Mark Grimm


Tell the Truth Well: How to Prepare for Your Next Crisis

When it comes to crisis communication, there is no substitute for doing the right thing. The PR world is littered with reputation carcasses of people who thought they could spin their way out of trouble.

Penn State leaders did irrefutable damage to the university’s reputation by trying to cover up the criminal conduct of a now convicted child molester. Their total disregard for the welfare of children painted themselves into a corner that no amount of PR could ever completely fix. The university’s crisis communication plan should have been put in place the moment the scandal was revealed to them — fire everyone involved, present a clear plan to prevent the atrocity from ever happening again and begin persistent and effective work to help victims of abuse. The irony is, of course, Penn State leaders failed to act initially because they feared bad publicity would affect its reputation. How well did that strategy work?

The time to start work on a crisis communication plan is long before a crisis occurs. When a crisis hits, people act emotionally and often times those involved are reluctant to speak freely because they fear the blame may be pinned on them.

Any organization or business should have a written plan on what it would do should a communication crisis occur. The plan should answer questions like, “Who is responsible for getting the whole story? Who is the press spokesperson? What are the legal ramifications? Who are the key stakeholders who need to be consulted? What are our values?

Questions like these require a contemplative approach that is difficult to pull off when the sparks are flying.

These steps are much more likely to make the most out of a bad situation:

1-    Act with Reason, not Emotion.

Easier said than done. It’s especially hard when some media people are acting irresponsibly to jazz up the story. Follow the plan, be respectful and focus on creating a positive end result.

2-    Show Genuine Empathy to Those Harmed
Empathy is not a show, it’s a heart-felt trait that needs to be genuine. If the CEO is not capable of it, put someone out there who is.

The BP Fiasco:

BP CEO Tony Hayward’s purpose when meeting the press shortly after the worst oil spill in U.S. history was to apologize to those harmed. It did not come across that way:

“There’s no one who wants this over more than I do. I’d like my life back.”

Note to Tony: It’s not about you, it’s about them. That one statement had catastrophic public relations consequences that may have cost the company billions more in settlement costs.

3-    Find Out All the Facts

As a former news reporter, I saw many instances when the people under fire in a crisis got their facts wrong up front. This is often interpreted by the media and the general public as “lying” or trying to spin the story. In many cases, it was actually due to conflicting stories given by employees in the heat of the crisis. Emotions are raw and rumors are rampant. Take the time to get to the truth. This is not easy when there is a clamoring for information, but the alternative is to sink your credibility right from the start. By the way, sometimes people do fudge things in a crisis. That’s a bad strategy.

4-    Get Ahead of the Story

Do not be in the position of always playing defense. Be proactive about shaping the narrative of the story. Think often about what you want the headline to be and have a strategy for making that happen.

The Tylenol scare:

In 1982, seven people in the Chicago area died after taking Tylenol laced with cyanide. It triggered a national scare with people throwing away their medicine bottles and stores pulling Tylenol from their shelves. Though Johnson & Johnson (Tylenol’s owner) was not negligent, it paid a price for the criminal acts of others. Tylenol’s share dropped to six percent of the analgesic market.

Its response:

Johnson & Johnson moved quickly to remove Tylenol from shelves, offered an exchange program for customers, ordered an internal investigation of its distribution process, promised full cooperation with government investigators and began to develop tamper-proof packaging. It later conducted a massive media campaign which re-introduced the product and distributed 80 million free coupons for it.

The proactive and thorough plan worked. Within a year, Tylenol regained 80 percent of its former market share. This proactive response no doubt cost J & J a fortune but their focus on the long-term picture saved the Tylenol brand. Incidentally, decades later, the murders remain unsolved.

5-    Listen Actively 

The Internet and social media remind us communication is a two-way street. Be an active listener to what people are saying and writing on the Internet. Engage them in the dialogue and be open-minded about their suggestions and complaints. Ignore the Internet at your peril. As PR strategist Judy Gombita puts it, “Social media have made molehills into mountains.”

