Plan, Know Your Role & Listen: PRSA-NCC’s “Is It Really a Crisis?”

By Kelsey Pospisil, News Generation

From left to right: Susan Apgood, Maureen Donahue Hardwick, Nick Peters and Jim Moorhead

Pictured from left to right: Susan Apgood, Maureen Donahue Hardwick, Nick Peters and Jim Moorhead

“Crisis” may mean one thing to one PR pro, and one thing to another. How do you most accurately get a pulse on a situation to know how to react? How can you ensure ahead of time that your team is ready to handle it? These questions and more were the focus of the April 19 Professional Development panel, “Is It Really a Crisis? How to Define a Crisis and When to React.” Moderated by Susan Apgood of News Generation, panelists Maureen Donahue Hardwick of Drinker Biddle & Reath LLP, Jim Moorhead of Burson-Marsteller, and Nick Peters of CommCore Consulting Group shared their tips on evaluating and navigating a crisis.

CommCore’s Nick Peters started the session by offering some key advice: going over lessons learned after a crisis is absolutely essential, determine if a crisis is in fact a crisis, and know ahead of time who you sector is, who your stakeholders are, and who your audience is. Peters stressed that just because you determine a situation is a containable emergency, doesn’t mean there isn’t a potential long-term reputational issue based on perception rather than facts.

Maureen Hardwick of Drinker Biddle & Reath said that as a lawyer herself, it’s important for lawyers to be comfortable with crisis communication in order to truly be partners with clients. There are things to prepare and understand in advance, before something big hits. She suggested engaging and partnering with professionals who know what they’re talking about beforehand. Jim Moorhead of Burson-Marsteller gave three best practices to follow in a crisis situation: Figure out what the real threat is, think outside in, and speed kills. Moorhead says that clients need to know three things: “Am I going to be okay,” “Is the situation under control” and “Are you doing the right thing?”

All three panelists stressed the importance of having a set, prepared team in place ahead of time. Have a team who knows their roles before a crisis hits. Peters said the determination of whether something is a crisis or not may or may not always be clear, and that the composition of the crisis team is critical. He suggests a cross-functional crisis team to include HR, Programs, Legal, the Executive Suite, the Communications team, and IT. Hardwick said, “If everyone has the client’s interest in mind, it’s only in our best interest to work better together.” Moorhead suggested the use of pre-approved statements, at least as a general guide, which would then need to be tailored to the particular circumstance.

Crisis Panel

Pictured from left to right: Susan Apgood, Maureen Donahue Hardwick, Nick Peters and Jim Moorhead

Moderator Susan Apgood asked the panelists what tools they would suggest for the audience to help in their crisis communications plans. Peters suggested a literal wheel that contains every single channel, and who is responsible for each channel. He also suggested a decision tree that states if Joe is not available, then Joanne will do it, and if Joanne is not available then Bill will do it. Finally, he suggested having a dark website that can go up immediately in the event of a crisis.

Moorhead emphasized the benefits of survey research – getting to the right community and understanding what people’s perceptions are. You’ll find out: What are effective messages? How would your opponents respond to those messages? What messages work the best in this situation? Who is the best messenger? Hardwick highlighted the importance of being aware of how people are taking information. Be compassionate, honest and interactive – give people a way to comment and be understood. Or in other words, listen to them. There are no downsides to listening, while there are a lot of downsides to talking too much.

Lessons From Flint: Where Crisis and Ethics Intersect

In January, the nation watched in shock as news of a man-made public health crisis unfolded in Flint, Michigan. Authorities knew there were dangerous levels of lead in tap water, threatening the health and development of thousands of children, and they did nothing about it for more than 18 months. This revelation has us all wondering whether our own tap water is safe, and it has PR people wondering, how could this happen?

ethics2Lots of factors contributed to the operational crisis in Flint, creating a perfect recipe for disaster: an aggressive water, lead pipes, a lack of treatment, a lack of data collection and a lack of communication. Though many communities have lead pipes, they don’t have the other factors to deal with, and so another operational disaster like Flint is unlikely. What is likely, however, is another similar PR disaster. Why? Discrimination, social injustice, and at its most basic – ethics.

It’s a cautionary tale. To avoid reputational damage, financial loss and litigation, brands think they need to erase their errors, spin their shortcomings or co-opt the conversation. On the contrary, the key to a long-standing trusted, profitable brand is honesty, transparency and, of course, an ethical approach.

