What we call crisis communications in the agency world, reporters call breaking news. As a former reporter, I can attest that there’s something thrilling about covering breaking news. At first you gasp, and then you let your news instincts take over.
I had the great pleasure of covering Capitol Hill in 2011 when former Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) gave a master class on how not to handle crisis communications.
The entire congressional press corps knew something was amiss from the beginning. Weiner’s initial explanation – “My Twitter account was hacked!” – didn’t pass the smell test.
After he lied, he hid. And then he lied some more. The salacious storyline culminated in a nationally televised press conference. Headline news!
He gave new life to the narrative with every misstep. In other words, he did exactly what I would say you shouldn’t do when you’re in a crisis.
Weiner isn’t special. Crises hit not only political figures but also corporations, foundations, and even PR people themselves. I cringed when I read Wells Fargo’s then-CEO John Stumpf throw employees under the bus amid the bank’s fraudulent-accounts scandal.
I’ve had a front-row seat to many crises, blowups and missteps over the years. Here’s what I’ve learned:
Your crisis is not going to magically disappear…
I now counsel clients on crisis communications. Among the reactions I’ve heard:
– “Let’s just not comment.”
– “No one cares.”
– “It’ll blow over.”
You have too much to lose to not comment, assume no one cares, or hope your problem will disappear. I wish I had a magic wand and could wave your crisis away. But no. Prepare for it. Plan for it. And if, for some odd reason, it does blow over, look to the next one.
…so kill it with availability.
Here’s one of my favorite videos to show during a media training.
A public health official in Alberta repeats, “I’m eating a cookie,” for more than two minutes while reporters ask him to explain a controversial decision his organization made regarding the province’s emergency-room care.
What would have happened if he had stopped and said, “I’ll do my best to answer any questions you have.”?
He may not have had all the answers. But he could have engaged in a dialogue and expressed empathy in any number of ways. Instead, he communicated that he prioritized a cookie over people’s health. (He lost his job shortly after this footage aired.)
The point: Bad things happen when you don’t participate in the conversation. You lose control. You create an entirely new storyline. People fill the black hole with speculation and hearsay.
And then go on the offensive.
One of my mantras for crisis communications is: The best defense is a good offense.
Once you’ve passed the acute phase (in which you say, “I’m sorry” and “I’ll do better” for as long as you need to), start taking back control of your own story.
Put your money where your mouth is. If you said you’d make more emergency-room beds available, make more emergency room beds available. After that, go on a listening tour to hear what your constituents want and need.
Mark Zuckerberg comes to mind here. After Facebook’s trending-news explosion (in which the social media company was accused of political bias), Zuckerberg turned the story around by meeting with the aggrieved. Former critics came out of that meeting praising him and his organization.
He engaged his audience. He gave people a reason to trust him.
Do that. You will build political capital.
Which you will need when the next crisis hits.