Media Relations Part 3: Learn How Not to Screw Up Your Crisis Response

Crisis Communication | Caissa Public Strategy

Think of the most careless thing you’ve ever said.

Something you wished you could take back as soon as it popped out. Once you’ve identified it, think about it for a good 30 seconds.

Seems like an eternity, doesn’t it? And that’s only inside your own head. For most of us, one of our biggest fears is our worst moment or most awful soundbite being captured and played back on loop for all to see and hear. Of course, you don’t want to say or write anything you wouldn’t want to see on the cover of the newspaper or headlining the nightly news.

In times of crisis, our stress levels make it particularly easy to slip up that way. And unfortunately, that’s when the consequences of a slip-up are even larger.

An embarrassing or catastrophic situation has unfolded, perhaps abruptly enough to give you minimal time to prepare your response. But you will do and be fine if you’re prepared for the first words to come out of your mouth to be the only ones that are remembered. This will set the tone for everything that comes next.

Preparedness is the strongest weapon against fear. Responding to a crisis, or a business disruption, when the spotlight is on you is nothing to make up on the fly. So, have your response CAP — that is, your Crisis Action Plan — always ready to put on.

No matter what your crisis is, no matter how large or small, keep these two rules in your plan:

  1. Keep your message consistent. This is a favorite skill of mine in life and one I’ve worked to master maybe more than anything. One way to maintain consistency is to assign a point person for messaging, and a backup person for them. Then, have a gatekeeper monitor every last message point that is going out to the public. Your gatekeeper’s importance, especially, is like airport security: whatever got through the terminal past them, is on them.
  2. Everyone on the team needs to be on the same page. Your internal and external messages should be the same, including what you tell employees and partners and what you tell the media. Your soldiers need to have the same orders. Chaos ensues otherwise.

Mixed messaging gives your gatekeeper much more work to do on the backend trying to correct perceptions — because inevitably, someone gets the wrong information, and it risks spilling out, which then undermines you.

If you’ve been following this series (see part 1 and part 2), we’ve discussed a few broader tips on general communication worth considering in crisis situations.

Remember how to combat the crutch? Speak with fluency. No filler words (um, ah or the like). Keep a disciplined message with concise talking points. And know when to stop. (To introduce another analogy, think of it like turning the handles on a faucet and controlling the flow of water.)

Call reporters back as soon as possible. When things are fast paced, you may not know the deadline of a particular story. It may also be necessary to prioritize, and the best rule of thumb is to consider which news source could hurt you the most if you don’t circle back with them and take control of the narrative.

Pivot when you need to take control during a media conversation. Talk about what you do know instead of what you don’t, without giving your opinion, of course. Grab attention with good soundbites, too. But DON’T make a joke out of anything serious.

Crisis situations, or business disruption in general, are experienced from moment to moment, and often second to second. You won’t know how you did until it’s over. And even if you’ve nailed it, there are always lessons to be learned.

You’re away from the cameras for a moment. Here’s where an After-Action Review comes into play. Without getting bogged down in trivial details on the one hand, or self-pity on the other, it affords your team an objective process to look at what went right, what went wrong and what can be implemented for the next crisis that comes around.

Define your mission. What were you trying to accomplish? Then, define the background of the activity you were doing to provide context. Identify where the crisis took place, when it occurred and who was involved. What was everyone’s role — and was everyone in the right role for their skills and strengths to best navigate your team through the situation?

Take as much time as you can to work through these points, before meditating on your results. These are as much your accomplishments, recognition you attained or savings you made, as they are about things that didn’t go so well.

I started out by asking you to imagine the worst thing you ever said. At this stage of your post-mortem, it may be time to objectively consider which public responses to the crisis were counterproductive.

Kudos if you had none. But if you did, zero self-pity. Everything is a learning experience, and this is all about what can be avoided next time. You will also be able to return to your previous steps, especially pivoting, if something did slip out that produced a big distraction or a second crisis.

I tell my clients to end with a SWOT analysis:

  • Consider your strengths, and how you can leverage them to improve.
  • What are your weaknesses? How can you lessen the impact of them, or resolve them entirely?
  • What are the opportunities for things that can be done better next time?
  • Things like competitor analysis, market trends and the environment you’re operating in, generally, are potential threats to be dealt with.

What can be done in the next month following the crisis/disruption to improve your readiness? Are you willing and able to expend your resources and do the work to make that improvement?

You should feel like a communications expert at this point, because you are. You and your team can tackle anything that comes your way, especially with your CAP always on.

CEO and co-founder of Caissa Public Strategy. Business strategist, best-selling author, attorney and public speaker.

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