© 2006 Jonathan Bernstein
Estimated Readership: 14,000+
JUST A THOUGHT
Positioning is helping your stakeholders understand your message the way you intended it to be understood. Spinning is trying to get your stakeholders to believe something you know isn't true.
CRISIS MANAGER UNIVERSITY
Editor's Note: Having been the "expert" asked if he could serve as spokesperson for a client, I was very pleased to read and receive permission to reprint this article by frequent contributor Judy Hoffman. It is absolutely essential that organizations have skilled and trained spokespersons, and not try to duck that responsibility. When hiring or promoting leaders into positions that will give them public visibility, ensure that you are aware of their capabilities as spokespersons. Two of my clients have started to conduct media training of mid-level managers strictly for the purpose of professional development, making those managers better able to serve in spokesperson positions in the future -- and helping the companies understand who is, and who is not, fit for such duty.
No Hired Guns, Please
By Judy Hoffman
It is only natural to want to avoid the discomfort of being the one on the hot seat answering questions from the media or a concerned/angry public when something bad has happened. “That’s not my special expertise," you may be tempted to say. "Let's hire a crisis communications expert to handle these interviews so I can get on with running the organization."
While this might sound reasonable, it’s usually not a good idea to bring in an outside communications expert to act as your spokesperson during a crisis. When I’ve been asked by companies if they can hire me to do this, I decline.
Why? Two main reasons:
- It would take entirely too much time for the executives of an organization to teach an outsider everything he or she should know in order to do a decent job of answering all possible questions. Someone who is thoroughly familiar with the organization can, instead, be given enough knowledge in a day-long media training session to allow them to be a good spokesperson.
- Your major audiences – be they your employees, customers, shareholders, or facility neighbors – need to be able to look your organization’s managers in the eye and assess their credibility. It is these managers who will continue to be around long after a “hired gun” has packed her bags and gone home.
People who have been negatively impacted by an incident, whether physically, emotionally, or financially, need to know that the managers of the organization personally care about their situation. They need to see that the organization is trying to do the right thing. Having some stranger move to a microphone to mouth the company line is not nearly as effective. People will not respect the organization if they perceive you were not able to face the music when the going got tough.
Long after the specific incident is forgotten, this perception about the compassion and responsibility of your organization will remain. These attributes should be connected to representatives of your organization.
Make it a New Year’s resolution to ensure your senior managers have received some basic crisis communications training so they will be prepared to make a positive impression when a crisis hits.
Judy Hoffman is the author of "Keeping Cool on the Hot Seat" and editor of the free "Quick Tips for Keeping Cool" newsletter. You can find out more about both publications at www.judyhoffman.com.
Communication TriggersWhen to Pull?
A Small Community’s Reputation At Risk
By Gerald Baron
When to pull the trigger? When to take that step of proactively communicating on an issue that is damaging to your organization? This is one of the most difficult and important decisions executives must make and crisis communication counselors must advise on. A small community learned about communication triggers and the value of proactive communication when they became exposed to a potential charge of racism.
Making the decision to proactively communicate is usually difficult because the rumor or damaging information is normally limited to a few but is public enough to spread. Proactively communicating to the audiences who may be affected risks spreading the concern. Waiting until you know it is reaching those audiences puts you in a defensive and catch up position.
Conservative voices often win out in these discussions. Attorneys in particular tend not to see the value of trying to get ahead of the story. Old assumptions about the speed of information transmission frequently lead to errors in judgment that in hindsight can prove devastating.
This case study involves a community with a strong ethnic heritage originating in Northern Europe. Even though now the community is more diverse, it still celebrates the traditions of the "old country" including religious and Christmas festivities. And it was a favorite historic Christmas tradition that caused the problem.
The key members of the city leadership and chamber of commerce had hurriedly gathered together in a conference room on a Monday afternoon. They had been pulled together in a few hours following the publication of a story in the regional daily newspaper about the town’s "old world" Christmas celebration. The traditional Northern European celebration included children painted completely black and wearing black wigs. These characters are a favored element of the historic holiday celebrationa tradition carried on for several hundred years.
