Avoiding the pitfalls when things are already falling down
It’s every executive’s nightmare. A rolling news story that just won’t go away and which you’re on the sharp end of. It’s super stressful because there’s so much to worry about: how you’re handling the crisis, what’s actually happening, what the short and long-term impact is likely to be. And that doesn’t just apply to your organization, it applies to you too. There are many careers which have been broken on the back of a media crisis.
So how do you prepare? What do you need to think about? Here are 10 top tips to get it right.
If you don’t plan you can’t prepare. So get a group of people together, sit down and think about all the things that could do wrong. Look under the corporate carpets and extract everything. Then rank order your potential crises and prepare a plan for the top three that might bring your business down. This will help you develop a blue print for anything else that might happen.
Once you understand what might go wrong, you can prepare for it. It always amazes me how little organizations actually do to prepare or to practice. They often spend weeks getting ready to talk to analysts and managing investor relations, but think they’d be ready to handle a crisis in minutes, and these days it is minutes. You can’t do a great job without practising so rehearse what might happen and what your response would be.
— Sky News (@SkyNews) June 28, 2016
3. Think who
Sending out the head of IT to talk about an IT problem may be, well, a problem. They simply know too much and can therefore say too much. That’s when your head of communications or PR should be out there on your behalf. They won’t have all the detail at their finger tips so they can’t give anything away. Meanwhile you need a hard hat for hazards, your chair for corporate issues and your CEO for catastrophes.
And remember that the best people to help you are often third parties for example, customers, regulators, trade associations or ministers. They haven’t got a vested interest and therefore sound most credible when speaking on your behalf.
4. Think what
Your message can be the toughest thing to get right. Quite often you simply need to say sorry, to show concern for those affected and demonstrate that you’re going the extra mile. You also need to thank the people who are sorting the crisis out and to show gratitude to your customers or users for hanging on in there.
5. Remember it’s not a conversation
Talking to a journalist is not like having a real conversation so you shouldn’t treat it as one. You need to understand that this kind of exchange is much more like a game of poker. When you play poker, you don’t show anyone your hand, instead you play it thoughtfully, carefully and strategically. In this context that means not answering all the questions you are asked. Instead, say what you want to say, be polite and cooperative. Journalists have tough deadlines and will generally be better disposed to you if you help them.
6. Use everyday language
The ordinary punter doesn’t care about your ‘brand’ or your market position. But they do want to know that you are responsible for a safe and high-quality product or service. Say so, using the kind of language your mum would understand.
7. Don’t repeat journalists’ negative language
If you’re asked ‘isn’t this a disaster?’ you don’t need to deny it. You need to accept an element of what’s being said and move the conversation along. In this situation you could instead try something like ‘acting quickly and responsibly is something that really matters to ABC Inc and we’re doing everything we can to act quickly and responsibly.’ Getting as positive a message as possible over is what matters right now. Repeating positive words will help that.
8. Work with short sentences
You can only get roasted when you’ve said something stupid. And you’re more likely to say something silly if you keep talking. Decide what you want to say and keep it succinct. And keep on saying it. A sound-bite, something which sums up what you’ve said in one or two sentences is a must. And preferably you’ll have a couple up your sleeve.
9. Say it again
A journalist doesn’t ask the same question twice because they are stupid. They ask the same question twice because you haven’t answered it well and they are giving you a second chance to do better. Or because they want to see if you’re consistent. Just remember Jeremy Paxman’s famous 12 repetitions of the question ‘did-you-or-did-you-not-threaten-to over-rule-him’ to Michael Howard.
Don’t use notes. You should know what your organization’s doing, be able to apologize without a sheaf of paper (we’ll see you trembling) and stay on message without documents. If you’re in a radio studio you’ll rustle, and you’ll sound as if you’re reading what’s been written unless you’re an actor.
In short, the main thing to do is to keep talking. If there’s a communication vacuum, someone will fill it because news is a product that keeps on selling. And selling in ever greater quantities. That means being aware of what’s happening not only across traditional media outlets like TV, radio and print. But being across influential blogs and the Twittersphere too. Because if you don’t own your media real-estate someone else will. And they have no interest in getting it right on your behalf.
You have to do that instead.
Photo credit: The Eggplant via Visualhunt.com / CC BY-ND