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Public Relations 101 – Lessons Five B – Dealing with an outside crisis

In Media relations. on March 23, 2009 at 12:26 pm

In 1984 the small village of Barneveld, Wis. was almost destroyed by a tornado. Nine people were killed as the monster storm swept most of the village away. It looked as if someone had a taken a giant sponge and wiped away 80 percent of the houses and businesses. This was crisis of major proportions.

What does this have to do with your company? How the people of the village, and all the various emergency personnel, dealt with the dozens of reporters and cameras that descended on their community is the best example of I have ever seen of crisis communications. Did they have a crisis communications plan? I am sure some of the emergency responders – the Red Cross, the Wisconsin National Guard, and other agencies did. I am just as sure that Barneveld’s residents – and the hundreds of their neighbors who rushed to help – did not. Yet, they did a masterful job.

By the way, it is still better to have a plan. It is even better to rehearse that plan at least once a quarter. The people of Barneveld were extraordinary under pressure. Don’t ever count on that. Be ready instead.

I speak from personal experience. I was one of the first reporters on the scene. I spent almost week there, doing story after story.

I learned a lot there about dealing with a crisis. The things I saw put into action apply to how your company should deal with a natural disaster or some other crisis caused by an outside agent. The people who dealt with us media types did a fantastic job under the worse of conditions. As a result, the story turned from a village destroyed to a village rebuilding. It went from a negative to a positive.

That’s the goal in a crisis. This is your chance to show how your company functions in extreme conditions. It’s simple really: anyone can function when things are easy. The real test comes when things are tough. That’s the true measure of a company.

 A side note: when I was in Barneveld, I had no thought that one day I would be doing public relations and marketing. But, for some reason, I kept some of my notes from that story. There’s a lesson in that for all of us – you never know when a piece of knowledge will be useful.

Remember, crisis communications is like a battlefield. A badly handled crisis can severely wound, even kill a company. There are no do-overs – you have one chance to get it right. Get it wrong, and if you’re lucky, you might restore a reputation in a decade or so.

As I said last week, the overriding rule in any crisis is to immediately communicate your concern – for the stock price, the injured people, the effect on the environment, whatever. It is also important to communicate as fast and as accurately as possible.

I saw that those two rules put into action in Barneveld. A command post/media center was set up in one of the few buildings left standing – a farm implement dealer’s storage shed. The various agencies coordinated their press relations so they spoke as one. The information was always timely and accurate. Besides regular press briefings, there was always someone on hand to provide whatever information the press needed.

That is key. Make sure everyone is informed, especially your employees. If there’s an accident in a factory, make sure your employees have the full story. They should because they are most affected. Your employees should always be the first one told about what’s going to happen next. They are going to be understandably concerned about their injured friends and the company’s future. Make sure you do everything possible to quell their fears.

Also, it is inevitable the media will interview some of your employees. That cannot be prevented. So, it’s better they have the entire story.

A note about that: the media demands first person accounts of any disaster. Their viewers or readers expect it. It adds immediacy to the story. So, they are going to try and talk to employees. If the company has done its job in taking care of those employees, those interviewed will say so. That kind of third party endorsement of the company is the best kind of public relations.

Do not try to control an employee interview. If you feel the interview should be done in a controlled circumstance, such as the company’s offices, go ahead. If you want a public relations person in the room, that’s fine also. But, let the employee talk. The public relations person should be there as a resource, not a controller. The media is very suspicious of anyone who appears coached or appears not to be saying anything. It will look like you have something to hide.

As for empathy – every leader from the governor and a U.S. Senator down to Barneveld Village President did two things: walked around the village to talk and hear stories; and saw to it every kind of assistance needed was provided. All those leaders demonstrated something else: actions speak louder than words. Yes, it is a cliché, but it’s true. They were not there just for photo opportunities; they were there to offer genuine assistance. That made a big impression on those directly affected.

Here are other lessons I learned:

  • Be as open as possible with the media. Do not hold anything back. Of course, you do not want a victim’s family to find out from a news report that a family member is dead. But as soon as possible after the family has been informed, release the names. The media will find out eventually anyway.
  • Give the media has much access as possible. Provide updates as soon as you have new information. It is human nature to try and fill a vacuum. That’s how rumors start and spread. The media can be your ally. If they are reporting the facts, rumors will get quashed.

Next week, I will be discussing what happens when crisis is caused by something a company does. That’s the most difficult of all crisis communications.

My background: I worked as a reporter for 25 years in central Illinois, upstate New York, suburban Detroit and Milwaukee. I now help companies with marketing communications through my company – JJC Communications LLC. If you want to know more about my company, and myself, click the link.

I am available for speaking on media relations, or counseling your company on that or on your other public relations needs. I can be reached at 414-763-8310 or jjccomm@wi.twcbc.com.

