Schwartz: Manage the Messengers, Not Just the Message, in a Crisis

January 7, 2013

The following article is reprinted with permission from PR News’ Crisis Management  Guidebook, Volume 6

When a crisis strikes, most executives implement a response focused on addressing or dealing with the crisis. What is often neglected, however, is the management of the crisis. It is true that an executive’s first responsibility is to identify and address the cause of a crisis, whether it is related to a policy issue, incident or product. But if your team is merely focused on the crisis itself, and fails to think equally about how to manage it, then you are leaving your organization vulnerable.

If you turn on your television right now, there is a high likelihood that one of the major network channels is discussing a crisis. In this age of the 24-hour news cycle, producers need to keep the conversation going. This means that in the absence of an expert, someone will act like one. With the rise of social media and online reporting, the pressure to source quotes or get double confirmation of a racy topic has been eased. These are the realities that complicate every crisis we face in the PR world. As if this is not complicated enough, rogue messengers can further derail your communications strategy.

In the days following the tragedy of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and explosion in 2010, everyone was an “expert.” Regardless of how hard we worked to get the facts out, we were challenged by the 24-hour news cycle every single day. I learned very quickly that it didn’t matter whether or not the commentator I was watching knew what he was talking about – some producer would eventually put him on air. Equally frustrating was seeing allies who knew better attempt to speak on topics they were unprepared to discuss.

Effectively managing a crisis means not just empowering your team to employ PR strategies that address the crisis, but developing a comprehensive communications plan that engages the media; federal, state and local lawmakers; and external and internal stakeholders with equal focus. Without a coordinated approach, you’re failing to address important aspects of the crisis.

First Steps in a Crisis

Most seasoned crisis management professionals will advise using these tactics when addressing a crisis: Cut off public comment and communication until there is a game plan, pull together your most capable personnel to assess the situation and create a road map to dig out of the issue, and rapidly employ strategies to deal with the crisis.

I will always add one more: Bring your PR team into the discussions, create an aggressive PR strategy that complements every step of your roadmap, and ensure that core messages are developed not just for the principal stepping in front of the camera, but for every individual in the organization who may affect the public message – from your communications, congressional and community relations staff to your front desk and administrative personnel, who are often on the front lines receiving outside inquiries.

While some crises may not appear to warrant a full-scale communication strategy, a smart executive will always insist on developing one. Can you really afford to address your crisis, only to find out that two weeks later, a failure to create a communications strategy has caused you to lose ground because of a misstatement? You are courting disaster if your team addresses a crisis without a complementary communications plan.

Though a plan does not need to be complicated, it should answer three key questions:

  • Who is our audience?
  • What are we saying?
  • How are we saying it?

If you and your team cannot answer these key questions, you are not effectively managing your crisis.

Friend or Foe: Choosing Your Audience

One thing that has consistently surprised me over the years is the frequency with which people say one thing in a face-to-face meeting, only to walk out and communicate something completely different to a different audience (generally the press). During more than one crisis, I have found myself asking someone sitting at the same conference room table why, instead of reading the kind words they have expressed about how we handled the situation, I read pithy and sometimes nasty remarks that call into question the management of the incident. We often decide too hastily who will be advocates and allies during a time of crisis. The truth is that no one is truly a friend or a foe when it comes to managing a crisis. Everyone has different constituencies that they must be accountable to, and whether or not you can count on them depends on how your message fits with their perceived responsibility.

When developing your crisis communications strategy, your team should focus on all potential participants in the discussion – friend or foe. And because you should not take anyone’s perspective for granted, you need to have a plan in place to manage both the people who will validate you and those that will criticize you (particularly because some may play both roles). Sometimes, we become so focused on the message that we neglect the messengers, who need to be managed to the maximum extent possible. Your team needs a plan to engage them, educate them, and then maintain contact with them.

Media Relations 101

The media need to be fed. If you do not give them something to write about, they will dig until they have found something. The same is true for your other stakeholders. Don’t be afraid to provide information to feed them, but be deliberate and strategic about what you want from them. Without this game plan, you run the risk of having too many messengers diluting, or worse, confusing your message.

Here are some suggestions that can help address some of the most common constituencies:

  • Press: If you don’t create your narrative, the media will create one for you. Don’t be afraid to put out statements as you are resolving your issues. This allows you to build a narrative and be transparent about the process. Public communications need to be comprehensive and forward leaning. Do not discuss the crisis without discussing how you are going to fix it, especially if you have begun addressing it. Rather than beat up on the problem, sharing your next steps allows commentators who want to be sympathetic to commend your tactics, and may distract critics with a process story to focus on, rather than the crisis you are trying to manage. For large scale crises, consider meeting with op-ed writers or editorial boards who are tracking the crisis. This will help them understand that you take responsibility for the incident, and that you are moving aggressively to address it.
  • Board of Directors/Advisory Committees: By their nature, members of your board of directors or advisory committees want your organization to succeed. This does not mean that their support should be assumed or taken for granted. Engage them often enough to make them feel a part of your process. If they don’t, it may be you who comes under fire. If board or committee members are eager to be involved in the management of your crisis, include them in discrete issues and areas where they can be helpful and make sure they have key messages to deliver. Despite your best efforts, your surrogates will feel empowered to speak; it’s better they be directed by you. The same strategy is true for your External Stakeholders and Coalition Partners. Making sure they know what you’re saying, and how they can be helpful, can help ensure that players who might create problems see their affirmative value in the broader management of your crisis.
  • Employees: As much as you want to keep messengers to a minimum, your employees will talk. Some will talk to friends who ask about the crisis; some will talk to their professional contacts that are looking for information; and some will talk to each other, comparing notes to find out what’s really going on with the crisis. With this is mind, do not leave your employees in the dark. For every positive and forward-leaning communications you put out, send one internally. Let employees know that not only are you on top of and handling the situation, they will also be part of the success when you come out of it. Your employees want you to succeed, but many will not hesitate to defend themselves in the midst of crisis, even if it means speaking ill of the organization. Empower them to be their own spokespeople. That means communicating regularly. As leaks to the media are a reality, all messages should be communicated with the assumption that they could be made public.
  • Federal, State and Local Law Makers: If you are part of an organization that falls under the jurisdiction of federal, state or local lawmakers, do not wait for staff to come calling. If you do, you risk having to engage on their terms and, especially if you are unfortunate enough to be involved in a crisis during an election year, their bully pulpit. Do not assume that a powerful ally will remain one when under political pressure, whether or not it’s the right thing to do on their part. Engaging with these interested governmental entities, and making sure they feel well informed about how you are addressing your crisis, must be a critical part of your communications planning. Hell hath no fury like a law maker (and his staffer) who reads in the paper what he should have learned from you yesterday.
  • Customers and the Public: Remember that your customers are loyal to your organization, until they are convinced not to be. As part of your crisis communications plan, make sure you provide opportunities for your constituents to see how you are handling the crisis, and create opportunities for them to receive information. A key to maintaining the hearts and minds of this audience is showing its members the respect to keep them updated. In the worst case, you have given yourself another opportunity to promote your message. In the best case, you turn dedicated constituents into advocates.

