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.

Ebola Crisis Communications Lesson: Ask for Help

EBOLA webinar Gerard BraudOf all the Power Point presentations by his leadership team members, the CEO only stood and applauded the vice president who showed he was having difficulties in his division, when the other vice presidents showed rainbows and green lights. The company was millions in debt with falling sales and the CEO knew that everyone who painted a rosy picture was either a liar or delusional. The one who asked for help was the star.

A colleague shared this story supporting my premise in yesterday’s Ebola communication considerations blog. In the blog I suggested that public relations, marketing, media relations and crisis communication professionals will not be fired if they ask for help. Instead, your CEO and leadership team will respect you for telling the truth and knowing that your truth may save the reputation and revenue of your organization.

Crisis communication workshop gerard braudThe field of communications is misunderstood, even by the C-Suite. Many CEOs and executives hire one person to manage their image. They expect publicity. Often the CEO will hire a marketing specialist, never realizing that marketing is not public relations, media relations, or crisis communications. Sadly, many with MBAs don’t really understand the differences either.

Even in public relations, many do not realize how difficult it is to be a crisis communication expert. The expert is the one who prepares on a clear sunny day for what might happen on your darkest day. At the university level, most public relations classes touch on crisis communication as an evaluation of how well you manage the media after a crisis erupts. That is outdated and flawed. Preparation = professionalism.

Fearing reprisal from their leadership, some people in our allied fields would rather try to disguise their lack of knowledge and expertise rather than asking for help. But in the C-Suite, the reality is the boss wants you to speak up and say, “I need help. This is beyond my level of expertise.” Most people in the C-Suite, while never wanting to spend money they don’t have to spend, realize that getting help from an expert could preserve their reputation and revenue.

Don’t try to fake it. That will ultimately cost you your job, as well as the company’s reputation and revenue.

Never be afraid to say, “I don’t know the answer to that.”

Ask for help.

If you’d like some FREE help, join me on Friday, October 17, 2014 for a free webinar that explores what you need to do today to prepare for your possible Ebola communications tomorrow. Register here.

 

– By Gerard Braud

Crisis Communication Leadership: Power of a Resignation

It is always a good thing in crisis management when the person at the top says, “The buck stops here,” and they are willing to resign because a significant crisis happened under their watch.

Listen to my opinion with Radio Host Kate Delaney:

 

This does 2 things. From a public relations and crisis communications standpoint it:

1) Sends a strong signal that someone is being held responsible

2) It communicates that change is coming

Julia Pierson, a 31 year secret service veteran resigned as head of the President’s protection agency as a result of an increasing number of secret service failures.

A true leader demonstrates good character by stepping down when they are unable to manage a crisisJulia Pierson and when the crisis gets worse. Some of the scandals and shortcomings happened before Pierson took the job. But she was also appointed to clean up the agency last year after the Cartagena, Colombia prostitute scandal in 2012.

Before she could even start to clean up the previous scandal, three secret service agents responsible for protecting the President in Amsterdam were sent home for being drunk. One was reportedly passed out in the hallway of their hotel. Pierson, as leader, put the agents on administrative leave.

But when Omar Gonzalez jumped the fence and got inside the White House, it became clear that too many problems were happening too fast. At the same time a story broke about a November 11, 2011 incident in which a man parked his car on a street near the White House and reportedly fired a semiautomatic rifle multiple times, hitting the building.

Too many security lapses means somebody needs to take the heat for the ongoing crises.

I’ve written many blogs in the past few weeks about the NFL scandals and the need for Roger Goodell to demonstrate he has leadership by admitting his repeated failings and stepping aside. Julia Pierson is a leadership role model for crisis communications and crisis management. Goodell would be well served to learn from her example.

When a crisis strikes where you work, a good leader makes the crisis go away and communicates what happened and what changes are on the horizon. Often your job in public relations is to be the one to support the leader and guide them to make the right decisions.

By Gerard Braud