Profits Over People

At the heart of the Flint crisis, which is at the heart of most crises organizations face, is a question of allegiance. Most organizations put their allegiance entirely to their brand. Why? Because they fear loss of profit and reputational damage if they don’t. Protect the brand is what we PR people are hired to do. Or is it?

Actually, the number one ethical principle underlying the practice of public relations is to “act in the public interest.” Simply put, that means our allegiance, if we’re working ethically, is first to the greater good for the majority of people and then to the brand we represent.

Stop and consider that. Are you acting in the interest of the greater good? Does your organization put the public interest before their brand? In perhaps the most famous, and sadly one of very few, cases where a company actually did, was Tylenol. In the early 80s, they recalled 100 percent of their product when they learned that criminal tampering had led to seven deaths. The action cost them $100 million and loss of market share. More than 30 years later, Tylenol is still at the top of the pain relief market, and remains the poster child – the exception to the rule – for crisis management.

Crimes vs Mistakes

What happened in Flint was a crime. So, from a PR perspective, the options aren’t great. If you found out tomorrow your organization had committed a crime or purposefully misled its stakeholders, which, in turn caused damage, what would you do? Make no mistake, this is a watershed moment in your career. If your savings account permits, it’s an easy answer. You can walk away. But how likely is that the option we have? If you can’t quit, can you convince your organization to fess up and do the right thing? Moreover, do you have the strength and stomach to guide them through it? Is your organization willing? Do they even agree they have done wrong?

Many companies are either unwilling to admit wrongdoing or their lawyers will preclude it. Lawyers rarely even allow clients to say sorry because they say it is an admittance of guilt. In all other aspects of humanity, we know that saying sorry is an act of empathy, and the first step towards receiving forgiveness. Situations like Flint, with a breach of ethics so bold, pose a tough decision for PR people. It’s hard for a brand to recover from an outright crime and the PR person who stays to help them through it will undoubtedly test or breach the tenets of our Code of Ethics. At least for an innocent mistake, there’s hope. This is where the value proposition of PR comes in.

PR’s Value Proposition

Odds are in your favor if leading up to an event like this, you have built a long-lasting, enduring program of proactive public relations with ongoing, two-way engagement between your organization and the people on whom its success depends. Assuming you have built this kind of program, and your organization puts the public interest ahead of its own, you have a fighting chance. So when a crisis hits whether self-made or by accident, here’s the drill:

Step One: Be first to admit what you did, and, show regret and empathy.

Step Two: Describe in detail how you will fix it and prevent a recurrence, then over deliver on that promise.

Step Three: Do everything you said, and make sure everyone knows.

Very easily said. How these three steps get accomplished is not so easy and a Blog unto itself. Timing, credibility of spokesperson(s), word choice, nonverbal behavior and of course – the enterprise-wide operational feat of making things right again – is a formidable endeavor. But, as Tylenol proved, it’s always the right one if a full recovery is to be realized.

PR can’t fix bad behavior. Only good behavior can do that. PR can only reveal. It’s a lesson for us all. When you put the greater good as your focus, and let transparency be your guide, you will always come out right. But put your brand first like Flint did and you will end up meeting the destiny you fought so hard to avoid.

 

Samantha Villegas, APR

President

SaVi PR, LLC

Jesse Jackson’s Brilliant Apology

Jesse Jackson

Last week, former congressman, Jesse Jackson Jr., was charged with conspiracy, making false statements, and mail and wire fraud. This is serious stuff, requiring a serious statement. Fortunately, Jackson has a brilliant lawyer, who issued the following apology on his client’s behalf:

Over the course of my life I have come to realize that none of us are immune from our share of shortcomings and human frailties. Still I offer no excuses for my conduct and I fully accept my responsibility for the improper decisions and mistakes I have made. To that end I want to offer my sincerest apologies to my family, my friends and all of my supporters for my errors in judgment and while my journey is not yet complete, it my hope that I am remembered for things that I did right.

Leave aside the grammatical error (“none of us are” should be “none of us is”), as well as the semantic sloppiness (“all of my supporters” should be “all my supporters”) and lack of commas. The statement is succinct, thoughtful, and shrewd—especially when compared with how Jackson blundered his last spin in the crisis chair. This time around, the congressman nails it. Here’s how Jackson succeeded this time:

1. He begins with a Big Picture reflection that paints himself as an everyman. He says, in effect, “We all make mistakes.” Who could disagree with that?

