Erik Bernstein crisis communications

Crisis Communications Firm Shares Tips For  Tough Conversations

As a crisis communications firm, we know that it’s not only assigned spokespeople taking on tough conversations with important audiences. The reality is that, even if you aren’t the person assigned to go on TV or head up a press conference, the occasional tough conversation – whether that’s with upset customers, concerned referral sources, or your own employees – is a part of being in a leadership role. Though these aren’t the task you’ll handle most frequently, it’s important to recognize that the way you handle those discussions can often determine whether you keep things at the level of operational issue to address or escalate into a full-blown crisis that threatens your reputation, your ability to operate, and your bottom line. People at table having tough conversation

Piling the pressure on to any tough conversation is the fact that virtually every person in any given room has a high definition recording device right on their person in the form of a cellphone, and widespread knowledge of how to get that footage online. This means that, like it or not, a volatile interaction – whether with a single individual or a room full of shareholders – can suddenly represent, in the public eye, your core company culture, viewpoints, and attitude.

If this thought makes you break out in sweat you’re not alone, which is why we’re here with our crisis communications firm’s top tips for navigating tough conversations:

Have a plan. Even the best speakers are going to have a bad time if they walk into a tough room and wing it. Know what you want your audience to come away remembering and how you’ll get them there. Remember they may not believe you on reputation alone, don’t be offended when they want to see facts, figures, or outside data to support your points.

Express compassion. Have you ever attempted to resolve an argument with someone close to you using pure logic, without addressing or acknowledging their emotions? How’d that turn out?From an outsider’s perspective, consider what about the situation would have you feeling concerned, scared, or angry. Then, think about how your words, body language, and tone can address those feelings. You shouldn’t admit fault where there is none, but you can say things like, “We do this job because we love helping animals…”, “I know how hard it is to lose a pet…”, or similar in order to help connect with your audience and open them up to having a productive conversation.

Avoid jargon or technical terms. Yes, you’re an expert in your field, but your audience isn’t nearly as familiar. Even seemingly simple terms that are used every single day in practice can be confusing, intimidating, or even come off as deliberately distracting from the reality of a situation. Don’t avoid delivering crucial information purely to avoid jargon, but whenever possible you should work to ensure your average layperson can clearly understand what’s being shared.

Don’t repeat the negatives. “No we did not dump chemicals into that river.” OR “I am confident our waste handling process respected all local and state regulations.” Which sounds better? While it’s not always an option during real-world conversation, whenever possible you should avoid repeating negative terms in the process of denying them. This becomes even more important if you know you’re being filmed or otherwise recorded, a situation where any individual answer can easily be taken out of context.

Practice! There’s no better way to improve at having difficult conversations (which is really what the core of crisis communications boils down to!) than to practice. The simplest way to do this is to find a trusted coworker or family member and have them pepper you with questions ranging from tricky to downright rude based on either a real or imagined scenario. It’s intimidating at first, but you’ll appreciate the effort spent in a safe space when it comes time to show your skills in the real world.

Here’s another bonus: the skills involved in knowing how to truly handle a discussion that includes tough questions and  translates incredibly well to another critical piece of crisis communications efforts – media relations! After all, what is a “bad news” interview other than a tremendously difficult conversation?

Considering that a single major misstep in a strenuous discussion could be immortalized forever online, I think it’s fair to say there’s no better time than the present to ensure your skills are up to the challenge.

Erik Bernstein