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Spring Journal

Volume 32, Issue 1

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There is no magic or mystery to effective communication in a crisis; yet anytime you turn on the news, you will invariably find someone who is making a mess of it. In working with organizations of every size and in nearly every sector, I have found that by following a few simple rules when communicating with your internal and external audiences you can keep your company from becoming the next crisis casualty.

Rule 1. Tell the truth

The single most important communication rule for surviving a crisis is often the most difficult to follow. After a major mishap our natural tendency is to try to cover up or defend what happened. It is simply unnatural when you have fallen on a banana peel to shout out, “Hey everyone, I fell down!” Providing accurate information and getting it out early, however, will allow you to control the flow of information and start the recovery process that much sooner.

This is the most basic rule of post-crisis communication and the one that is most often violated. You should never forget that the organizations that have historically suffered the most in the wake of a crisis have been those in which the leadership thought they could get away with bending, twisting, slanting, or stretching the truth. One of the consequences of living in the information age is that the truth always comes out eventually. The bottom line is this: When “it” hits the fan, you don’t want to be the one who was throwing the “it.”



Rule 2. Talk to your key stakeholders first and fast

The last thing you want is for the members of the board, or even the rank-and-file, to have to hear about what happened on CNN. Keeping the trust of your constituents should be one of your top priorities, particularly since it is their actions and reactions that will ultimately determine how damaging the incident really was. Phone trees, e-mail lists, and voicemail distribution are only a few of the many low cost methods for disseminating information quickly and easily nowadays that there is never a reason to leave your key stakeholders in the dark.
Rule 3. It’s okay to say,
“I don’t know”

If you don’t know, say so. Don’t guess. People will forgive you for not knowing all the answers right away, but they will eat you alive if you continually change your story. Bernard Baruch once said, “Every man has a right to be wrong in his opinions, but no man has a right to be wrong about his facts.” Check before you speak, then check again. If you don’t know the answer to a question, find out – and then get back to the person who asked as soon as possible.

Rule 4. Speed kills (rumors, that is)

Trauma surgeons refer to the first 60 minutes after a traumatic incident as the “Golden Hour” because this is the time when most lives are either saved or lost. The same thing is true with public relations in a crisis. The first hour, and the next 23 right after, are the most critical times for managing a crisis. You must be ready to respond quickly and effectively at any time, to any type of incident, and with zero notice. Have a well thought out media policy in place and make sure everyone (I mean everyone) knows what it is.

Rule 5. Control the flow

A push is always better than a pull when it comes to crisis communication strategies. Your crisis response team should anticipate any question that could be asked and have prepared responses. As soon as it is feasible you should also establish a regular stream of information to the press. Your goal here is to provide the members of the media with more information than they could possibly want. Remember that a bored press is your best friend. The sooner they get tired of your story, the sooner they will find something else of interest.

Rule 6. Context is key

Continually remind yourself and the public that whatever it is that happened was an isolated event. Providing perspective without seeming uncaring is the best strategy. If that computer chip did indeed malfunction, let people know how serious you are about investigating the cause – because even if it was only one out of the 25 million chips that you produced last year, your standards say that’s one too many. You are putting together teams of your top people, recruiting scientists from Harvard, and resurrecting Einstein. ... Your goal is for the public to think you’re the ones who are over-reacting.

Rule 7. Speak with one voice

He said, she said, right hand, left hand. A crisis is no time for a fragmented message. Appoint designated spokespersons and make sure they are the only ones who speak to the press. Anyone who meets with the media should be thoroughly trained and only speak from briefing sheets that have been properly vetted.

Rule 8. Failing to plan is planning to fail

Comprehensive crisis communication capabilities cannot be created post hoc. The time to develop a communication strategy is before chaos erupts, not on the fly when things are already in motion. When did Noah build the ark? Before the flood.

Rule 9. Step up

Take appropriate responsibility for the incident and your response to it. This is not the same thing as accepting blame, mind you. You are simply acknowledging that whoever or whatever is ultimately the cause, you are going to take responsibility. Think Harry Truman and his immortal proclamation, “The buck stops here,” or Kennedy’s insistence on taking responsibility for the Bay of Pigs fiasco when he could have easily blamed his advisors. Taking responsibility speaks volumes about your character and will win you the respect and trust of those who will ultimately sit in judgment: your public.

