Risk communication involves education, preparation, instruction, knowledge transfer and related communications before an incident occurs. Crisis communication involves the knowledge transfer, instruction and related communications during the crisis. Both risk and crisis communications are important to organizations and have rich, developed fields of expertise. This article serves as a primer to introduce chief executives to crisis communications, what comprises successful communications and will reference relevant examples where leaders served as crisis communicators.
Organizations employ media and public relations personnel who possess the knowledge, skills and abilities to interface with stakeholders and print, radio and television media. These employees train in strategies for effective communication, spend a career managing relationships with their counterparts in the media and develop techniques for managing difficult questions from the media. In most circumstances, we entrust these employees with delivering our message via the media.
In addition, public relations personnel are also typically involved in risk communication to stakeholders and citizens. However, during a time of crisis, unique variables present themselves, and we must adapt.
During normal operations, communications are authoritative, timely and credible. These characteristics are expected and form the foundation upon which effective communications are delivered. During a crisis, these characteristics are amplified and additional efforts are required to address fear, doubt, rumors, information voids and the organization’s image. So what is the goal of crisis communications?
Simply stated, the goal is a series of successful communications. Successful communications are made up of two elements: trust (which is itself comprised of empathy and openness) and credibility (comprised of accuracy of information and speed of release).
Any skilled crisis communicator can prepare a timely, factually accurate release that espouses sympathy. But during a crisis, stakeholders value empathy more than the message itself; they also value the messenger. It is during these moments the messenger must deliver trust and credibility. In other words, not only must the message be trustworthy and credible, but so must our messenger. Members of the media, stakeholders and pundits will scrutinize both the message and messenger. It is therefore critical that we carefully select the spokesperson that will become the authoritative face for the duration of the crisis.
What’s at Stake?
From public safety’s perspective, the primary goals of crisis management are incident stabilization and the protection of life, property and the environment. From an organization’s perspective, we add reputation, economic viability, brand identity and consumer trust. During a crisis where these characteristics are threatened, an organization will engage in tactics aimed at mitigating these impacts. How do we accomplish this? We engage in effective leadership and communications with our stakeholders.
In 1982, Johnson & Johnson’s chairman, James Burke, convened a seven-member team to address the Tylenol capsule poisoning crisis. Burke provided the team with two charges,“First, how do we protect the people? And second, how do we save the product?”
An almost immediate action by Johnson & Johnson saw all Tylenol products pulled from shelves nationwide, resulting in millions of dollars in lost sales. The media and public quickly praised the company’s actions and began to see Johnson & Johnson as a victim in this crisis. Tylenol’s existence as a trusted brand was clearly threatened by this crisis, but Johnson & Johnson’s leadership helped shape media and public sentiments.
“The Tylenol crisis is without a doubt the most exemplary case ever known in the history of crisis communications,” said Ten Berge, in his book ‘The First Twenty-Four Hours.’ “Any business executive, who has ever stumbled into a public relations ambush, ought to appreciate the way Johnson & Johnson responded to the Tylenol poisonings. They have effectively demonstrated how major business has to handle a disaster.”
When to Consider an Executive as Crisis Spokesperson
The governor of Pennsylvania was the spokesperson during the Summerset mine rescues in 2002. This crisis appeared likely to end poorly, yet Gov. Mark Schweiker chose to be the public face of the incident rather than the president of Sago Mines, an expert in mine safety, the on-scene incident commander or the on-scene public information officer. Gov. Schweiker’s decision was risky, but he chose to lead, regardless of the outcome. His leadership included regular media briefings, hourly family updates and senior-level words of encouragement. The governor’s leadership during this crisis yielded a CNN correspondent to thank the governor for setting a new standard.
Gov. Schweiker was not required to speak during this crisis, but possibly realized that his jurisdiction needed emotional reassurance that could only come from his position. Indeed, one year earlier, Summerset, Penn., was the site of the hijacked airliner that was overtaken by passengers and crashed on Sept. 11, 2001. This is one striking example where a trained media relations spokesperson could not provide the emotional and reassuring support the community needed. This incident illustrates one reason why an executive may want to be the spokesperson. Other reasons to consider an executive as crisis spokesperson include:
- When your organization’s reputation is compromised
- When stakeholders need a spokesperson with whom they can relate
- When pre-existing trust exists between the stakeholders and the spokesperson
CEO as Spokesperson
While CEOs often deal with challenging topics that can alter the course of the organization or jurisdiction, serving as a crisis spokesperson is unlike any other challenge leaders face. Consider three well-known crises where a chief executive served as crisis spokesperson and the impact the leader had on the incident.
