s required.  After all, if you win the case, but lose your reputation, what is the end result?  An attorney’s audience includes (perhaps): other (opposing) attorneys, a judge, a jury and regulators.  But an organization’s audience is made up of … everybody.

Subway’s recent, spectacular failure to minimize and mitigate the controversy surrounding the definition of “foot-long” (you have to read this) is a perfect example of why it’s so important to make sure your attorneys stay in their lane.

The Human touch
  • Brand = feelings
  • Step in the other guys shoes
  • Remember that feelings, empathy matter
Your Mother was right – people are watching... at least at first.  So be human.  Be empathetic.  Leave the litigation and the nitty gritty questions of liability for later, after the spotlight has passed.  In most cases you can preserve your brand, your reputation and your business, while effectively defending your legal position.

Be simple, clear, repetitive – without sounding like it
Have a clear message. Find content that reinforces that message. Deliver that content, and that message as long as you have to.

Defend your credibility at all costs
Don’t lie.  You’ll be found out – probably within the hour – and your value to the organization as a communicator will be done.  If you are a communicator, make certain that your organization is getting you the latest, best, confirmed information as quickly as possible.  Otherwise, you may end up unwittingly undermining your credibility.  (Also, don’t acknowledge as true information from other sources that you haven’t confirmed.)  If you make an honest mistake, clear it up quickly.  Failure to do this just gives the story legs.

Get back to pursuing your mission, and telling your story on your own terms to the people who need to hear it, as quickly as possible.

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