© 2000 Jonathan Bernstein
JUST A THOUGHT
The Five Tenets of Crisis Communications:
Crisis Communications must be:
- PROMPT -- else rumor and innuendo fill the void.
- HONEST -- or it will come back and bite you!
- INFORMATIVE -- enough information to create a story without legally compromising your situation.
- CONCERNED -- show people you care about their feelings.
- TWO-WAY -- allow for interaction with all important audiences.
AN OUNCE OF PREVENTION
The Five Conundrums of Media Relations:
Remembering these sometimes frustrating realities will help keep you out of trouble with inquiring minds that want to know. These don't
describe the interaction with ALL reporters, but you're still safer if you assume they're true every time. Have others to add to the list? Write to firstname.lastname@example.org and I'll feature them in a future issue.
- A reporter has the right to challenge anything you say or write, but will bristle when you try to do the same to them.
- A reporter can put words in a naive source's mouth via leading questions ("Would you say that?" "Do you agree that?" "Do you
feel that?") and then swear by the authenticity of those quotes.
- The media will report every charge filed in a criminal or civil case, with coverage focusing far more on the allegations than on responses by a defendant.
- The media usually carries a bigger stick than you through its ability to selectively report facts and characterize responses, and
via the public perception that "if I saw it in/on the news, it must be true."
- "Off the record" often isn't and "no comment" means "I've done something wrong and don't want to talk about it."
Apropos of these considerations, there was an excellent editorial by John Leo in the April 24 issue of U.S. News & World Report entitled
"Those Darned Readers: The Gap Between Reporters and the General Public is Huge." In it, he quoted Washington Post columnist Michael
Kelly, who said that "most journalists learn to see the world through a set of standard templates in which they plug each day's events."
"In other words," wrote Leo, "there is a conventional story line in the newsroom culture that provides a backbone and a ready-made
narrative structure for otherwise confusing news."
Now, combine that with a quote Leo gives from Orlando Sentinel editor Peter Brown, who said of journalists: "They simply to not share
political, religious, or monetary values with the general population."
The editorial was all about the huge gap which exists between journalists and their readers. The former's opinions and beliefs are largely disconnected from those outside of journalism, and in that
context it is hardly surprising that they "get the story wrong" time after time, even when inherently intelligent. Leo calls on the media to ensure
more internal diversity, to have staff more representative of the general population -- I agree!
The Breakdown Between Marketing and Operations:
[Editor's Note: One of the most common sources of almost COMPLETELY preventable crises is the failure to "deliver as
promised." I thought it would be useful to provide a "composite" case history about the challenges presented when marketing promises
something, but operations doesn't deliver it. Does it appear that I am moving away from "strict PR" to "corporate strategy?" YES! The
"invisible line" which many organizations create between PR and other divisions does not and should not exist, in my opinion, as you'll see explained further, below.]
[Multi-Industry Customer Complaints]
The first time many PR pros are aware of a pending crisis is when we're informed that the company is threatened with one or more lawsuits whose genesis was in statements such as these:
- "You said that nothing would be built next to our house!"
- "You claimed that if anything went wrong, you'd fix it."
- "I didn't know that's what I was agreeing to when I signed your contract!"
- "You promised X but now I have Y and I don't like it!"
[The Beauty of Hindsight]
Where did the problem really start? Most typically, as a result of one of the following causes:
- Over-eager, perhaps greedy marketing/sales reps make promises just to make the sale, knowing at a gut level they may not be true. Or, in some ways even worse, they make promises out of ignorance about what can or can't be delivered.
- The organization makes operational decisions that modify the delivery of goods or services, but fails to inform marketing/sales and/or the customer.
- The organization's disclosures about the possibility of change, substitution, etc., are not written in plain English and/or marketing reps do not help ensure that they're understood by also delivering them verbally.
- Senior management philosophically believes that it should always "do what it takes" to correct errors but does not truly empower customer service in terms of resources, direction or decision-making authority.
- Organizational management has not fully considered the marketing and PR implications of operational decisions and, hence, are blind-sided when there is subsequent backlash.
[Preventing the Crises]
- THOROUGHLY train and CAREFULLY supervise marketing/sales reps to ensure that they "stick to the script" when making commitments. ONE-TIME TRAINING IS NOT ENOUGH. It should be a topic raised very frequently.
- Use plain-English and redundant delivery mechanisms (written and spoken) to communicate legal caveats, disclosures, terms, etc.
- There should be a check-and-balance system to monitor for breakdowns or conflicts between "operating philosophy" and "operating reality."
- MOST IMPORTANTLY: every major operational decision must be evaluated in terms of its potential long-term marketing and/or PR impact on all important audiences, internal and external.
Corollary opinion: there should be marketing and PR representation on the executive/decision making staff of any organization.
CRISIS MANAGER ON THE SPOT
Q: I'm just starting out in PR and know that I can make more money if I specialize. Does Crisis Management pay well, and how do you become a specialist in this area?
CM: According to PR Week's Salary Survey 2000, "The specialist field of crisis management is the best-paid practice area." As one
executive recruiter quoted in the survey puts it, "If you've managed a crisis we know you can make more money so long as you didn't start the crisis."
I believe that some PR specialties, including Crisis Management, require an innate feel for the subject. Ditto for Investor Relations,
Entertainment PR, and others. Most of us can be cross-trained to have higher levels of competence in any specialty, but despite a high level of
knowledge about computers, for example, I'll never be a high-tech PR guy. I knew from my first PR job onwards that I had the "knack" for
Crisis Management, which requires the ability to RAPIDLY synergize information from multiple sources and intuitively reach appropriate conclusions which worked for all audiences, internal and external. That
knack was refined, considerably, by working for mentors -- older Crisis Management pros -- as I worked my way up the career ladder.
Q: How do you select a Crisis Management consultant with whom to work?
CM: Credentials only tell part of the story. I think that the most important thing you can do is ask questions of his/her clients, such as:
- Is he available when you need him?
- Does he understand my industry and/or has he displayed the ability to learn about a new industry VERY quickly?
- Am I getting his personal attention, or is he a team leader who might pass off some responsibility to others? If the latter, EXACTLY how will that system work and with whom will I be dealing?
- What are his strengths and weaknesses as a Crisis Manager (and then see if the Crisis Manager himself acknowledges those)?
- Does he understand external AND internal Crisis Management?
- What does he do in the area of Crisis Prevention?
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OTHER IMPORTANT STUFF
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IMPORTANT EDUCATIONAL OPPORTUNITY
PR NEWS Advanced Crisis Management Seminar and Pre-Seminar Workshop - Managing PR & Legal Concerns During a Crisis June 19-20, 2000, Marriott Metro Center, Washington, DC.
The Seminar will focus on the hot-button PR topic of crisis management, taking a fresh look at how organizations are avoiding or managing crises in a climate operating at Internet speed. Topics will focus on crisis management during mergers and acquisitions; overcoming online
negative gossip, working with the media to communicate key messages; retaining brand loyalty and escaping damaging publicity from strikes, layoffs and product recalls and serving as the CEO’s crisis counselor to deliver effective, on-target messages to all your organization's publics. For more information visit: http://www.prandmarketing.com/cgi/catalog/info?PRNS