I’ve been asked to teach a one-day workshop at a local university this fall on Communicating in a Crisis so I’ve been spending hours reviewing my notes and materials from the many high profile events that I’ve worked on over the years. I’ve written in the past about the three things the public expects to hear in a crisis. They are; I’m sorry, I’ve fixed it, it’s never going to happen again. Those refer specifically to the event that has caused the crisis.
Here are three more essential actions that every organization needs to do when a crisis presents itself;
1. Act quickly but not impulsively. The first things you do and say in a crisis will set the tone for everything that follows. The longer you delay in responding, the more you allow someone else to set the agenda. Make sure, however, that your messages are sound. And don’t speculate.
2. Remember internal as well as external audiences. Employees can be your advocates or your enemies in a crisis. Keep them in the loop as much as you can. Also, if you already have a solid reputation among your stakeholders, be prepared to draw on your advocate army to help preserve that reputation.
3. Make every decision defensible. At some point the crisis will be over and you may be judged more on how you handled things than on what really happened. As chaotic and confusing as things may be when the crisis strikes, things will eventually calm down and the rebuilding of your reputation will begin. There may also be regulatory or customer fallout to deal with and decisions made during the crisis will be scrutinized.
When I was a journalist, I pretty much believed that everyone had an obligation to answer my questions. In the grand tradition of 60 Minutes, people were assumed to be guilty unless they could come out of an interview unscathed. Back then, mainstream media was a major conduit to a company’s stakeholders so, like it or not, CEO’s often had to put themselves under the media spotlight. But things have changed. Now, there are many more ways to connect with stakeholders. And frankly, reporters just aren’t as scary as they used to be.
Since crossing over to the dark side, I have worked with dozens of CEO’s to help them through both positive and negative media interviews. Less than a handful looked forward to the experience. A lot of my work is crisis communications and, contrary to conventional wisdom, presenting the CEO for a public flogging by the media is not always the best course of action.
So this post is for journalists, here are five good reasons why the CEO may not want to talk to you;
- It’s not free publicity. Reporters who think they are doing the CEO a favour by publicizing the company don’t understand marketing or public relations. Publicity is the distribution of a controlled message with measurable results. Unless it’s a start-up company with no track record, an ad hoc story isn’t of much value. The CEO doesn’t know which clip you’ll use or what context you’ll put it in which can be dangerous so he’ll probably hire someone like me to help develop messages and practice delivering them as answers to your questions. If you take a strange angle or misunderstand the business, there will be more work to communicate the real message to stakeholders. So your interview is anything but free publicity.
- It’s someone else’s job. You may think the buck stops on the CEO’s desk and in most respects it does. But companies have executive teams and it’s quite possible that someone else is better able to answer your questions. Although it might be fun for the reporter, no one in the company wants the CEO to look foolish and that can happen if he didn’t have daily involvement in the issue you’re asking about. There is also an implied importance attached to an issue when the CEO speaks and his availability (or lack of) may be a strategic decision. During a crisis, it may not be appropriate for the CEO to be the first to comment because that could make the situation appear more serious than it really is.
- You’ll get it wrong. You frequently do, much more than you realize. That’s understandable because there are very few beat reporters any more. Reporters might report on forestry, aerospace technology and the ballet all in one week. Your job is to simplify the story for a broad audience. Your generalizations may work for your readers or viewers but sometimes they have different implications for an industry audience. Your reporting errors may not be grievous enough for the CEO to demand a correction but they might be enough to affect the credibility of the company. I once knew a business reporter who complained about having to deal with “icky numbers”. Those numbers mean a lot to the CEO.
- Someone else is listening. Companies have competitors as do media outlets. A newspaper or TV station won’t phone its rival to discuss their main story that night so why would you expect a CEO to spill all of his or her secrets? Even general cover footage in a company plant can give competitors clues that might have major impact down the road. That’s why we often provide handout photos or video. The CEO might be in complex negotiations that his competitors are unaware of. There could be layoffs coming, restructuring or a major contract in the works. Companies time such announcements very carefully and don’t want details revealed inadvertently during an interview. Your scoop of leaked information lasts about a day but the repercussions for the CEO go on for a while.
- CEO’s have bosses too. They report to Boards of Directors, investors and shareholders. They also need to comply with sometimes strict and complex regulatory regimes set out by various governing bodies. A publically-traded company, for example, has to follow strict disclosure guidelines when it reveals any information that would affect its share price. And then there’s performance. A CEO needs to project confidence and leadership while reporters are often just trying to trip him up. If the reporter holds all the cards and there is more to lose than to win, why would a CEO talk to the media?
Over to you reporters, want to give me five good reasons why a CEO should talk to you?
