Tips to managing events that threaten your organization, even if they loom large
Any organization, no matter its size, can encounter a problem that requires crisis management. A crisis is something that threatens or hurts people and property, with potential to damage the organization’s reputation, disrupt operations and affect the bottom line.
In a crisis, it’s important to respond quickly yet properly. Sometimes, how people inside and outside your organization react to something that is said or done can determine whether a problem becomes a full-blown crisis.
Of course, some crises are obvious – accidents or bad products that cause injuries or fatalities, for example. A crisis might evolve from an oversight or irresponsible decision, making the organization appear inept or, worse, criminally negligent. Some crises result from something outside your control, such as a disgruntled employee who spreads falsehoods; a social media hack or rant; or a data breach.
You can’t change what happened, but you can take control to help shape the outcome.
Anticipate crises by identifying risks that are specific to your organization. Name team members who would respond in a crisis, and train them to gather and disseminate information properly.
Prepare an action plan to keep operations and communications from breaking down. This plan should include a social media policy that prohibits staff members from venting or arguing online.
Don’t react without adequate information. Identify who will speak for the organization, so that no one says the wrong thing.
It’s important to acknowledge a crisis. In some cases, an apology might be necessary.
Your legal team might not want you to shoulder blame, but you can still deal with a problem head-on and be accountable. This helps to minimize drama and resolve matters more quickly.
Your team’s crisis plan should include prepared statements that could apply to any situation for immediate response:
- “We have activated our Crisis Response Team, and we will share information as soon as it becomes available.”
- “We know that individuals and families are hurting, and our hearts and minds are with them at this difficult time.”
- “We understand the urgency of this situation and we ask for your patience. Right now the health and safety of our (employees/customers) is our top priority.”
- “We have nothing new to report at this time, but we are working to learn the facts and will supply information as soon as we can.”
Reach out to employees and other stakeholders, including the media.
Who needs to know what’s happening, internally and externally? The messages and how often your team conveys them may vary by audience. If the crisis involves an accident, you may need to identify places to gather families and the media, to keep them separate.
Technology can help track down executives and others who need information immediately, via automatic calling or texting, and allow them to confirm they received the message.
Problems don’t resolve themselves, and storms don’t pass quickly in today’s social media-oriented society. Misinformation can spread, compounding a crisis. Reach out to those affected – by phone call, text message, emails, or in person, as necessary. Let people know you care, even if you can’t tell them anything substantive immediately. Keep your cool online, on camera and in public. Be respectful – including with those who will share your story.
A debriefing after a crisis is as important as preparing for one.
- What did your organization learn from what happened?
- Do you need to change any organizational policies?
- Do your notification and monitoring systems need tweaking?
- Are there employees, clients, vendors, investors, donors or others who need longer-term reassurance as a result of what happened?
Be sure to thank your crisis response team for their hard work. Review with them what went right and what went wrong, including things beyond their control. This way, you can improve everyone’s crisis management skills.
How to look and sound your best during a TV or smartphone interview
A first-time interview with television camera rolling can be intimidating, with a harsh light warming your face and boom mic picking up every aside.
You might try to recall interviews you’ve seen, and wonder: Do I look at the interviewer, or the camera? Should I smile, or not? And why is the photographer moving around and fidgeting with equipment?
A good photographer will work to capture the more photogenic side of your face (yes, typically there is one) and tell you whether jewelry or a printed jacket might distract and confuse viewers. The reporter is likely to make small-talk to start – but be aware that anything you say might be on the record.
Here are some tips to becoming proficient at on-camera interviews.
An interview with a TV station can mean opportunity for prime-time “earned media,” but in today’s world, you’re more likely to encounter a spontaneous “interview” with a reporter, photographer, blogger or advocate-citizen with a smartphone. Video drives clicks online.
Get your message across clearly and succinctly, in as short amount of time as possible. TV news editors will look for good “ins” and “outs” in your comments to grab a short “soundbite.” Time constraints, editors and producers can decide what stays or gets cut. In broadcasting, 30 seconds on-air can be a long time; expect to get about half of that time.
You’re the expert in politics or business or nonprofit work with insights the news crew seeks. Stay on message, even if the interview becomes testy for any reason – especially if it’s an impromptu smartphone encounter. No one wants to see his/her angry words play over and over online, or on the nightly news.