6-    Be Your Own Media Outlet

You cannot afford to count on the media to get it right in a crisis. While there are many hard-working and honest journalists, there are also many reporters and editors with their own agenda. Additionally, the financial realities of journalism have led to a greater number of less seasoned reporters who make mistakes due to inexperience, not by design.

Twenty-first century technology allows a company or organization to communicate directly and quickly to a mass audience, with a message that is unfiltered by any media. Build this infrastructure in advance of a crisis and use every tool available, including video, to reach people, shape opinion and generate supporters. Encourage them to spread the word on their own.

7-    Seek Professional Advice

If you need a root canal, go to a dentist. When a communication crisis hits, the counsel you get could be the difference between riding out the storm or experiencing a full-blown disaster. Rely on professional advice from someone who can provide a fresh set of eyes to the problem. The seasoned perspective may be the best investment you ever make.

8-    Do the Right Thing

Never underestimate the value of good conduct in a crisis. People have shown remarkable forgiveness to those willing to admit their mistakes and present a plan for fixing a problem. Time and time again the cover up has caused far more damage than the original mistake. Even with presidents. Richard Nixon resigned because of the Watergate cover up, not the initial burglary. The House of Representatives impeached Bill Clinton not for his misconduct with an intern, but for lying about it under oath and obstructing the investigation.

Every crisis tests our values. Are you sure what yours are? Answer that question well and have a strong plan in place that reinforces your culture and the next communication crisis will be something you should be able to manage.

The writer is a former TV news anchor/reporter and former adjunct media professor who runs a communication training and strategic counseling company.

Inspiration Is What You See: The John Robinson Story

John Robinson at HM ASTD conference

Having a bad day? What would it be like if you had no full arms and legs?

John Robinson was born that way, but you won’t hear any “woe is me” from him. “I don’t see what I am missing, I see what I have,” he told the audience at his keynote speech at the Hudson-Mohawk ASTD conference in Albany, NY on May 16th (ASTD just changed its name to the Association for Talent Development).

Robinson, less than four feet tall, tells the story of when he was waiting in line between his tall friends to get into a party. The line was moving slowly so someone shouted from behind, “Maybe the line would move better if you got off your knees.” The mistake left an indelible imprint on him. It was up to him to “get off his knees” and approach life differently — to take personal responsibility for “who and what I am.”

John’s inspirational story is the subject of a national PBS documentary, “Get Off Your Knees: The John Robinson Story,” and his autobiography, “Get Off Your Knees: A Story of Faith, Courage, and Determination,” was published by Syracuse University Press

We look for “what’s wrong with our self in the mirror.” I think you should “start your day by loving yourself.” Robinson was uncomfortable with how he looked until he started to see himself the way his spouse or best friends do.

Robinson has spoken to Fortune 500 Corporations to high school students about Overcoming Obstacles in Life, Businesses or Sales!

“I hope to give people a new perspective on their ability,” says Robinson, who founded his own seminar and video production business in 2010 after 20 years in TV sales and management. His company, Our Ability, tells stories about successful people with disabilities and provides mentoring to young disabled people.

“Opportunities are disguised as challenges,” he insists.

Still having a bad day?


Youth: Twitter’s In, Facebook Waning

An impromtu survey of my College of St. Rose class revealed young people felt Facebook was past its prime. Seems the teen research backs it up. A Pew study released in May on social media showed teens feel a “waning enthusiasm for Facebook.” Too many adults are on it, especially their parents, for their liking and they seek to avoid the “stressful drama.” Even Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg admits they are not trying to be cool. Most young people still remain on Facebook, but Twitter and Instagram are viewed as much hotter commodities.

Note the irony. Facebook started out as a hip, new way for college students to communicate. But teen Twitter use jumped 50% from 2011 to 2013, according to the Pew study.

Young people have always wanted their own space so Facebook’s success attracting their parents has been a turnoff. That’s not necessarily a bad thing for Facebook. Their parents have a lot more money than their kids and Facebook advertisers would like to get a chuck of it.