2. He doesn’t point fingers or refer to extenuating circumstances. Instead, he embraces his culpability without qualification.

3. He doesn’t dance around the elephant. Instead, he walks straight up to it and apologizes, directly and earnestly.

4. He doesn’t rely on adjectives to make his point. Instead, he writes with nouns.

5. He closes by asking people to remember him for the good he’s done, and refrains from self-indulgently citing examples. This understated, upbeat note thus effectively shifts our final focus.

My only disagreement: Jackson’s misdeeds aren’t mere “errors of judgment,” as he claims. Self-dealing and theft are crimes.

Anyone can apologize. Indeed, we all do from time to time. But to do it well—to extinguish the fire rather than re-ignite it—ultimately requires the one thing that PR pros can’t fake: sincerity.

For example, in the past month alone, the Atlantic has apologized with frankness, humor, and transparency for its Scientology advertorial. Maker’s Mark has apologized with heart, brio, and class for almost diluting its bourbon. And a leading environmental activist has apologized with honesty and courage for spearheading the movement against genetically modified foods.

Study these examples, together with Jackson’s. Even if you’re not Larry David, chances are, you’re going to need to say “sorry” sooner or later.

Jonathan Rick is the president of the Jonathan Rick Group, a digital communications firm in Washington, DC. Follow him on Twitter @jrick.

A version of this blog post appeared in PR Daily.

4 Things Notre Dame Should Do about Manti Te’o’s Online Hoax

University of Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o certainly had a horrible end to 2012 and his New Year is shaping up to be no better.

First his online sweetheart Lennay Kekua succumbs to cancer on Sept. 12—the same day his grandmother dies. Then he finds out that neither the disease nor the girl was real and that he’d fallen in love with a figment of his imagination.

This situation wouldn’t have been so bad for Te’o if the story had remained among his immediate circle of friends. They’d tease him into infinity but he’d eventually get over it. Thanks to Deadspin.com, the whole world knows Te’o loved empty words and another woman’s stolen photo, and they think he was involved in the lie.

In his interview with Katie Couric, taped Jan. 22, Te’o admitted that someone posing as Kekua called him on Dec. 6. Though he knew something wasn’t right, he continued the ruse anyway to save face.  We don’t know for sure if he was in on the hoax the whole time or not (the levels of he-said she-said here are amazing). But if he wasn’t, how does he deal with massive embarrassment while trying to be a normal college student and athlete?

Notre Dame is probably wondering what they should do in this predicament, too. After all, the media refers to this debacle as the “Notre Dame hoax.” Is this a PR nightmare? Maybe not.

As head of Notre Dame’s public information office, here are four things my staff would do to mitigate the situation:

  1. Ask Te’o if he’s okay and offer him our support. The statement the university issued on Jan 16 was fine, but this story is just a student’s personal dilemma. The fact that he spoke publicly about his “girlfriend” while wearing a school football uniform doesn’t make this a university-wide issue. All we have is his word that he was truly a victim. The university’s first responsibility is to the student. We’d meet with Te’o, find out how he’s holding up and support him however we can—especially when dealing with the media. Perhaps we’d help him devise a crisis strategy, choose what media outlets to speak to and provide him with media training. Maybe we’d even suggest he appear on MTV’s Catfish to solve the peculiar mystery. We’d also answer any media inquiries that come into our office—including through social media—supporting Te’o’s official statement.
  2. Provide him counseling resources and have a mental health professional contact the student. Te’o could tell us he’s okay with everything going on, but we never know for sure what’s going on in his mind. We’d give him the names and numbers of a handful of counselors—or a counselor at the university—just in case. We’d also have one of these counselors call him to open the communication line.
  3. Make sure the football coaches offer their support and address the issue to the team. Te’o’s coaches should make sure he knows they have an open door policy and are there if he needs them. The coaches and players should also talk about the situation briefly as a team.
  4. Organize an online dating discussion on campus and tell Te’o beforehand that this is happening. There are probably other students on campus experiencing similar situations. Help a campus organization organize a forum about online dating and invite experts to answer questions and encourage discussion.

Angie Jennings Sanders is chief content architect at aiellejai, a boutique content creation consultancy specializing in marketing communications project management, social media engagement, writing instruction/tutoring and book writing/publishing strategy. aiellejai is a subsidiary of esolutions360, a digital solutions agency that marries the creativity of content creation with the fundamentals of software engineering. Follow her on Twitter at @pronouncedALJ.