One way to aid your strategic planning is to create an internal matrix (example below), that helps you brainstorm and track how you intend to engage your audiences. Although every executive in every sector will have varied audiences, here are some suggestions that can help address some of the most common constituencies:

Audience: Lead responsibility: Item/Action: Notes:
Press Employee A • Press releases, background interviews, editorial board mailing • Press conferences should be held until final announcement
Board of Directors/Advisory Committees Employee B • Briefing calls once a week
• Presentation at Fall meeting
• Visits to select lawmakers
• Board member A should be primary surrogate

• Board member D should not be asked to do media
Lawmakers Employee C • Off the record call with select members
• Embargoed press announcements to select members
• Ongoing meetings as set up by Government Affairs staff
• Senator A should be first to get announcements
• Congressman A leaks info, send info just before distribution
Employees Employee D • Weekly all-employee emails
• Provide all docs on intranet
• Circulate positive news coverage
• Create “comment box” by March 1st and respond to questions in weekly emails
Customers/Public Employee E • Add/update note to customers on web homepage • Ask marketing to brainstorm possible product advisory/insert

 

Consistency, Consistency, Consistency: Developing Your Message:

For every organization there is a different set of relevant messages during a crisis. However, there is one overriding piece of guidance to remember when developing these messages: Consistency, Consistency, Consistency.

Whether you want them to or not, all of the entities discussed in the previous section have a stake in how (and if) you survive your crisis. If you provide them with key messages, you increase the chance that they will use them. Some crisis communications experts argue that to manage a crisis effective, you need to streamline spokespeople. While I understand and agree with that guidance, if you do not prepare for more than one person to appoint himself or herself to speak on your behalf, you are leaving yourself vulnerable. If you fail to engage allies and seek their assistance, you are also missing out on validation from outside sources that could help you.

One of the issues that plague many people dealing with a crisis, particularly when there are multiple audiences, is complication caused by sloppiness. Here are some rules for the road to help keep your crisis communications plan consistent and on track:

  • DO NOT create four different talking points for four difference audiences. Create one set of clear and simple messages, internally and externally. Even with the best of intentions, creating different messages sends a signal that you are spinning the facts, or giving one audience more/less information than another. This creates the risk of provoking additional scrutiny, consternation and confusion.
  • DO NOT widely distribute communications that you do not want to read in the New York Times, Washington Post, or your local newspaper.Whether it is an all-employee email or a letter to stakeholders, make sure that all messages are consistent in their messaging and reflect the top-line messages you have developed. This is not to say that you should not create an internal plan to address the crisis. But when you are distributing broad messages, be very cognizant of what you are sending. A leaked document can have a dramatic effect on your communications strategy.
  • DO make sure that all employees and stakeholders that engage with the public know their role (if any) in the organizational response and DO commit to providing them with basic messages so that they can speak credibly on the issue. Particularly in small communities, your employees may find themselves faced with inquiries at the supermarket, their house of worship, even their children’s school. Empower your employees to defend themselves as well as the organization by making sure they know what you are saying.
  • DO make sure that not only are the messages you deliver consistent, but also that your messengers are consistent. Your government affairs staff needs to impart the same messages as your communications staff. Your board liaison needs to be up to date on the latest pushback in the media. All of your point people need to be on the same distribution list when critical issues come up in relation to the crisis, including strategic steps that are in line with your crisis communications plan. Messages may transition, circumstances may change; don’t forget to make sure everyone on your team is made aware.

Managing your audiences is a major responsibility that cannot be left to chance. How you weather a crisis depends significantly on the trust you have built as a brand, and the relationships you have built with your stakeholders. Be aggressive in your outreach and communication with them, but make sure every step you take, and every communication you distribute, is meaningful and consistent. Treat each as an opportunity to reinforce the messages you are trying to communicate as an executive. You have powerful potential allies among your constituents and stakeholders, but only if you empower and manage them. PRN


melissa
Melissa Schwartz (@MSchwartz3) is the Vice President for Strategy and External Affairs at The Bromwich Group, a strategic consulting firm in Washington, D.C. Schwartz has provided strategic communications and public affairs support on a wide range of global issues and sectors over the past decade. At both political and nonprofit organizations, she has developed and implemented strategic communications plans focusing earned media and community organizing on local, state, federal and international levels, with additional expertise in media training, message development, media relations and crisis management.