If you know you might be interviewed, it’s important to “dress for success” with appropriate business attire. Avoid big necklaces and dangling earrings; avoid busy or loud prints, such as stripes, checks, polka dots and wavy lines that “flutter” on camera. Bright white reflects light and can wash out your face; stark black absorbs light and can diminish you. Navy blues, grays, purples, dark creams, browns, and neutral colored suits work well. Check your hair and makeup if there’s time.
Take advantage of the opportunity to get maximum exposure by calling reporters together.
When your company or organization has something newsworthy to announce, a news conference can give you the exposure you need with the ease of telling everyone at once. Such events draw reporters and photographers from newspapers, magazines, business journals, blogs, television and radio – giving you a chance to reach a wide audience.
A news event allows you to outline your message without interruption and emphasize important points before taking questions. As your publicist, we manage the crowd and gauge when to stop the Q&A, though you might conduct individual interviews after stepping down from the podium.
For journalists, a news conference reduces the chance of missing the story. And it means they can share in the questioning. But with “pack journalism” especially it’s important to stay on your toes. Reporters who cannot get an exclusive story will jockey for something “big” to break from an event meant to give you publicity.
Your event will be friendly and easygoing to start – you get to talk about something reporters want to hear and you might field some “softball” questions that you can hit on the mark. But reporters won’t just give you free advertising. Here are tips to handle awkward moments.
Expect edgy questions – at least one you don’t want to answer. It’s OK to say, “I can’t talk about that.” That’s a better response than “No comment,” which sounds like you have something to hide. It’s also OK to say, “I don’t know the answer to that, but I’ll try to get you an answer.”
The ‘loaded question’
Good reporters pretend to know more than they really do when asking a question. The reporter may have some knowledge of a situation and will try to elicit confirmation indirectly by asking about details. If you get a trick question, smile and say, “I can’t talk about that, but nice try,” and call on someone else.
Two behaviors are treacherous when you talk with reporters: Lying and losing your temper. Deception robs you of credibility when it becomes evident you knew something that you denied knowing. If you have a short fuse, watch your tongue. Frustrated reporters might try to provoke you into reacting badly.
Stay on message
If the topic of your news conference wanders way off track, guide the conversation back to your message by repeating a talking point. Or, ask for another question. Be diplomatic but firm. If the reporters pile on, wrap up – that’s better than an ugly clash that ends up on the front page or TV news!
Invited to speak with an editorial board? Follow these rules of thumb to avoid pitfalls:
Many politicians, civic leaders, CEOs and others eagerly agree to meet with a newsroom editorial board and then wonder, “What have I walked into?”
Often it’s a room with editors and reporters clamoring for headline news. If their guest slips up in some way, all the better. There’s a delicate balance here, involving mutual respect. The interviewee wants to get across certain points and stay on message, but the paper’s goal is to elicit something exclusive.
Consider these real-life scenarios:
- A politician says he doesn’t need the political machine to get elected, and loses votes when those he insulted work against him.
- A corporate executive, upset with a newspaper’s editorial on his industry, demands an audience to try to cut the editors down a notch but instead gets bludgeoned with facts.
- A local elected official reveals prematurely that he plans to run for governor because he hesitates and laughs nervously when someone asks about the rumor.
An editorial board can be a cordial give-and-take, but handled badly, it can turn into a bashing. Don’t assume that your guest status tips the balance in your favor. Sure, someone will welcome you and the reporters will listen to your pitch – but their questions might wander from polite to aggressive out of hunger for a good story, or just for sport.
Here are some tips to help manage your editorial board visit:
Arrive on time and stay longer than scheduled, if asked. Make a good impression with a genuine smile and strong handshake. This meeting doesn’t have to be contentious. You’re all assembled here with a common goal of imparting information to people. Speak candidly.
Bring someone with you, to track what’s said or to do quick online research for you. Bring documents; reporters like fact sheets, statistics, schematics, or other “proof” supporting your words. Before you arrive, review any notes an aide prepared for you; practice what you want to say.
Stay calm, relax
Be cognizant of your expressions and body language; act confident. Holding a pen can occupy your hands if you’re nervous. Taking a drink of water allows you to pause and reflect on what to say. Remember, no one expects you to be perfect.
Feed the beast
The editors control the line of questioning; make sure you control the message. Emphasize your important points and anticipate questions. Know your stuff, so that you don’t appear vulnerable. Don’t let the pack get “hangry.” You’re the expert whose information feeds their need.