Rule 10. Never say ‘no comment’

There is a constant battle between attorneys and PR folks over how much you should say to the media in a crisis. While counsel is telling you to keep your mouth shut, PR is telling you that saying nothing is suicide. The plain truth is, there are times when they’re both right. On those occasions when saying nothing is your best course of action, however, using the phrase “no comment” is never a good idea. If you are not inclined to answer the question, there is always a more graceful response than doing an impression of a mobster being taken away in handcuffs. Even if you are caught completely off guard, something as simple as, “We are still investigating just what happened, but in the meantime, you should know …” gets you off the hook and transitioning back to your message in short order. The next time you think about using that deadly phrase, just consider your own reaction when you hear someone else uttering those seemingly self-condemning words on the 10 o’clock news.

Rule 11. Steal their thunder

Great trial attorneys often state the other side’s case in their opening arguments. “The defense is going to tell you this, that, and the other thing. But don’t you believe it!” You can use a version of this same technique to your advantage. Rather than waiting to be accused, come out firing – at yourself. “People count on us to … and we take that trust very seriously. If there is anything wrong with … we have a responsibility to make sure that … .” In polite society, we don’t kick people when they’re down. Even if they threw themselves to the mat.

Rule 12. Remember the basic rule of effective communications

When it comes to getting your message across, this is all you really have to remember: It’s not what you mean. It’s not what you say. It’s what the other person takes away.

Rule 13. Don’t take a trip without a map

Never “wing it” when talking to the press or any other audience – inside the company or out. Have a clear idea of what it is you want to say and learn how to stay on message. With just a little training you can learn to steer the conversation back to your key points without sounding like a parrot – or ending up where you really didn’t want to go.

Rule 14. Give a damn

When talking to any of your multiple publics you must show heartfelt caring and compassion. Most people learn throughout their careers that to “act professionally” means they have to hide their personal feelings. In times of crisis the same objective, dispassionate style of communication that works so well in board meetings tends to come across as heartless and uncaring. To come out on top in a crisis, you have to show that you truly care. And here’s the toughest part – you’ve got to really mean it. Jean Giraudoux once said, “The secret to success is sincerity. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made.” Don’t believe it. People can smell a fake a mile away. If the person you pick to speak on your behalf can’t muster genuine caring and compassion, find someone else.

Rule 15. Take a deep breath

Literally. To get control of your audience, you must first get control of yourself. Crises are, by their very nature, emotionally charged situations. Before talking to the press or any other audience, take the time you need to put yourself in the right frame of mind. Kipling put it best: “If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you … yours is the earth and everything that’s in it.” Don’t miss out on your opportunity to control the story by being emotionally overwhelmed.

Rule 16. Words matter

A young acolyte in the seminary approached the bishop one day with a question. “Father, is it alright if I smoke while praying?” “Certainly not!” said the bishop. The young man left, duly chastened. A few moments later he saw a friend who was praying while smoking a cigarette. “You had better not let the bishop catch you – he just yelled at me when I asked if I could smoke while praying.” “Really?” said the friend, “I just asked if I could pray while smoking and he told me that would be fine.” How we frame our message matters a great deal. Give care to the words you choose and how you frame your message to increase the likelihood of receiving the response you want.

Rule 17. Go with a pro

On Sept. 11, 2001, one of Rudy Giuliani’s first calls was to a psychologist who he kept by his side for advice on how to frame his message. Should you be doing any less? You wouldn’t do open-heart surgery on yourself, so why in the name of heaven would you risk the company on trying to go it alone in a crisis? Save money on the champagne you serve to celebrate your survival – not by trying to make it through a crisis on the cheap.

Rule 18. Fix it

Assure your audience that you are taking resolute action to ensure that whatever it is that caused the incident will never happen again. Whether it was your fault or not, being able to assure people that it won’t reoccur will go a long way to re-establishing your trust and credibility.

Rule 19. Take the temperature – inside and out

Organizations often assume that the actions they take will be as well received as they were intended. In a crisis, perception is often more important than reality. Avoid deluding yourself about the effectiveness of your actions by continually assessing their impact on your internal and external constituency through independently conducted surveys, focus groups, interviews, hotlines – whatever it takes.

Rule 20. Cowboy up

Be prepared to take your lumps and move on. Always remember that the universe doesn’t give a hoot about what’s fair and what’s not. Bad things happen to good people. Whatever has happened, you need to learn from it, put it in the past, and get over it. You can’t move forward if you’re stuck in the past. And for goodness sake, no sniveling.

Dr. JT Kostman is president of the Crisis Leadership Research Institute. He holds a Ph.D. in industrial/organizational psychology and is considered one of the world’s leading experts on the human dimension of crisis management. Dr. Kostman can be reached at (888) 808-CLRI, or by e-mail at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..