In the minutes after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Mayor Rudy Giuliani assumed the role of crisis spokesperson and quickly became the face of New York City to the world. Giuliani conveyed the bad news; he answered tough questions; he served as a cheerleader; he was accessible; he shared the spotlight; he gave credit; he thanked the media. A key factor in communicating with stakeholders involves establishing a connection between spokesperson and the stakeholder community. When television cameras showed Mayor Giuliani in the midst of the rubble with a mask over his face, surrounded by fear and doubt, that connection was made.
During the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger crisis, focused criticism quickly followed NASA’s administration when discrepancies and altered stories were discovered among the agency’s administrators. When the NASA administrator spoke, his presence lacked the trust and credibility that would normally be associated with such an agency leader and undisputed subject-matter expert. In this crisis, President Ronald Reagan became the trusted and credible spokesperson who comforted, inspired and reassured the nation. His words in the aftermath of the tragedy helped to heal an emotionally wounded nation and affirmed these lives were lost in the quest of human understanding.
During Hurricane Katrina, several executives, including FEMA Director Michael Brown, Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco and President George Bush assumed the role of crisis spokesperson. However, none of these executives stood out as a crisis communicator who held the public’s trust and confidence. In fact, no single spokesperson was able to successfully deliver the federal government’s messages and instructions, regardless of the validity of the messages. This lack of a successful spokesperson likely impeded the speed of resolution and overall effectiveness of the federal government’s response efforts in the gulf coast.
Consider a fictional case of a message two factory owners sent when they ceased polluting a nearby river. The first factory owner said his factory stopped polluting the river because the company values native wildlife and protecting nature more than acquiring profit. The second factory owner stated there were a number of reasons including regulatory compliance, pressure from activists and evolving values of the community. Whose message is likely to be believed? Clearly, the first factory owner’s message will lack credibility because it instinctively sounds dishonest; a company that has a long history of polluting all of a sudden has a complete change of heart? Unlikely.
The second factory owner’s message is more credible since it admits that other factors and pressures contributed to the decision. Chief executives must appreciate that their audiences may not accept their message at face value, even if they are speaking from a position of authority. Audience members may not be subject-matter experts on a particular industry, but they are savvy enough to question messages that do not appear genuine.
While chief executives may feel reluctant to admit that their motives were not driven entirely by conscience, is even more important to be honest. There is risk in either path; omitting the real reasons may have short-term returns while honesty will usually yield long-term benefits, specifically in the soft assets of trust and credibility. Having the chief executive involved in this dilemma should be beneficial, since people in leadership positions typically deal with strategic (long-term) decisions and less so with tactical (short-term) decisions.
Stakeholders can not only create a crisis for an organization or jurisdiction, stakeholders can also substantially affect the progression and outcome of an active crisis. Since stakeholders have such a vital role to play in the progression or resolution of the crisis, crisis managers may ask these stakeholders to do certain things or not do others. If the chief executive, serving as crisis spokesperson, has an existing foundation of trust, stakeholders are increasingly likely to comply with the requests. Mayor Giuliani asked his citizens not to give into the fear they were feeling, not let this crisis erode the spirit that is New York and to get back to a normal routine as quickly as possible. Despite the intense emotions facing New Yorkers, these instructions were widely carried out. It is unlikely the same results would have been seen if the instructions originated from any other spokesperson.
Trust is the first and most important bond that must be established between CEO as spokesperson and the stakeholders. Other attributes that may be of value, depending on the circumstances, include ethnic identity, similar circumstance, and genuine empathy. Each of these qualities adds to the likelihood that an individual stakeholder will form a bond with the crisis spokesperson. As previously stated, that unspoken bond is essential in ensuring the stakeholder consumes the message and predictably acts on requests. In other words, the ideal spokesperson will form a bond of trust with each person listening to the message. While obviously unrealistic, it is a goal partially attainable.
One tactic sure to erode trust between spokesperson and stakeholder is to undervalue the state of mind of those directly and indirectly affected by the crisis. Ridiculing people as apathetic or hysterical does not improve an emotional state of mind; neither does it motivate the stakeholders to follow your guidance on recommended actions. Further, a crisis communicator must acknowledge fear and provide emotional support. Do not belittle your audience or dismiss their emotions.