Communicating with Employees in an Emergency

Susan Rink, of Rink Strategic Communications, provides three important employee communications tips to help your business or organization prepare, should a crisis or emergency arise.

For more information about employee communications strategies, please visit http://www.rinkcomms.com

Predicted Swine Flu Outbreaks Will Test Crisis Plans

Mexico Swine Flu This summer, while most companies are struggling to stay afloat due to recession woes, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) is quietly preparing for what could be the final straw for many small and medium businesses – a severe swine flu outbreak.

And this time around, employee communicators will have to deal with much bigger problems than finding a tactful way to explain that the workplace isn’t a daycare center for kids whose schools have closed due to the flu.

According to several news sources, the CDC is predicting that up to 40% of the U.S. population will become infected with swine flu this fall.  That’s right, up to 40%.

A recent survey by the Harvard School of Public Health found that three out of five Americans believe that a there will be a widespread swine flu outbreak this fall, and 90% would be willing to avoid shopping malls, restaurants, movie theaters, public transportation, etc., for an extended period of time — up to two weeks — if instructed to do so by public health officials.

That’s bad news for those businesses and their employees.

Even if the swine flu outbreak fails to reach the predicted severity, most companies will have to deal with some level of absenteeism this fall, and some will find themselves having to decentralize their operations, with employees working from home.

My advice to communicators:  don’t treat these predictions as hyperbole.  Take time now to review your business continuity and crisis communications plans.  Reach out to your counterparts in HR and make sure there is a policy in place for swine flu-related call-outs.  Set up a phone number that your employees can call into to hear a recorded message about building closures and alternate work locations.  Most importantly, let your employees know that the company is taking these preparations seriously.

As they say in the disaster business, the secret to surviving a crisis is to “plan for the worst, and hope for the best.”

Communicating to Your Employees during a Crisis

emergency lightThe Metro rail collision in Washington, D.C. on Monday serves as a sober reminder that a crisis can occur anytime, anywhere.  In a matter of seconds, a business can be plunged into crisis mode, with little time to strategize about how notify their employees and update them on recovery plans.

Communicators owe it to themselves — and to their employees — to prepare for a crisis before being confronted with one.

Say you don’t have a crisis communications plan and you need to pull one together.  Where do you start?  At minimum, a good communication plan, regardless of type or size of the business, includes four basic elements:

  • a checklist that accounts for all audiences and vehicles
  • well-defined roles and responsibilities
  • a resource/phone list, and
  • a collection of samples

The checklist documents the top-line steps that need to be addressed when communicating to employees.  Examples:  When do you notify executives and employees?  How will you announce the crisis to your employees (voicemail, PA announcement, email, intranet, text message, Twitter, etc.)?  Will the switchboard/receptionist need to be notified and coached on how to handle calls?  How frequently will you provide status updates to your employees?

Roles and responsibilities must be defined ahead of time, and redundancy built in just in case the person responsible for the task is unavailable.  Examples:  Who will serve as the key internal spokesperson?  Who approves the content of the announcements?  Who can send a text/email/voicemail to all employees?  Who can post to the intranet?  Who is responsible for updating the executive team?

Having an up-to-date list of available resources and phone numbers will save critical minutes during a crisis.  The list should include: home and cell numbers for all executives and management team members; emergency contact info for all employees; home and cell numbers for key members of the IT support team; phone and fax numbers for all locations; Red Cross and other relief agencies, etc.  In addition, I recommend that medium to large companies establish an inbound phone number for employees to call for status updates and building closure information.

Finally, it’s always a good idea to have a collection of samples and templates on hand.  Examples:  scripts for the operator/receptionist; internal holding statements and updates; voice mail and text messages; talking points for managers, etc.  Depending on the emergency, you may find that you need to rely on communications novices to help work through your checklist.  In that case, the templates will come in quite handy.

Don’t put off crisis communications planning because it seems like an insurmountable task. There are a variety of good crisis communications resources available online:

In addition, many trade associations have created crisis planning resources to help their members.  Call their member services number or check out the Web site.  Or, you can check with your local Chamber of Commerce; many of them offer this type of resource to their members.

Plan ahead.  You’ll be glad you did.

Susan C. Rink is principal of Rink Strategic Communications, which helps clients take their employee communications to the next level.  Email her at rinkcomms@verizon.net.