People first: How a murder shaped my crisis practice

As I strap on my roller skates after an intense close to 2018, I started thinking about the first-ever crisis I handled professionally – and what’s changed since that time.

It was January 1985, and I was both a newly minted college graduate and news bureau director of my alma mater. Classes were preparing to resume for winter semester when we got the news: a student had been killed in off-campus housing over the holiday break.

The University of Tennessee campus I attended was in a rural corner of the state, 50 miles away from the nearest TV station and more than two hours from the major media markets of Nashville and Memphis. Our community was served by a weekly newspaper, not a daily, along with a few radio stations that made a half-hearted pass at news that was ag-related.

Yet we found ourselves in the bullseye of media across the state that dark Monday morning as television crews raced to our campus in Martin to report on murder in our bucolic community. I went to the office of my boss, who had graduated at the same time as I had. We were both in positions for which we had no real experience. My previous boss had been fired six weeks after I started working for him, so his job was split into two – and I happened to be in that proverbial right place at the right time.

I was unprepared to deal with communicating the death of one of our students. My journalism training kicked in, and I brought what few details we knew about the situation to my new boss. I was entirely unprepared for his response: Tell the media he’s not a student.

Technically, that was true. He HAD failed to register for winter quarter – but that was because he had been beaten to death for making a pass at another guy and left for dead in his apartment just as Christmas break had started. Prior to that, though, he had been a junior studying agriculture and had not missed a quarter since starting his studies with us.

I pointed all this out, noting it would be disingenuous to say he wasn’t enrolled when we had every reason to believe he WOULD have been – if only.

My boss would not budge: Tell the media he’s not a student.

Heated words were exchanged, and I pushed back as much as I could, but at the end of that conversation, I went out and prepared the statement he wanted.

As you can imagine, the media had a field day. What would have been a one-day (perhaps two) story in the major media markets of Memphis or Nashville turned into a week-long sideshow as TV cameras roamed the campus with reporters interviewing students, faculty, staff and townies to piece together the truth.

My boss became more agitated as the week progressed and still the cameras lingered. While I don’t recall saying “I told you so,” I’m sure that was written all too clearly across my face. Panicking, he directed me to gin up a few positive stories that would distract the media from the murder – which I did, and which failed miserably, earning us another slice of media derision.

Our campus community survived that media onslaught. Eventually, the camera crews turned their attention elsewhere, and we were left to pick up the pieces: Of a family who felt betrayed by their son’s university for disowning him. Of students who wondered if their school would do the same to them. Of faculty and staff, who were disgusted by our response.

More than three decades later, I’m still amazed when organizations and individuals respond to a crisis with that same knee-jerk reaction. It takes so much time to build a brand or reputation, yet only minutes and an ill-advised response to destroy it.

My approach to managing crises was, in large part, forged by that first and largest of failures:

  • Acknowledge, apologize and explain. In more than 30 years of managing crises and issues of all stripes and sizes, I’ve never seen one where this simple formula doesn’t work. First, you need to acknowledge what happened – which sounds pretty basic, but not always done. Second, you need to apologize for your role. This often makes my attorney-friends nervous, but it’s the right thing to do. And third, you need to explain the steps you’re taking to ensure, to the best of your abilities, the situation won’t happen again. We failed on all three accounts – and paid a heavy price in the media.
  • Put people first. Always, always, ALWAYS start with the affected person or people at the heart of your response. Take the first minute to be human. Ask how the injured party is doing, what needs she or he may have, what the prognosis is, how the family is holding up. Yes, you have work to do to communicate – but never forget why you are doing so.
  • Start from the inside and work your way out. The media is never, ever, EVER the most important audience in a crisis situation. They may be the most demanding, intense and in-your-face, but in priority order, they’re Pluto. Start with your innermost audiences – think employees, shareholders, donors, volunteers, all those people who make your organization tick. Reach out to them first, working your way outward on the relationship ring until you get to the media. If you’ve done your job right, all those closest to you will have heard the news from you first.
  • Avoid parsing. Sure, choose your words carefully, but don’t parse them. If you start hearing yourself or someone else say, “yes, but technically,” stop them right there. You will be doing your client – and yourself – an immense favor. Just ask Bill Clinton.
  • Don’t distract. While the glare of klieg lights can be painful, own it. Ride it out. Don’t try to fabricate “good news” to distract from the bad. While this attention feels as if it might last forever, it won’t – and then you can get back to doing the good work you do.
  • Remember who’s the victim. Organizations are never victims. Don’t try to behave as one or equate whatever short-term pain you might be feeling to the longer-term damage individual people are going through.
  • Remember who you are. Behave in a manner in keeping with your brand in both good times and in bad. Just because your hair may be on fire doesn’t give you carte blanche to behave wildly or poorly. Be who you have been all along – and know your stakeholders are watching intently.
  • Push back. When someone on your team recommends an approach or a tactic you know in your heart is not the right call, don’t acquiesce – push back. Advocate for the path you know is right. Speak up – even if you’re the only one doing so.

collaboration in crisis

While some things have changed about my practice, many things have stayed the same – particularly the admonition to put people first in any crisis situation. I’ve shared portions of the above story with various clients in the last few weeks as we work with them on communication issues related to a number of high-profile headaches. Perhaps I’m more forceful these days – or perhaps cautionary tales like the above resonate when you have 30-plus years of experience, and more than a little gray hair, behind your words.

In either case, I appreciate being able to spare current clients from the mistakes of my first crisis encounter.




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