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.
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.