Friday, January 06, 2006

Tips on crisis communications

General advice to help you get through a challenging media interview

  • It's important to have the right spokesperson. Sometimes it's the CEO. Sometimes it's someone else who has greater knowledge about the specific situation. Whenever possible, determine who the spokesperson will be before the media shows up.

  • Be emotionally appropriate. If someone has died or been seriously injured, look concerned. Avoid nervous laughter. Never appear angry at a reporter or anyone else.

  • Never lie.

  • Don't guess. Stick to the facts. If appropriate, make a commitment to get back to the reporter with answers to the questions that you can't answer right away.

  • Never say "No comment."

  • For sensitive (challenging) stories, anticipate the media contacting you for follow-ups.

  • If you're in a crisis situation, disclose information in a timely manner. Timely disclosure today means immediately. The Firestone/Bridgestone tire scandal broke in late 2001 and early 2002. However, the company knew the tires involved were unreliable in 1997, and perhaps as early as 1991, according to trial lawyers. Withholding the information - even if the company is trying to define the problem as narrowly as possible and find a solution - often gives the public the perception that the problem is serious and far-reaching. In the case involving the West Virginia mining company, not disclosing information in a timely manner caused families to believe that most of the workers' lives had been saved, when, in fact, all but one of the miners died.

  • Develop key talking points in your head and stick to them. No matter what the question is, always return to your key points.

© 2006 D. C. Sistrunk

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Malik said...

We need to give you a bullhorn and parade you up and down K street.

Deb S. said...

Malik: Thanks for the vote of confidence. "K Street" is a trip. All I've been doing for months is shaking my head in bewilderment. Don't get me started.

Rose said...

Isn't this wonderful? I was just thinking today how I was going to handle a possible interview. I don't like being on radio and tv. These helps///

Nth Dimension said...

Forgive my sarcasm please, but who exactly is this directed to? The people that could use it are actually the ones that flaunt all rules of nicety...and am not sure if they are interested in or can understand everything of what you have said...

And people that could use your suggestions, are people that probably are already doing it!

Malik said...

I know from personal experience that there are plenty of people who have to communicate with the public or their subordinates and don't have a clue, but would nevertheless take this advice to heart if presented properly in a training session.

Deb S. said...

Nth Dimension: First of all, don't apologize for sarcasm. The world of media and PR is full of it, so I'm quite used to it. :-)

Your question is an excellent one. First, I invite you to read Malik's comment (after yours). Now - here's my response.

Virtually anyone who deals with the public could very well find themselves under scrutiny by the media and the public. You don't have to be a big corporation. You could be a small business person, an educator, a public servant. There are many instances, many outside of your control, that could suddenly thrust you into glaring lights and headlines.

Let me give you one example - school districts. There are many scenarios that could place a school district under scrutiny: a school bus accident, inappropriate behavior by a teacher or other staff member, questionable business practices, student violence, the sudden death of a students, nasty rumors, bickering school boards, the firing of a popular principal or teacher.

A few years ago, a seemingly innocent powder puff football game at an Illinois school district put that district in national headlines when a hazing incident involving high school girls went terribly wrong. The event was off-campus, but someone caught it all on videotape.

With any of these instances, you could find yourself under the watchful eye of the public - with the media parked on your doorstep. My advice: You'd better have some sense of how to handle these situations before they happen.

Effective crisis PR saved Johnson and Johnson in the early 1980s when someone laced Tylenol capsules with cyanide, causing several deaths. Who could have predicted in 1982 that someone would be sick enough to lace pain reliever capsules with poison?

Back to your question: I pulled the talking points of this post directly out of a training session I often give. This post, designed to be a public service, was meant to build some awareness on the importance of being prepared for the unexpected.

I charge for the full-blown training. So do many PR professionals and media consultants worldwide.

Thanks again for asking a great question.