Great crisis communications con, and 10 ways to avoid it

We live in a world seemingly in crisis mode – horrific gun murders around the country spawn sharply divided opinions, and no expedient action other than making public schools into fortresses of self-defense rather than for learning. Children are denied the childhood beauty of growing up with innocence and sense of wonder.

Police at the Newtown, CT, school shootings.

Police at the Newtown, CT, school shootings.

It’s become commonplace for people to lie about their actions, even when caught on cameras or Jon Stewart’s superb fact-checking. Here’s a fact – there’s no such thing as a secret in today’s digitally driven world.

An assistant federal attorney candidly shared with me that the media will swallow any inaccurate or misleading information from her own department because the Department of Justice knows the media is too inexperienced or lazy to check facts.

Not to miss a beat in the crisis management arena, some PR firms are selling “what if” services and building so-called “dark sites” to be activated in time of crisis. It’s ludicrous, wasteful, and dishonest, and will only lull otherwise well-meaning companies and organizations into a false sense of security and poor preparedness.

On one hand, building “what if” dark websites for a client generates many, lucrative billable hours for an agency but risks creating silos and dysfunction within the organization, essentially leaving the company unprepared for a real crisis or emergency.

Sure, the military and first-defenders have their emergency preparedness exercises, and there may be benefits, such as improved communications. But no one has a crystal ball with a clear view of the future. The crisis planned for is rarely the one that happens.

Much of the news media is in a mess. The media is in the hands of people with vested interests, focused more on money than truth.

Interactive chart published by The Journal News identifying names and addresses of legally licensed gun owners.

Interactive chart published by The Journal News identifying names and addresses of legally licensed gun owners.

Example: Editors at The Journal News in Rockland County, NY, self-righteously published the names and addresses of local licensed gun owners following the mass murders in Newtown, CT. In doing so, the newspaper – owned by Gannett – caused its own crisis by showing a lack of journalistic integrity and unleashing a wrath of bipartisan criticism. The Journal News should have publicly admitted its mistake. Like it or not, the guns are legally licensed after the owners fulfilled firearm safety training. And, there was no connection with what happened in Newtown.

Rockland County Sheriff Lou Falco said that some county corrections officers have been approached by inmates who said “they know where they live” because of the newspaper’s disclosure.

So, how does a company or organization take practical steps to prepare in advance for a crisis? Well, a productive and meaningful process need not be time-consuming or expensive.

  • Embrace a fact that you actually can control discourse and even criticism during a crisis. The old PR saw of “managing messages” is outdated. Crisis management in today’s digital environment can be smartly controlled. Managing messages, on the other hand, is a reactive function that rarely builds trust in a crisis.
  • Create a small internal group of quick-thinking executives who know how to work together and will immediately come together in time of crisis. This group would include the CEO, COO, head of communications and corporate counsel. Why not marketing? Because marketing and crisis don’t mix.
  • Turn to experts: Engage in a series of conversations with veteran journalists to get their thoughts as well as good and poor examples of crisis communication.
  • Make it easy for the media to contact a corporate spokesperson, 24/7. That includes email and mobile phone numbers.
  • Assess the media environment: It’s a reality that today’s media, especially TV, won’t drive 15 miles out of town to cover a story unless it’s some horrific event.
  • Pardon the phrase but fight fire with fire: When a crisis hits, get online quickly with a WordPress site that provides video soundbites, video b-roll, high resolution photos, and statement updates. My firm – News Strategies LLC – has gotten sites up and online in less than four hours with our team of journalists writing legitimate news, not press releases. When a crisis passes, the special website goes away, too. Why WordPress? Because it is the online technology used by the media, it’s open source and economical, and it’s search engine powerful.
  • Never trumpet a crisis on an organization’s main website: After investing tens of millions of dollars in global environmental efforts, BP made the mistake of litigating and defending the 2010 massive Gulf oil spill on the company’s main website for all the world to see.
  • Never hide behind paper: Leaders must be on camera and before the media/public as often as needed.
  • Gain control in a crisis situation by releasing control: I know, it might sound counter-intuitive but when a company or organization responds quickly, transparently and in the non-legalistic manner of plain language, trust is built. Language need not be sanitized, words must be honest and genuine. Empathy must be shown.
  • Hire consultants with experience and accomplishments: There are too many overnight experts today who are hawking everything from media coaching to developing “dark sites” to social media tips, and what they have in common is a lack of experience.

Poynter News – which walks an amorphic space between promotional agency and correspondence school of sorts – offers a course, “Becoming an Entrepreneurial Journalist: From Idea to Implementation” for $29.95. Really?! Stuff like this cheapens journalism, I believe. Heck, for another $81, you can buy phony press credentials. Such schemes further weaken the honorable professional called Journalism.

There is a proliferation of scams out there. Don’t fall for the con games.