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Public Relations 101 – Lesson Five A – Crisis Communications – Planning

In Media relations. on March 15, 2009 at 7:54 pm

Crises are the toughest of all public relations situations. There is no time to do anything but respond at top speed. If building a brand platform using regular public relations is a marathon, crises communications is a sprint.  

Because this is a complex subject, I will be doing a series within my series on media relations.

The overriding rule in any crisis is to immediately communicate your concern – for the stock price, the injured people, the effect on the environment, whatever. It is important in any crisis to communicate as fast and as accurately as possible.

Crisis communications is like a battlefield. A badly handled crisis can severely wound, even kill a company. There are no do-overs – you have one chance to get it right. Get it wrong, and if you’re lucky, you might restore a reputation in a decade or so.

An example I still use for how to manage a crisis happened about 25 years ago. It was so long ago that I cannot find the story stored anywhere on the Internet, so the details are somewhat hazy.

A small boy shoved his arm inside an unlocked box protecting high voltage lines. The utility chairman didn’t waste a minute. By the end of the day, the company was paying for the boy’s medical bills and a host of other things. The chairman took a negative and turned it into a positive enhancing his company’s reputation.

 That should be always the goal. Don’t think about just containing the damage – think about turning the situation on its head. Your goal in a crisis situation is emerging from it with your reputation intact. Handled correctly, you can improve that reputation.

 The key element in handling a crisis is to be ready. No, you cannot anticipate the exact shape a crisis will take anymore than a firefighter can anticipate how a fire will burn. How firefighters deal with that is to plan and practice. You and your company should be doing the same.

A lot of companies have crisis communications plans. However, it is usually tucked away in a dust-covered file. Often the people who wrote it, and the management who approved it, are gone If you’re lucky, somebody with an institutional memory will remember that the company has a plan. If you’re really lucky, they will remember where it is. And, if you go three-for-three, they will remember what it says.

 I wouldn’t count on any of that actually happening.

Writing A Plan

Let’s start with creating a crisis communications plan. As I said, it is impossible to know the shape a crisis is going to take. So, the plan has to provide a framework for dealing with a crisis.

Here are the steps you should use to create a plan.

Develop and write the plan

A working group should be created to develop the plan. The group should be made of senior people familiar with all aspects of a company’s operations. The working group should meet with each department head to gather information on possible crises.

 The plan should include:

  • The primary members of the crisis communications team. It can include: the CEO, the chief of public relations, outside public relations counsel corporate counsel, the safety and/or security officer, other employees who would be relevant to the situation.
  • A media point person and a spokesman: One team member, usually the public relations person, should be designated as the primary media contact. This person should be the conduit for all media inquiries. One team member, preferably the CEO or another high-ranking executive, should be the designated media spokesman. It is important to have as high a ranking person as possible as the spokesperson. The higher the rank, the more integrity in the eyes of the media and public.
  • A crisis communications team roster with each member’s contact information. This should include cell phone, home phone office phone and email addresses. Each team member should have a copy.
  • An initial contact. This is the person at headquarters who will get the call that there’s a problem. This can be done on a rotating, on call basis
  • A chain of command – who reports to who.
  • Who will be collecting information on what is happening. This should be a team. One of the team’s key roles will be dealing with rumors.
  • Who determines what resources are needed to deal with the issue.
  • The names and contact information for the spokespeople for area emergency personnel, or any other outsider who might be involved, should included on the list. If possible, at least one member of the crisis team should meet with the spokesperson for the emergency personnel to get acquainted.
  • A method for continual reassessment of how things are going and what additional resources are needed.

Once completed, the plan should disseminated to all department heads and their key people. They should review plan. Senior management should follow up with them to ensure they have done their homework. Each of those department heads should also have of the phone list. They should always know who is on call in the event of an emergency.

Practice

 Those are the basics of a crisis communications plan. Writing it is only the first step. The next is to rehearse, rehearse, and rehearse. I always recommend practicing at least one a quarter, more if your company is in an industry where incidents occur often.

 Set up a “practice” crisis and run through your plan. This will tell you what works and what doesn’t work. It will also ensure everyone knows their places when the real things happens. The plan should be second nature to everyone involved long before it has to be put into action.

 As I said in the beginning, there is no point in having a plan if no one knows were it is, what it says, or how to execute it. It would be akin to not recharging your sprinkler system or checking your alarms.

 Next week, I will discuss how to deal with an external crisis. 

 My background: I worked as a reporter for 25 years in central Illinois, upstate New York, suburban Detroit and Milwaukee. I now help companies with marketing communications through my company – JJC Communications LLC. If you want to know more about my company, and myself, click the link.

 I am available for speaking on media relations, or counseling your company on that or on your other public relations needs. I can be reached at 414-763-8310 or jjccomm@wi.twcbc.com.


