When I was a reporter at The Grand Rapids Press, I covered a lot of crisis situations – and have since realized that I may have been perceived as the cause of a few.
During my tenure on the business desk, I reported on union drives, embezzlements, shareholder unrest, plant closings, CEO ousters, bankruptcy filings, lawsuits, labor strikes, food recalls and on and one and on, it seemed. Most were short-lived, but a few – the UAW walkout that shut down GM in the summer of 1998 and the Bil-Mar meat recall later that year – stretched out for months.
When I transitioned to the “other” side of the desk in 1999 and restarted my PR career, in large part prompted by six months of reporting on tainted hot dogs, I realized that my coverage of these issues actually became part of the crisis for the companies involved. “Handling” the media was a key part of their response, as was “minimizing” the issue to a one-day story.
There’s no denying that bad things happen to good people and companies. And there’s no denying that everyone makes mistakes. When those two things collide, companies can compound their trauma by botching their communications.
I watched that truism in action over and over when I was a journalist – and it continues to inform the counsel my team and I provide on the PR side.
As my team knows, I am fond of saying, when your hair is on fire, you can’t think about anything else but the fact your hair is on fire. And you’re really no good to yourself or others at that point – you need to have someone come in, put the fire out and help you put the pieces back together.
That’s where having outside communication support can be invaluable. We help clients take that much-needed deep breath before diving headlong into the issue. We start with the basics: getting accurate information about the who, what, when, where and how of the issue.
We then move on to another set of who – who needs to know? All too often, I see companies prioritize the media as the first audience to be addressed. But I’m here to tell you that the media are never, ever the most important audience in a crisis – even if they may be the loudest, the most insistent and pounding on your door as you read this.
That’s because the media cameras and lights will go away – but your key stakeholders won’t. Your employees, shareholders, neighbors, community partners and others who are vital to your operation are watching you very intensely during a crisis. You need to pay attention to them first and make sure you are communicating with your stakeholders BEFORE you talk with the media.
I remember reading – and being horrified by – a communication plan for a client shortly after I moved from The Press to a local PR agency. This particular client had thought through a lot of the common crisis issues that the company might face, taking great care detailing how to handle them from an operations standpoint.
But when it came to communication, the crisis plan had a brief directive: Communicate through the media. Share news releases with them and let them reach your audiences for you.
I hope that it goes without saying that an organization should always be in control of its message. If you do not frame your story, someone else will do it for you. And if you do not share your story, someone else will do it for you – and far too often get it wrong. Really wrong.
In crafting a crisis message, be sure to lean on who you are as an organization. Your voice at this moment should be a continuation of the voice your stakeholders have come to know and to respect. In the heat of the moment, don’t forget who you are.
One of the first client crises I handled after leaving the paper involved allegations of sexual assault against a child who was disabled. The two partners who owned the agency called me, breathless, on a Friday night as I was settling into a long weekend with friends. They shared the details that they knew, then paused and asked me what I thought we should do.
My first question: How is the child doing?
Silence. In all the questions they had asked the client, they forgot this most basic one.
Even when your hair is on fire, never forget your humanity.