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Crisis communication: if it had a precedent, it wouldn't be a crisis.

Crisis Communication: If It Had a Precedent, It Wouldn't Be a Crisis

Any professional communicator who's lived through the '80s has at least a passing acquaintance with crisis communication. Throughout the decade an ongoing series of events in such disparate fields as finance, oil, food, manufacturing and politics have seen the rise and importance of well-tuned "crisis preparedness plans," "damage control strategies," "silver bullet strategies" and other "key rules" or "principles."

Yet after handling more than 200 crises for over the last decade, we can only offer one specific rule: there is no single way to solve a crisis, no bullet-proof plan which will always work, no iron-clad media relations approach that will fix the crisis overnight. Each crisis bears its own marking and its own unique solutions; indeed, if it had a "precedent" it wouldn't be a crisis. To draw upon the strategies successfully used by others such as Tylenol is not the key to developing a strategy; in fact, following such "proven" course could prove disastrous for you and your crisis.

The only rule of crisis communication is that there are no rules. But most crises share generally the same characteristics, some of which are described below.

Characteristics of a Crisis

The first characteristic is surprise--if not at the actual event, then at its timing. Consider the difference between a problem and a crisis. A problem which may be on the agenda for future action becomes a crisis when it is pushed into the present ahead of its schedule.

Often the pushing in a crisis comes from the media. Suddenly your organization has become a fishbowl.

Surprise leads to insufficient information. What's going on down there at the plant? Who's running the store? Are people really dead? How many? What's being done about it? The media want to know--and at this point rumors and half-baked facts are flying. No one at this point really knows what the problem is, much less how to solve it.

Communication is critical here. You will have an early opportunity to begin taking control of the situation. And the way to do this is to get your spokesperson out there--the one person who has the confidence of management, the board of directors and the employees to face the crisis head on.

Of course, at this point your spokesperson may not have much to say. Knowledge of the crisis is scant, speculation is rampant and the cameras are rolling. Your board, managers and legal counsel may wonder what is to be gained from facing the media and addressing the public. And what, at this early stage, can we say, much less do?

Demonstrating concern and your ability to take control early on in the crisis can prove to be the difference in weathering a subsequent phase: intense scrutiny from the outside. This manifests itself among several audiences, including the financial community, regulatory agencies, government and most of all, employees.

And all along the media are peering inside the fishbowl, hunting down middle managers for quotes, documents and more.

Suddenly the boardroom has become a bunker. The entire corporate culture becomes crippled. When it comes to communication, the attorneys in the room--dashing to minimize liability--will generally offer two words of advice, "do nothing."

The result of this is a short-term focus. The crisis has made you so distraught that rather than keep your eye on the true solution to the problem, which is going to take a long time to cure (remember, once upon a time it was a low item on the agenda, a matter a task force was researching), the organization begins looking at what appear to be solutions, but are often incredibly stupid things: firing employees who appear in TV interviews, pulling advertising from "offending" media and, again, refusing to do anything.

Only Media Pressure Is Consistent

As stated previously, no two crises are alike, be it Tylenol, Union Carbide, Exxon or the Girl Scouts of America. Media attention is the only consistent factor in a crisis. Media representatives are the least controllable of all communication channels in a crisis. Reporters assigned to a crisis will inevitably write a story. How the corporation tries to shape that story is a strategic decision that can prove critical.

No matter where, when or how reporters get involved in your crisis, your spokesperson must be prepared to answer three basic questions:

* What happened?

* Why?

* What are you going to do about it?

Every press statement and every briefing should be preceded by a thorough review of the company's position on those questions. Any hesitancy in formulating responses will be viewed as a sign of confusion, deception, unconcern or incompetence.

Selection of a spokesperson is one of the most crucial decisions in the first hours of a crisis. And while various criteria may apply regarding position, expertise, media experience, etc., only one criterion truly is important: the spokesperson must speak--from beginning to end--with authority from management.

Keep Your Eye on the Ball

One of the biggest mistakes in a time of crisis is the tendency to focus solely on the daily media coverage. From the corporate perspective, the media is the new player, the "intruder" who's created the problem by devoting so much time and space to it. Eventually, clippings become the accepted view of what the crisis is about.

This is an area where even experienced communicators err. Do not confuse the press with the public. Reach out beyond yesterday's headline and communicate with your key publics--whenever possible, directly.

In many cases, your own research of public attitudes and opinions can help you tell your story to the media. In some crises companies have conducted telephone surveys with consumers to assess their attitudes, subsequently sharing the results with the media. In less visible crises, more informal methods such as customer calls or analyst contacts may be useful. But in all cases, management must insist on non-subjective measures of the real impact of events on the vital audiences. Otherwise, the media will become the only strategic focus and you will be forced to passively dance to their tune.

Take Responsibility

Because they are less familiar with the problem, media will quickly seek to fix blame on a crisis. While you may not want to be blamed, you should never avoid responsibility. Large institutions are expected to act responsibly and to respond with the broadest interpretation of the scope of their potential responsibility.

We have found that 75 percent of the time the company truly is at fault in a crisis, many times because specific employees have failed to do their jobs. Indeed, in a good number of instances, drugs, sex, alcohol or greed on the part of employees is a key factor.

This means two things: management must be wary in a time of crisis, and, secondly, a great deal of digging must take place before presenting the complete explanation of what happened and why.

With the exception of hostile takeovers, most companies will survive a crisis. Products will rarely need to be recalled, and if you have managed the crisis successfully, you will recover quickly.

The Management Challenge

The management challenge is to define the true problem, set objectives and rapidly deploy constantly changing tactics. To do that there must be a crisis team carrying out decisions that recognize the wide variety of issues at hand. The media will probably precipitate the crisis, but crises will never be solved in the media. Crises will only be solved by cool-headed action and clear communications that define and deal with the true problems.
COPYRIGHT 1989 International Association of Business Communicators
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1989, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Tortorella, Albert J.
Publication:Communication World
Date:Jun 1, 1989
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