 

Public Relations 101 – Lesson Four – The Surprise Interview

In Media relations. on March 9, 2009 at 8:05 am

You’re sitting at your desk, thinking about those 18 holes of golf you will soon be playing. The phone rings. You pick it up to hear: “hello, this is Bernie Woodstein from Truth & Intelligencer. Got a minute? I have some questions.”

So, what do you do? I am a former reporter who used to make those calls. It usually resulted in great quotes. I will tell you how to avoid being tripped up.

 For the person being interviewed, the surprise interview is usually the toughest, most dangerous kind. It is also an opportunity. Handled correctly, the surprise interview can establish credibility, demonstrate mastery of the subject, and show coolness under fire. Those are key aspects of brand building.

As I say in every blog, the interviewer is neither your friend nor your enemy. They have a job to do, that’s all. 

A note about television.

Television loves the ambush interview. They love to catch somebody completely unexpectedly with that “deer in the headlights” look. I have issues with that kind of interview. I think it borders on unethical. When a reporter calls, you have some time to think about your answers. Most people don’t do well when a camera is shoved in their face. Television is as much about getting dramatic video as getting your side.

 Still, do the interview. Saying nothing or no comment looks worse than just about anything you will do. Do the interview, but the way I suggest.

Handling the Unexpected Interview

Okay, so what do you do?

First, take a deep breath and calm down. Then it is important that you take control of the interview right away. How is this done? Ask the interviewer what’s the story’s subject. Try not to let that person start asking questions until you know where the interview is going. As I have said: a good interview is akin to paddling down a river. You don’t want to be paddling blindfolded.

 A good interviewer will give you an idea of what they want. But it’s a poker game – they are not going to show all their cards. It is your job to figure out what they want. This will give you ways to move the interview in the correct direction, i.e. – the one that puts you in the best light possible under the circumstances.

First Steps

So you have an idea of what’s wanted. There are two things you can do and one that should always be done.

You should always have someone else in the room. Put the caller on hold and summon your most senior public relations person. Have someone take notes.

You are under no obligation to tell the interviewer others are listening.  It is helpful to have others there for two reasons: they can provide information you might need; and they can be witnesses to the interview. If there is a mistake in the article, they can back you up when you contact the interviewer.

Make sure you ask if the interview is for a piece running the next day or if it isn’t yet on the schedule. Editors are often waiting to see what you say before making a decision on airing or publication.

Your optional choices are:

  • You can begin the interview immediately. Do this if you feel comfortable with the subject.
  • The second option is to tell the interviewer that you need to do some quick research and you will call back as soon as possible. Call back within the hour. Do not wait. I cannot speak to bloggers’ writing schedules, but television stations and newspapers do most of their serious work for the evening broadcast and tomorrow’s paper in the morning. You need to get back well before their deadline. The last thing you want is for someone to intone: “Joseph Crater did not return our calls for comment.”

Recorded Interviews

If the interview is being recorded – such as the ambush television interview – speak in short sentences. It makes it more difficult for your answer to be edited in a way that changes the meaning of what you’re saying. Again, think before you answer. This is hard, but look into the camera and speak clearly and concisely. People form impressions by how you look and act as much by what you say.

Doing the Interview

Unless you do this every day, you are most likely not going to do as well in this interview as in one you in which had to prepare. So, it is important to take your time and think about each answer. Be very careful. Interviewers are often waiting for that mistake so they can use that to lead their story.

While it is never okay to say “no comment”, go-off-the-record, or lie, it is fine to say, “I don’t know.” That’s assuming you really don’t. As I said, don’t lie. But if you really don’t have the information, say so. Suggest someone who does whom the interviewer can call.

If you have documentation to back your position up, offer to provide it. Documents are always helpful.

Also, use ju-jitsu in the interview. The core principle of ju-jitsu is turning your opponent’s strength and momentum against them. Don’t be afraid to ask questions back. Don’t say, “why do want to know that?” That sounds defensive. But ask about the story, who else they’ve talked to, when it might appear, and what the gist is.

As you answer the questions, you can move the interview in a different direction. It has to be done subtly. Each answer should move the topic about an inch – to use a bad analogy. Eventually, you will be guiding the interview’s direction.

One caution – this is difficult. Good interviewers will often realize what you are doing. This is where media training is very important. 

Conclusion

When the interview is over and you have hung up, go over what you said. If you forgot to say something you feel is important, call the interviewer. It’s acceptable to do that. Just do it fast and only do it once. More than that and you sound desperate.

After that, all you can so is wait for the article. If you’ve done what I suggested, it should be okay.

My background: I worked as a reporter for 25 years in central Illinois, upstate New York, suburban Detroit and Milwaukee. I now help companies with marketing communications through my company – JJC Communications LLC. If you want to know more about my company, and myself, click the link.

 I am available for speaking on media relations, or counseling your company on that or on your other public relations needs. I can be reached at 414-763-8310 or jjccomm@wi.twcbc.com.