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Crafting Crisis Communications

WHEN CRISES OCCUR, they can generate a significant media response. The manner in which a company handles both the crisis and the media will often cement the image of the organization in the public’s eye. This image is what drives public perception and, ultimately, the success or failure of an organization.

To ensure that a company presents itself to the media in the best light during an emergency, it should make crisis communication part of the corporate culture, know what to expect from the media, and remember to address the human element.

Policy Statement

As part of a crisis communication plan, companies should develop a policy statement that reflects exactly how the company will respond. By having this statement in place and reinforcing it regularly, a company can prepare all employees for responding to questions with a consistent basic message about the company’s approach to crises.

For instance, a policy statement might emphasize notifying the proper authorities immediately, undertaking a thorough investigation, and making information widely available so that a similar incident will not occur within the organization again. The statement should stress that the company strives to be competent, honest, and concerned, understanding that its image is on the line each and every day, and that losing or damaging that reputation is unacceptable.

However, putting such a policy in writing is only the first step. The next is implementation. Implementation starts with a crisis management audit, during which key employees should be consulted; their knowledge is central to determining what potential crises could occur.

Moreover, in the event of an incident, these employees may be asked questions by the media, family members, city officials, and other community leaders. To have an organization’s director of communications interviewed saying one thing and then have an employee saying another makes the company look not only disorganized but also dishonest. To ensure uniformity of response, employees must be briefed on the company’s crisis communications plan.

The Media

Companies must also train staff to interact with the media in a crisis. Among the tips: managers must anticipate the questions, practice being interviewed, and control the circumstances as much as possible.

Anticipate. To anticipate what questions reporters will ask, a manager should list the company’s top 10 weak spots. These can be problems that the company is trying to address, high-likelihood disaster scenarios, or vulnerabilities that naturally occur within the company’s given industry.

When making this list, it is critical to be honest. Managers must not ignore problems they don’t want to face.

The list should be reviewed regularly with staff members to ensure that nothing is missed, that the list is updated with emerging threats, and that the staff agrees on the contents of both the questions and the answers. By keeping this list and constantly tweaking it, the company can ensure that staff members are prepared to address most issues that might come up and that the fundamental points made in the response will be consistently discussed throughout the company.

In developing answers to these top 10 questions about weaknesses, the first step is to learn the facts about, and stay current on, each of these vulnerabilities. Managers should also know how the company is working to mitigate these vulnerabilities and how other organizations are addressing similar challenges. Managers should also be conversant with general industry trends and be prepared to discuss those as well.

Practice. Every time a company representative appears on television, even in a medium-sized market, that footage will reach millions of viewers. The company can improve the chances that response to the appearance will be positive by training staff to handle such an interview, particularly a televised one.

Training should prepare staff, especially managers, in what to say and how to say it. Perhaps the most important outcome of training is that it will give managers confidence in their performance so that they will appear relaxed and authoritative.

As a part of ongoing training, managers should be asked to practice by having staff members pose as members of the media and ask tough questions. This can be done once a month, with each exercise focusing on a different one of the top 10 identified potential problems or vulnerabilities that might lead to a crisis. These practice sessions should be recorded; they can then be reviewed for both body language and content.

As managers practice answering media questions, they should learn how to segue to two positive themes. To be ready to do that for each of the identified concerns, managers should identify two or more strengths in the organization that put the weakness in proper perspective. When discussing these issues, managers should never guess and never lie. Having to retract or alter comments is awkward at best and undercuts the credibility of the speaker and the company.

Managers should practice speaking at 180 words per minute, which is the rate of speech used by broadcasters; they should also learn to limit answers to 12 seconds. Managers should answer the question in four seconds, bridge to two positive themes, and then discuss those themes for four seconds each.

For example, a meteorologist was asked about the health implications of a radar station located in a subdivision. Residents were concerned about the possible radiation being emitted by the radar. The reporter asked: “What are the chances that radiation is being given off by the radar?” The meteorologist answered: “None. The radar listens most of the time and gives off less energy than a cellular phone.” This answer took about four seconds and was an honest answer.

This is the difficult part of preparing an answer for the electronic media. Managers must keep the answer short but complete. To do this, managers must carefully craft the message so it fits within the time frame and must practice delivering this message.

Managers must also practice stopping. Once the statement is finished, managers must resist the urge to elaborate. In electronic media, there is a finite window. In a 30-minute newscast, there are only about nine minutes of news, and there may be 10 stories; some very brief. News agencies will make your story fit into this time frame, which means if your message is too long, it will be edited, and your remarks will almost certainly be taken out of context.

