Things go wrong. It’s the first law of media. Everyone from the Prime Minister’s media secretary to the local shire council president has made major gaffes and will continue to make them. There are also events outside of your control that you will need to respond to and contain. The way in which an organisation is seen to deal with an issue or crisis will often be remembered long after the issue or crisis itself.
Effective issues management can prevent mistakes becoming overwhelming crises.
Perceptions rule – and the media rule them. Negative stories can impact on an organisation’s reputation and the goodwill of stakeholders very quickly, and recovery will take much longer if the issue isn’t dealt with effectively. Obviously, being heard and clearly understood by stakeholders is essential – that’s why it is important to have coordinated, consistent messages.
If you have a crisis, you must respond quickly, authoritatively and appropriately. You have to get on the front foot and take charge, not be defensive or evasive. Refusing to answer your phone is not a response! If you’re panicking and need to take a breather, make sure you have someone answering the phones and letting media know that you will get back to them as soon as you have a response. If media know they will be alerted when you are ready to talk, it prevents them from calling you repeatedly – a good thing for you and your staff! You have to fill the vacuum, even if you don’t have a lot to say. A full response should in almost all cases be made on the same day, and usually within one to two hours of the crisis.
Here are the rules to employ in the eye of the storm: (Hopefully) you’ve prepared for this moment with a crisis plan. Take a deep breath, reach for it, then…
Get the facts.
Keep your cool. Make sure you don’t sound or appear hysterical or flustered when speaking to media or to your staff – they will be looking to you for an explanation or guidance.
Use media attention as an opportunity to keep it classy by taking responsibility and maintaining composure.
Media will not simply go away. If you seek to downplay a genuine issue it will exacerbate the situation.
Expect the unexpected, from cameras in the foyer, to scathing criticism on your organisation’s Twitter feed, and online stories filed immediately on the issue. Don’t fight fire with fire and be overly reactive in your response.
Address the crisis with a sense of urgency and an awareness of government and media deadlines. A fast response minimises the risk of uninformed statements by MPs/sponsors/business partners who are caught off-guard and not fully briefed on the issue.
Develop basic key messages and stick to them. Show concern, action and perspective.
Put the safety and wellbeing of people, especially your staff and stakeholders, before everything else.
Be honest. Media can smell a rat.
Don’t speculate, don’t apportion blame, don’t guess, don’t comment on legal matters, and don’t speak off the record.
Counter inaccuracies, speculation and misunderstandings as quickly as possible. Media monitoring is crucial. With online stories getting filed almost instantaneously, the quicker you can correct a factual inaccuracy, the fewer people will read it.
Bring in extra resources and logistical support as required. For example, you need to log all media queries and requests.
Speak to the people watching and listening at home, not just the journalists; they’ll appreciate everyday language over management jargon.
Don’t rely on media to communicate with key stakeholders. Contact them directly and provide an avenue for them to ask questions and gain any information they need.
Materials must be updated regularly. Put your statement on your website or social media, and provide any updates there.
Ensure all media contact is channeled through public affairs, so everyone is receiving the same information.
Legal advice is important but so is media advice – you’re facing trial by the court of public opinion.
The most senior executive available should front the media and be seen to be taking responsibility, in charge, and in control.
If possible, consider doing one-on-one interviews to avoid the pack mentality of an all-in press conference.
Whenever possible, communicate with your own staff before the media.
Accompany media conferences with short written statements to ensure messages are delivered. This will also be a useful way of getting your messages out to your own staff and stakeholders.
Once the dust has settled and you’re out of the crisis zone, there are a few things you must do before you can congratulate yourself on not becoming crisis road kill:
Follow up! If you promised to change the operations that got you into the crisis in the first place, make those changes, then inform your stakeholders and publics. This will add credibility to your organisation.
De-brief internally about what you nailed, what you botched, and what you could have done better. It’s okay to make mistakes IF you learn from them; update your crisis plan accordingly so you’re better prepared next time.
Examine data and metrics – sales, social and media mentions – to ascertain the effects of the crisis. This could be consoling, or if the effects are drastic you’ll be motivated to be better prepared for future crises.