When “It Hits the Fan: Effective Communications for Critical Times

By Gerard Braud

The need for crisis communication has never been greater. The need for speed in crisis communications has never been greater.

Williams ExplosionThe reality is that if you experience an incident that the public knows about, you should be communicating to them about it in one hour or less. The biggest problem with this one hour benchmark is that in a world with Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, that is still 59 minutes too long.

Look at this photograph. What do you see? Yes, those are workers running from a fireball as it is still rising. What else do you notice? Yes, when everyone should be moving toward safety someone stopped to snap a picture with a cell phone.

This event eventually claimed two lives and resulted in more than 100 reported injuries.

Williams FB pageWithin minutes of the photo being taken, workers built a complete Facebook page about the event. Meanwhile, the company took nearly three hours to issue the first news release. Other than the time of the event, there was nothing in that statement that was newsworthy or that could not have been written and approved three years before the event. It was boiler plate language. By the time it was released, the media and the public already knew every detail.

When “it” hits the fan in the age of social media, you have the option to control the flow of accurate information by releasing details faster than ever before. If you fail to do this you surrender control of the story to the general public, who may or may not have accurate information.

Granted, human resources needs to communicate with the families of the dead and injured. Granted, lawyers will want to avoid giving ammunition to the plaintiff’s attorney in your statement. Granted, facts need to be gathered by the home office. Granted, state police are acting as the primary spokespeople under a NIMS agreement.

But will you also grant this? The photo on Facebook and the Facebook page are providing more information to the public, the media, and plaintiff’s attorney than the official source is. And NIMS can provide a law officer to discuss evacuations, but a state trooper cannot express the necessary empathy that families need to hear, nor can they communicate the contrition that a community needs to hear.

What should you do? How can you get the upper hand?

Step one is to have an effective crisis communications plan that facilitates the fast gathering of information about any incident, combined with the fast dissemination of the details to key decision makers.

Step two is to have a “First Critical Statement” document in your crisis communications plan. The First Critical Statement is a fill-in-the-blank document that can be modified in five minutes and then posted to your corporate website, emailed to all employees, emailed to all media, read to the media at a news conference if needed, and also used as a link on your corporate social media sites.

(Get a free sample and use the coupon code CRISISCOMPLAN)

Step three is to write a library of pre-written news releases with a more in depth system of fill-in-the-blank and multiple-choice options. Such news releases can be written on a clear sunny day, months or years before you will ever need to use them. The goal of the document is to answer every question you might be asked about a specific incident – ranging from fires and explosions, to workplace violence, to executive misbehavior. The pre-written nature of the release allows your leaders and legal teams to proofread the templates and pre-approve them. This saves time on the day of your incident. Usually, the pre-written document can be edited within ten minutes and approved nearly as fast. Once it is ready to use, it can be your script for a news conference, a post to your corporate website, an e-mail to all media and employees, plus a link on social media.

Check your calendar: It’s 2015. Check your computer and smartphone: Social media amplifies everything the public sees or thinks. Check your decision-making: It is time for you to have a modernized fast moving crisis communications plan.

The bottom line is that your reputation and revenue depend upon it.

3 Questions to Ask about the Intersection of Crisis Management, Crisis Communication, and Crisis Communications Plans: The NFL

By Gerard Braud

rayrice apAnother crisis management and crisis communication lesson plays out in the NFL as the Associated Press reports the NFL had a copy of the videotape showing Ray Rice punching his fiance in the face.

This exposes a crisis management and crisis communication weakness found in many organizations, which either involves leaders intentionally covering up a crisis or the crisis management team not fully sharing information. This prevents everyone from connecting the dots in a way that results in the best resolution of the crisis and full, honest communications about that resolution.

Here are three questions you can ask today to have a better crisis management and crisis communications plan.

1) When a crisis unfolds, do you have a central hub within the crisis management team in which all information is collected and disseminated to the key decision makers? If there is or was such a system within the NFL, a videotape of the punch would have been shared with the crisis management team. If there is and was a system, then we have a case of unethical behavior, personified by a cover-up and possible lies in media interviews by Roger Goodell.

2) Does your crisis communications plan have a predetermined list of questions that you will ask in every crisis so that everyone is always on the same page? This is one of the most powerful tools you can have and a vital part of all of the crisis communications plans I write.

3) Is there conflict in your organization because ethical decisions about a crisis often take a backseat to legal arguments by lawyers or financial arguments from the CFO? Those arguments often result in everyone taking a vow of silence so the organization doesn’t get sued, resulting in a loss of reputation and revenue. This is the job of communication experts in the room: Connect the dots for everyone else. Focus on the long-term reputational and financial health of the organization by doing the right thing and not the most convenient thing in the short-term.