The newspaper photo showed these black-faced children in the worst possible light, and rather than explaining that they became black from going up and down the chimney helping Santa Claus as was explained at the event, the paper chose to report that the characters derived from an ancient slave tradition.
The head of the chamber knew she had a problem. The strong ethnic European element in the community would be deeply troubled not only by the newspaper coverage but by any overreaction and anything that would take away something precious from their celebration. Yet, the image of children in blackface as part of a community celebration was something that would not stand with today’s sensitivities. Two phone calls were received from people expressing concern about the celebrationone was outraged.
In the meeting the decision was made that the characters would continue to be a part of the celebration but to avoid any appearance of racism, they would only be allowed to have smudges on their faces to represent soot rather than full black paint and wigs. It seemed a reasonable solution. Now, how to communicate this and should it be communicated?
Only two calls had been received. Submitting a Guest Editorial to the daily might elevate and highlight the issue, raise more questions, bring attention to it, and may even force the daily’s editorial board to weigh in on it.
If the team knew whether or not the two calls received represented a much more broadly felt community concern, they would know better how to react. We decided to write a Guest Editorial that did not focus on the questionable character nor the clearly inflammatory way it was presented in the paper, but rather focus on the joyful celebration and mention several paragraphs into the article that we recognized that the character was subject to misinterpretation so we were changing how he would be made up and costumed in the future. And we made the big decision to go ahead with this proactive communication despite not having a clear sense that it had become a contentious issue in the community.
It turned out to be the very best thing we could have done. The newspaper editorial page editor was surprised to hear from us. We discovered that a number of letters to the editor had been submitted to the paper as well as the local weekly and that the daily was planning on running an editorial castigating the community for its insensitive appearance of racism.
We responded by providing them a full disclosure of what went on behind the scenes including the calls we received, how we were responding to the people who called, the decision to make the change in costume, and our plans for proactive communication. They said, ‘that will change how we write the editorial." Indeed it did. Their editorial was positive and complimentary of the community leadership in addressing the concerns and more importantly, the newspaper decided not to run any of the letters to the editorthereby averting the escalation of a potentially ugly and divisive community issue.
The moral of the story is clear. While the decision makers did not have adequate information to go on regarding the best strategy, they took the risk of proactive communication. By doing that, they not only completely altered the criticism coming their way, they took the most important step they could in defusing what could have become a very unpleasant, emotional and unproductive community issue.
Gerald Baron provided communication consultation services to the city in this event. He is the president of Baron&Company, the creator of PIER (Public Information Emergency Response) and the founder of AudienceCentral, the leading provider of crisis communications technology. He has written "Now Is Too Late: Survival in an Era of Instant News."
CRISIS MANAGER BUSINESS ANNOUNCEMENTS
Keeping The Wolves At Bay
Keeping the Wolves at Bay (available in print and PDF formats) remains, to my knowledge, the only commercially published media training manual in the world. It can be purchased at www.thecrisismanager.com, and its pages can be modified to make it YOUR "name brand" media training manual if you are an agency or organization that frequently conducts training. If the latter subject is of interest to you, write to:
CD-ROM: Crisis Management & The Law
How PR Pros & Lawyers Can Work Together Effectively
Featuring Jonathan Bernstein, Richard Levick and Ed Novak
On February 23, 2005, Jonathan Bernstein played talk show host and expert commentator in a one-hour teleseminar featuring internationally renowned litigation PR expert Richard Levick and one of the country's top white collar crime attorneys, Ed Novak. This CD-ROM is a "must have" to play for the executive staff of any organization, for practice group meetings at law firms, or for the entire staff of any PR agency.
Go to www.thecrisismanager.com to read more details about and/or to order this CD-ROM, and to learn of other educational and training materials produced by Jonathan Bernstein.
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ABOUT THE EDITOR & PUBLISHER
Jonathan Bernstein is president of Bernstein Crisis Management, Inc., www.bernsteincrisismanagement.com, a national crisis management public relations agency providing 24/7 access to crisis response professionals. The agency engages in the full spectrum of crisis management services: crisis prevention, response, planning & training. He has been in the public relations field since 1982, following five-year stints in both military intelligence and investigative reporting. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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