Control the interview. The more control managers feel they are exerting in an interview, the more in control they will appear to be on camera, and that translates to trust and likeability for the viewer, even if spokesmen are discussing bad news.

A manager can help create this feeling of control by setting the ground rules of the interview. This includes preparing fact sheets in advance and discussing them with the reporter before the interview begins. This helps the reporter with background information and increases the chance that this information will be included in the story. In addition to providing the reporter with such background information, the manager should ask the reporter what information he or she will be seeking or covering in the interview—this is a preliminary interview in which the questions are informally put forth to help the interviewee prepare before going on camera. Managers can even volunteer one or two questions they would like to answer by saying, “You know, the questions I’m most frequently asked about include...” This almost guarantees that the manager will hear those questions asked during the actual interview.

Managers can also suggest interview locations that put the organization in a positive light, such as offering to have the reporter conduct the interview on company property next to technology important to the company, in front of people doing the company’s work, or sitting in a neutral, tastefully decorated office or conference room. It is important that the manager feel comfortable in this interview location.

It is critical that managers never decline to be interviewed or say, “No comment.” Refusing comment is usually perceived as an admission of guilt or ignorance.

If possible, as the interview approaches but away from the reporter, the manager should take a few minutes while the crew sets up to get the most current information on the situation. This will ensure that the manager is not stumped by a tough question or left looking uninformed.

School Lesson

All of these tools and techniques were called into play in a case where I was called in to provide consulting services. The situation involved a school within a large school district where an individual brought a gun into the school and threatened staff members. Fortunately, the person was disarmed before any shooting could take place. However, because of recent shootings at other schools, multiple media outlets asked to interview the school superintendent about the incident.

I helped the school superintendent and district staff develop two important themes to use in every response. Following the four-second answer to any reporter’s question, we developed these two four second themes which made up the 12 second sound bite.

The first theme was: “We have a zero-tolerance policy for guns in our school. If someone brings a gun here, they’re going to be arrested and prosecuted.”

The second theme was: “We do this for one reason. Safety. Kids need a safe place in which to learn.” After answering each question, the executive then repeated these two themes.

Because the school district had already prepared to address its 10 worst nightmare situations, its spokesmen were able to respond naturally. They did not have to memorize the two themes exactly. Instead they used what I call a “trigger word” in each theme. They used “zero” as the trigger word in theme one, and in theme two, “safety.” The trigger words allowed the executives to easily remember the themes and give more natural, spontaneous responses to the first part of the questions.

The Human Element

A media response may be practiced to perfection and still hit the wrong note if managers react with their heads and not their hearts. Often, businesses are afraid that they will get sued if they admit wrong doing, so they shy away from expressing concern or sorrow about a catastrophic event. However, it is possible to express human remorse without accepting fault.

Consider the example of one of my clients, which is a large amusement park. After a young girl died in a horrifying accident at one of the company’s parks, I was asked to fly to the location and not only develop the crisis response but also prepare the CEO for a national television appearance concerning the event that evening.

The CEO was a highly educated and successful businessman. When we met on location, I could tell he was concerned about the incident, but he was also concentrating on the business consequences. My job was to get him to respond from his heart and not his head.

In a one-on-one consultation, I asked if he had any children himself. The CEO looked at me, and I could see a tear in his eye as he immediately responded by saying, “I have a daughter the same age as that girl who died today. I can’t imagine how that family is feeling right now. I feel like this is a time for grieving—not only for all of us here in the park, but in this community that we’ve been part of for more than 25 years. We will find out why this happened, but right now it feels like a time to grieve.”

This is exactly what I told the CEO to say in his evening statement. There is nothing in that response that is litigious. He responded as a human being to tragedy, not as a businessman concerned about plans, policies, and procedures. In his comments, he was able to humanize his organization and put it in a more positive light.

A mix of solid preparation and compassionate delivery is the key to responding to the media. A manager’s position in the company and extensive preparation techniques will lend authority, but the warmth and compassion that managers exhibit when responding will result in trust and confidence from the audience no matter what the situation.

Richard Brundage is a former news anchor and correspondent who teaches seminars on crisis communication and responding to the media. The U.S. State Department has new ambassadors take his course. His book, The Heart In Communicating–One Person’s Journey from Broadcaster to Crisis Communicator is now available directly from his Web as a downloadable e-book for $14.95 or from Amazon as hard copy book for $30.00.