The generation gap is also about habits. Adults may wait to late evening to catch up on Facebook. The young are texting all day long. “Catching up” is measured in minutes.

So while the pace of technology is burning up, take some comfort in knowing some things never change — teens don’t like hanging out with their parents.

The writer is an adjunct media professor and runs a communications and speaking coaching business.




Why No One is a Natural Born Speaker

No one is born a great speaker. You have to work at it. Speaking is a skill that needs to be developed, like any other skill. The claim someone is a “natural” at speaking underestimates what it really takes to be great. Some people say LeBron James is a natural, too. Then, why does he work so hard at improving his shooting, defense and passing?

It’s true some people are more extroverted by nature and more comfortable in front of people. But comfort level can be altered and being relaxed is just one aspect of great speaking. The first step in great speaking is good research. You can find anything you need to become a great speaker, to regain your confidence and you learn so much more about yourself — finding out what the audience really wants to get out of the presentation and then designing a program to exceed those expectations. Great speaking is about editing, taking a large body of information and paring it down for the audience. Sharp editing and the use of concise language are learned skills and very few people do them really well. Listening is also needed in presentations, a skill that doesn’t come at birth either. How well does your two-year-old listen? How about your teenager?

A speaker once told me he didn’t need my coaching help because he was able to easily “wing it” in front of the audience. I replied, “Yes, it appeared like you were winging it.” He wasn’t connected with what his audience was thinking.

Speaking also requires us to get constant feedback from our audience — what they like and don’t like. It is the only way to get better. No truly great speaker is ever completely satisfied with his/her performance.

Great speaking, as much as any field I know, is open to everyone. It’s not what you were born with, it’s how you use what you have. With the right coaching, the sky is the limit.

The writer is a professional speaker with many speaking coaching clients. Don’t hesitate to contact him for help. His speaking book is available here.



Republicans May Have Cost Romney the Presidency

Four years ago, Americans voted for hope and change. This time, they voted for the status quo — same president, same party controls each house. The nation remains divided about 50/50.

The election was more about why Mitt Romney lost than why President Obama won. Though Romney made his mistakes, fellow Republicans may have cost him the presidency. The bruising Republican primary put Romney in a deep hole in terms of likability and drained his resources, badly needed in the summer months when the Obama Team was pounding away at him. Gingrich and Santorum, with their shameless class warfare, spent a fortune attacking Romney.

Two Senate Republican candidates (Akin and Mourdock) made ridiculous statements on rape that were quickly wrapped around Romney’s neck. Romney’s gender gap was not all his own doing.

Had there been no storm, Romney may have won. He had the momentum and the polls were clearly moving in his favor. Then, the storyline changed and Obama capitalized on the moment. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie dealt the final Republican blow. Yes, his responsibility in a time of crisis was to have a constructive relationship with the president. But that is a different thing than his over-the-top praise of the kind of leader Obama was. This was a central issue in the campaign and Christie knew it.

Christie no doubt feels genuine compassion for those affected in his state. But he also seized the political opportunity, grabbing the national spotlight to show how “bipartisan” he was. It was a calculation based on his own political self interest, fully aware an Obama win would create an open seat for president in 2016. This criticism gains validity given his “Christie Fest” keynote address at the GOP convention.

Mitt Romney was an imperfect candidate. His 47% remark hurt greatly, as did his “self deport” plan for illegal immigrants. The “Hispanic problem” looms as a great GOP challenge, especially given the key role they play in many swing states. Hispanics are a fast-growing group and they gave about 70% of their vote to Obama. The GOP must develop a workable immigration policy acceptable to their base and to Hispanics.

The voters did not reject Republican values on Election Day. Indeed, “the people’s house” remains firmly Republican. Candidate Mitt Romney found his stride demonstrated by his historic first debate performance. He came up just short in a race where Republican misbehavior may have been the difference.

The writer, a speaking and media coach, is a former elected official who has managed a number of campaigns that unseated entrenched incumbents.