I’ve written in the past about how Immediacy is a strong news value influencing the media scramble to get the latest details on breaking events. I’d like to expand on that theme a bit and explain why it matters to anyone who might get caught up in a breaking news story.
Let’s start with understanding why TV reporters are covering Hurricane Sandy by standing out in the elements while they tell everyone else to stay inside. It’s a stunt, meant to portray two news values that journalists hold dear. Being outside shows locality or proximity to the news and even if the weather gal is in the station’s parking lot she’s obvious out there “in the weather”.
The other news value being played out is immediacy. The weather reporter can look to the skies and tell us about the storm that appears to be rolling in. We get the impression that this must be the…
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A few years ago I was asked to speak to a firm about how they could better interact with their clients. Just recently I came across my speaking notes and the advice is just as valid now as it was then.
- Leave Your Ego at the Door
As an ex-journalist this one was hard for me. But good consulting is not about trying to impress the client with your knowledge and experience. Don’t keep selling after you’ve made the sale. It’s not about saying something smart and – most importantly – it’s not about how you would do it. It’s about how the client can do it and your job is to make that happen.
- Ask Questions Before Giving Answers
If you are at all good at what you do it doesn’t take much information to understand the problem and start to see a possible solution. There are two things wrong with that. The client may not tell you everything right away. Careful questioning will often reveal pertinent details that the client thought were not important. Also, more and more I find that text-book solutions don’t always fit real life problems. Find out as much information as you can and, whenever possible, take time to think about the client’s situation before recommending action.
- Sometimes, the Client is Right
As consultants we need to be as persuasive as possible with our advice BUT if the client chooses another path then it becomes our job is to make that path work (see tip number one). My expertise is in communication, coaching and reputation management, not business so I have to recognize there may be other factors that affect what the client is able to do. I also strive to be open to good ideas no matter which side of the boardroom table they come from.
- Better, Not Best
If you were building a house you wouldn’t keep messing with the foundation while the drywall was going in. By that I mean you must know when to move on and stop revisiting the same issues. Accept the decided course of action even if you believe it’s not the best and try to make it work. If you do performance coaching, as I do, you must also understand when to switch from Teaching to Training. I work my clients to high standards but when they are about to do a speech or an interview I am most concerned with instilling confidence.
The journalism world can’t stop talking about Britain’s latest scandal which involved the hacking of a teenage murder victim’s phone messages. The scandal has already resulted in the demise of one of Britain’s oldest tabloid newspapers, The News of the World. There have been several criminal charges. There have been resignations of news executives and even of the head of Scotland Yard. The British government has started two investigations that may change the face of journalism in England, North America and Australia.
It’s a major crisis, amplified by two things; a slow summer news cycle and journalists’ hatred and mistrust of all things Rupert Murdoch. Reporters (and many politicians) have long been having fits over Murdoch’s right-leaning media outlets such as Fox News. In Britain, he was regarded with fear and suspicion by all aspiring political leaders.
I’m reluctant to write about a story that still has so many scenes to play out but others have already begun to comment on how the crisis is being handled. In doing so, they confuse the illegalities that may have been committed with the crisis response. To what extent Murdoch or his companies are guilty is a different issue than how they handle the allegations. Here are five things he did right in trying to bring the crisis under control;
- He acted quickly. By shutting down The News of the World, he eliminated a target of outrage and was seen to be doing something proactive to fix the situation. Many have questioned his real motive but the newspaper that is alleged to have committed the illegal and egregious acts is no more. He can make the case that it will never happen again.
- He didn’t act too quickly. Many were demanding that he fire his UK newspaper head Rebekah Brooks on the day the scandal broke. But throwing a high ranking executive under the bus early only makes people demand the head of the next highest executive and that’s what happened as the attention shifted to his son and heir-apparent James Murdoch. But when it was clear Brooks would be arrested, of course she had to go.
- He apologized sincerely. In an unprecedented move, he visited the family most affected by the phone hacking scandal in person to say he was sorry. The family’s lawyer described Murdoch as “humbled” and “shaken” and confirmed that he apologized many times to the family. Remember the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico? Instead of visiting the fishermen whose livelihood was destroyed, CEO Tony Hayward retreated to his private yacht and complained that he wanted his “life back”.
- He’s working with authorities to fix the situation. Both Murdoch and son James agreed to appear before lawmakers and answer questions. Yes, he initially refused but that was the lawyers talking. Things changed when he hired multinational PR firm Edelman Communications. Lawyers worry about liability, crisis communicators worry about credibility.
- He hired professionals. When a crisis hits CEO’s run to their lawyers and that is obviously what Murdoch did as well. As things worsened, however, it became apparent that the reputational damage to him and to his companies could be huge. He turned to communications professionals and the strategy changed from avoidance to accepting responsibility. Lawyers don’t like apologies because they indicate culpability but they are a first step to rebuilding reputation.