What to Say
Spokespersons have rare opportunities to have their words heard and seen by their stakeholders, and those very words will be scrutinized by the media and pundits during a crisis. The words conveyed by the spokesperson can actually influence the outcome of the crisis more than the actions of the responders. It is therefore critical that care and deliberate effort be taken when crafting the message. One tool to help keep the spokesperson on track is the message map. A message map is a tool to hierarchically organize responses to high concern issues and controversial issues. The use of a message map will help ensure the crisis communications team’s key messages are heard and hopefully repeated by the media in the form of soundbites and printed quotes.
In general, crisis communicators should limit time comparing this crisis to others, reassure the public (although not to extremes), acknowledge uncertainty, assign tasks, give choices to the public and acknowledge peoples’ fears. The goal of the communicated message is to ensure the audience hears it, predictably analyzes it and responds in the desired manner. The chief executive, in the role of spokesperson, has a further obligation to lend a trusted and credible face to the crisis. Just as the CEO can be the face of the brand, so can the CEO be the face of the crisis. Trust is earned by succeeding at these tasks, but credibility can be eroded if the chief exeucitve strays into areas outside of competency. Usually, these areas concern targeted technical, jurisdictional and/or historical knowledge that may not be possed by the chief executive, but is usually possed by others on the response team.
A useful tactic for ensuring questions of technical, jurisdictional and historical nature can be addressed on the spot is to surround the spokesperson with subject-matter experts and not being afraid to defer to them. The crisis communication team will anticipate questions the media may pose, will gather the appropriate subject-matter experts and will prepare support personnel. Prepatory work might include rehearsing potential questions and answers, reviewing topics which are off limits for comment, ensuring key message points are repeated throughout the briefing and reviewing public speaking best practices. When the chief exeucitve is placed in front of the bank of microphones, this spokesperson should be armed with a rehearsed statement, an appropriate cache of background information, a list of key message points to repeatedly communicated and be surrounded by subject-matter experts who can immediately answer relevant questions.
The only time the spokesperson can expect their entire message to be consumed by their stakeholders is during a live broadcast. It is during this single opportunity that the spokesperson’s words are carried live and unedited. After the live briefing has concluded, media outlets will analyze the remarks and extract sound bites to be used during the news cycle. It should be the goal of the crisis communications team and the spokesperson to ensure key message points are included in those sound bites. Therefore, it is important that these key message points be agreed upon during preparation, be shared among all likely presenters, be worked into all released messages and be repeated whenever appropriate.
Ability to Carry the Message
Up to now, this article has discussed the who’s, what’s, why’s and how’s of the CEO in a crisis spokesperson role. What has not been covered is a CEO who is unable to comfortably interact with the media or has a history of inflammatory remarks during routine media encounters. What does a crisis communications team do when the need clearly exists for the CEO to present, but that CEO lacks the characteristics to effectively carry out the task?
In this instance, the crisis communications team must limit the CEO’s interaction with the media to the lowest-risk scenarios, such as prepared statements without follow-up questions or one-on-one interviews with reporters who are known not to have sensational agendas. In other words, attempt to control the environment as much as possible to both enable the CEO to deliver a message, but to limit potential unwanted circumstance.
Addressing the media can be more difficult and demanding than addressing the crisis itself. Despite all efforts to script and prepare for a media briefing, each interaction is unpredictable. We cannot be certain of what all journalists will ask and whether we can formulate and deliver a cohesive response within seconds. We also know that media briefings and interviews will be played back and analyzed and that our credibility may be attacked or our missteps ridiculed. These characteristics will instill fear and doubt in many and should rightfully keep only the truly skilled and experienced among us in front of the microphones.
Chief executive officers and chief elected officials are finding themselves as crisis spokespersons in a public relations climate that is not only demanding and usually in a forum hosted by media relations staff for media relations staff. This potentially unfamiliar and uncomfortable setting can be mitigated through preparation, practice and confident execution. While this article introduces the executive to the world of crisis communications, is not meant to serve as a comprehensive piece on the subject. Most executives will not interact with the media near the frequency of their public relations staff, but appreciating the pivotal role crisis communications plays is the first step preparing oneself for being a crisis spokesperson.
Eric Hodges is the chief of operations for the McLean County, Ill. Emergency Management Agency and is pursuing a master’s degree in emergency and disaster management at American Public University. Hodges is also the information technology director at Illinois State University, overseeing infrastructure and operations unit for administrative departments.
"Appeared in DRJ's Summer 2008 Issue"