Smoldering crises like the NFL Ray Rice case often cause various leaders to connect the dots only in a way that is immediately best for their interest, rather than in a way that is best for the long-term health of the organization, its leaders, and in many cases, the victims of the crisis.

Rayrice blog gerard braudFor example, in the case of Penn State, we saw the university fail to expose the crime of sexual abuse out of fear of reputational damage and a loss of revenue. This short-term failure resulted in more boys being victims of sexual abuse, greater reputational harm, a larger financial loss, and top leaders being fired.

In the case of the NFL, many experts believe the only reason the NFL has taken a tough stand on concussions is because of a lawsuit that would damage their reputation and lead to a huge financial loss if the lawsuit went to trial. It was not done years ago when it could have been.

When powerful people hide the facts from the world, as a way to avoid reputational and revenue loss in a crisis, you are witnessing unethical behavior in a crisis. In most cases the secret becomes public, executives get fired, the institution’s reputation is damaged, and revenue is lost. Stay tuned to see what happens with the NFL.

Media Training and Crisis Communications Tip: Reporters Will Interview Anyone Who Will Talk (Who Are Often People with No Teeth and Live in Trailers)

Let’s be respectful here and realize that many poor people don’t have either dental insurance or the ability to pay out of pocket for dental care. And let’s realize that while hoping to someday fulfill the dream of home ownership, many people live in an affordable alternative – a mobile home.

Let’s also recognize that many of these people are in lower income brackets and therefore also tend to live near industrial facilities where the more affluent members of society may work, but do not live.Crisis-Communication-Plan-In-Action-Braud Communications

With all of that out of the way, let me acknowledge that when I was a journalist, people would actually ask me, “Why do reporters always interview people with no teeth who live in trailers?”

The answer was, because when the industrial facility blew up, no one from the company would agree to an interview with us. The people living near the facility were the only eye witnesses and they were willing to speak.

If you work for a company that has a crisis, you have the responsibility to provide a spokesperson as soon as the media arrives. Usually the media will be on site within 30 minutes to an hour, depending upon the crisis. And as more media outlets become dependent upon web based audiences, their need for news is even more immediate.

Reporters need facts and quotes and they are going to get them from somewhere. It is their job to get interviews and their job is on the line if they do not deliver.

If you don’t give the information to the reporter, the reporter will go get it from someone else and that someone else will likely not represent your point of view.

And as the age of Social Media and web based tools expands, more and more media outlets are dependent upon digital photos and video taken by eyewitnesses. A simple cell phone is capable of doing an enormous amount of reputational damage by providing the media with pictures and video.

So what do you do?

First you need to establish policy and practices that insure you have a spokesperson ready to respond at a moment’s notice.

Secondly, you need to have a crisis communications plan that contains a vast array of pre-written statements designed to address all of the many crises your organization could face.

With those two things, a spokesperson should be able to pull a pre-written template out of the crisis communications plan and walk out to the media to deliver that statement. It also allows your organization to post the template to the web, email it to the media, employees and other key audiences.

Even if you only have partial facts, your organization still needs to make a statement. And it is critical that the statement is delivered by a person and not just issued on paper or via the web. The human element is critical in gaining the trust of the media, employees and other key audiences. A written statement is simply a cold cluster of words.

In my world, the spokesperson should be able to deliver the statement live within one hour or less. It should never be longer than an hour and hopefully much sooner than an hour.

One of the biggest delays in issuing statements is the lengthy process of waiting of executives and lawyers to approve a statement. This delay should be eliminated with the pre-written statements. The statements should be pre-approved by executives and the legal department so that the public relations or communications department can issue statements quickly.

Certain portions of the template must be fill-in-the-blank, and the communications department must be authorized to fill in the blanks with information such as time, date, and other critical facts. Executives and lawyers need to establish a trusting relationship with the communications department so that they help speed up the process rather than hinder and delay the communications process.

When you follow these simple steps, you begin to manipulate the media because you are meeting their wants, needs and desires. You also become their friend. The more you can provide the media with information, the less need they have to interview an ill informed eyewitness who is thrilled to have their 15 minutes of fame. The more you can occupy the media’s time, the less time they have to spend interviewing people with no teeth who live in a trailer.

Check out my 2-day crisis communications plan course: You will knock out your plan and templates so your organization is never ill-represented in the media.