© 2001 Jonathan Bernstein
JUST A THOUGHT
Hearing is physical. Listening can be psychological, emotional, even spiritual. And if we cannot listen, we cannot learn.
AN OUNCE OF PREVENTION
Editor's Note: One of the most critical skills necessary to be an effective Crisis Manager is the ability to think on one's feet. Tim Birr, now director of community services for Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue, did some fast tap dancing to prevent a crisis in this story from earlier in his career.
Thinking on Your Feet
by Tim Birr
In 1984, as acting public information director for the City of Eugene (OR), I was responsible for overseeing the annual visit of a delegation from our sister city of Kakegawa, Japan. The delegation was to fly from Japan to Portland, take a bus from Portland to Eugene, and spend the night in an upscale hotel in Eugene before attending a reception at city hall the next morning and getting acquainted with the families who would be their hosts for the next several days.
I arrived at the hotel prior to the arrival of the delegation, and encountered the mayor, several city counselors, the chamber of commerce greeters, and a host of sister city committee members; all eager to meet and greet our friends from Japan. I decided to check out the hotel lobby, to ensure all was in readiness, and was stunned to see a banner reading "Welcome, Pearl Harbor Survivors!" The hotel's special events manager had booked the visiting sister city delegation AND the regional reunion of Pearl Harbor survivors into the same place on the same night.
The banner was quickly taken down. The Japanese delegation arrived, exhausted from their day's journey across the Pacific, and were hustled to their rooms. The banner went back up, and the Japanese were picked up by city vans at the back door to the hotel the following morning. To the best of my knowledge, neither group ever knew the other one was there that night.
Dealing with the Media During a Crisis
by Karen Friedman
Editor's Note: Former TV reporter turned media trainer, Karen Friedman, gives us an excellent "wrong way/right way" case history about how to work with the media. If you have anything you'd like to add to, or comment about, this case history, please write to firstname.lastname@example.org -- useful responses will be reprinted, with credit, in future issues.
The reporters had gathered at the plant gate after hearing that a worker was severely burned inside. They had called the plant manager and the public relations director, but their phone calls weren't being returned. No one would meet them at the gate and the security guard was rather rude.
While they had very little information, it was 11:45 a.m., just fifteen minutes before the noon news aired and the broadcast journalists would be going LIVE. Radio reporters were already reporting the story and competitive print reporters remembered this was the same plant that had personnel problems last year. As they stood outside drinking coffee and swapping stories, the reporters shared information and speculated about what was happening inside. They all agreed that internal problems probably had something to do with the incident.
Moments later, the first report was broadcast:
"We believe an employee was seriously burned inside the ABC factory here at Wissonoming and Candor Streets. As you can see, three ambulances are parked here at the gate, but have not left, meaning the burn victim is still inside. We're not sure what happened or exactly where it happened inside this sprawling two-block manufacturing plant, but inside sources say a piece of equipment malfunctioned and caught fire. This is the same factory that we told you about last month when a group of workers accused a manager of harassment and filed a class action suit. At least one worker who wants to remain anonymous told reporters the lack of concern about safety and updating equipment is what likely led to this morning's mishap. We have no official comment at this hour from management. Our phone calls are not being returned and security is keeping us away from the entrance to the facility. As soon as we have any additional information, we will bring it to you LIVE. Again, a very serious accident here at the ABC factory."
Unfair reporting? Inaccurate statements? Speculation? It is very easy to blame the media for negative reporting. However, the real blame lies with the ABC Company, which did nothing to control the flow of information. How a company responds often drives what the media reports.
When a story breaks, reporters will report that story with or without your help. Often, it is about being first. They will set the scene, tell you what they know even if the information is sketchy. The details will follow. Instead of shutting reporters out and opening the door to speculation, savvy companies understand the media can be their greatest ally. Through the media, companies can minimize mistakes and reach people very quickly. By offering accurate and available information, you appear responsive, credible, concerned and helpful to a reporter who simply wants information to build a story. Otherwise, that reporter will just try to fill time. It is most important to respond quickly even if there is little to say. As a reporter, I covered hundreds of breaking stories. When a company would not respond, I always wondered if they had something to hide. Make no mistake about it, no matter how hard a reporter tries to be objective, their perception and attitude is often reflected in their report. Therefore, if you cannot release any information, take control of the story by explaining why. By offering an explanation, you appear responsive and cooperative even if you don't really have anything pertinent to share.
During a crisis, you should keep these goals in mind:
- Offer information to reduce the chance of speculation and inaccurate information being reported to the public.
- Never say " No Comment." Instead, tell reporters the situation is still being reviewed and you will have a statement as soon as you have all of the facts.
- Respond quickly to define and control public perception of how you are handling the crisis or the media will do it for you.
- Show compassion and concern for the people involved.
- Never speculate. If the interviewer says something that is not factual, correct the information.
- Report your own bad news. If you think the media might find out about something that happened, then go to them first. If they have to dig, they may decide you're guilty before you've had a chance to respond.
- Admit mistakes. If you made a mistake, say so. Explain why that mistake occurred and what you are doing to fix the problem. Don't be afraid to say I'm sorry.
- Stay "on the record." If you don't want something reported, then don't discuss it.
Let's consider how this story may have been reported if the ABC company if followed these basic rules and made a brief statement to reporters.
"We have confirmed that an employee has been seriously burned inside the ABC factory here at Wissonoming and Candor Streets. Just moments ago, a company spokesperson told me a piece of equipment exploded and caught fire while an employee was in the vicinity. An investigation is underway to determine exactly what happened inside this sprawling two-block manufacturing plant. The name of the employee is not being released until his family has been notified. Company spokespeople have declined interviews until they know more about the situation. They confirm that the victim is still inside the plant and is being treated by paramedics. They say their first concern is for the safety of their employees and they will update us as soon as more information becomes available. Again, management stresses they do not know what caused this accident and have very few details at this time. We will stay on the scene to cover this very serious accident here at the ABC factory."
Edward Segal, a crisis manager and author of "Getting Your Fifteen Minutes of Fame," said: "How you handle a problem has a direct impact on what the public thinks about you and your company or organization." Segal went on to explain that a survey conducted by the National Family Opinion concluded 95 percent of people feel more offended by a corporation that lies about a crisis than the crisis itself.
By providing even a little bit of information, the ABC Company can take control of the situation by appearing cooperative and concerned. Most companies fail in the early hours of a story because they fall into a reactive mode by letting the media define the story for them.
Karen Friedman brings 20 years of on-air television experience to media and communications training and consulting. Her Philadelphia area company, Karen Friedman Enterprises, prepares people to take advantage of media interviews, presentations and public appearances. She can be reached at 610-292-9780 or through her website at www.karenfriedman.com. E-mail: Karen@KarenFriedman.com.
CRISIS MANAGER ON THE SPOT
Q: As a customer service manager, I would like to learn through best practice experience how other customer service/consumer relations departments participate in crisis management in their companies. What role do they play in the company's crisis management structure, if any, and how do they train their staff? I've learned a great deal from your newsletter and made several suggestions in the handling of issues based on what I have learned -- Sherri Nelson, Manager, Guest Relations, Olive Garden
CM: This is one of a number of good questions received in response to the reader survey included with the 01.02.15 issue. And I invite you, my readers, to provide some answers to Sherri! I'll print responses in a subsequent issue -- if any of them are detailed enough to become full articles, all the better.
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