What Is Crisis Communications?
Crisis communications is the art of working with the media when an event, which could have negative, devastating impact to a client, suddenly starts to gather hurricane strength. It is the most creative and exhausting counseling that a PR professional would be asked to perform as he turns a negative into a positive.
The best way to put out a fire is to have fire engines ready. Secure the most professional media / public relations / public affairs professionals and tools available - and keep them on standby. It is not always easy to anticipate a crisis (war, terror attack, act of nature, news leaks, fire, scandal, bankruptcy, crime, etc.) but when it does occur you should have an emergency media response team in place ready to react quickly and honestly in handling and controlling a hungry media.
Have checklists and flowcharts prepared for response measures and human resource tracking.
Get the Facts
Secure all of the facts. Go over these facts with operations and or legal counsel as to what can be released to the media and must remain confidential. Attempt to reveal as much information as possible without jeopardizing your client's image. Coordinate morning think tank briefings with your public relations and operations staff, discuss the situation and listen to all ideas presented. Keep in constant communication with all members of the crisis management team. Have back-up emergency equipment available for internal and external communications - from mobile telephones, beepers, VHF walkie-talkies to portable electric generators.
You must be proactive. If you respond to crisis events you will find yourself crushed, overwhelmed, out paced and out of control. The media constantly feeds on written copy and image material - print and electronic - provide an effective outlet for the dissemination of news and feature material, your news which provides your side of the story. If you don't control the news with an immediate and constant flow of facts, the media will find and circulate rumors.
Prepare news releases, photographs, maps and videos. Have e-mail and fax blasters prepared to get your messages out. Request air time on TV and radio news programs, coordinate focus groups, create posters, TV advertising and car bumper stickers. Coordinate celebrity appearances for third party endorsement and street demonstrations by supporters of your cause. These elements always get a positive image in the media for your client.
The Media Center
The Media Center for a crisis communications exercise is no different than that of a media center or communications information center for a Hi-Tech or Office Supplies trade show.
Set up the media center near the event, but not close enough for long range camera lens to interfere with your clients operational work.
Have several workstations available for the media with computers, Internet, telephones and faxes. Don't forget notebooks and pens.
Have food and coffee available.
Create a comfortable working home - a resource center for the media with your news releases, fact sheets, media kits, spokespeople and other media material available for review sitting a few feet away.
If your dealing with an international issue take cultural and language elements into consideration - make sure to have professional, bicultural spokespeople who speak English, French, German and Spanish.
Create an exhibit area where the media can use visuals for their filed reports.
Have crisis communications field stations prepared at every entrance to a physical crisis event site. Have professional spokespeople stationed at these posts with the latest facts - avoid having police, fire and or military operational personnel speak to the media. Use only trained media professionals to convey your message. The media professional will also act as a soft buffer between police, fire, military and or emergency medical operations personnel and the media, explaining to your operational team what your job is and how they can assist.
Alert the Media
Gather the media's mobile telephone numbers, beeper numbers, Twitter handles and e-mail addresses to quickly and efficiently contact the media with breaking news. Also get their office numbers as a back-up. On a government level this is done by issuing temporary photo ID press cards and having this information secured and data based. Have the media wear these press credentials at all times.
Use Social Media
The Internet is the fastest and easiest way to upload information for editors and reporters to download and publish. Create an Internet site which is being maintained 24x7 with the most relevant written material and images. In many cases a Facebook page created for the crisis with a Twitter account transmitting the Facebook page URL works very well.
Make sure that you have the most effective Internet security firewalls and anti-virus protection in place. Direct e-mail marketing is another potent tool used by PR crisis communications practitioners.
During a crisis, information is critical and the management of that information and getting it disseminated properly to the public and to the media could determine life and death in many cases.
Implement a Physical Perimeter
If the crisis involves a physical conflict or damage from a natural disaster, have the police, fire department and or military set up marked tape and signs around the area clearly stating: crime scene, closed military zone or simply "do not enter."
When the World Trade Center tragedy occurred, for at least three days there was no physical media perimeter set up. No signs, no tape.
This led to added confusion on the scene between reporters, photographers, police, FBI and national guardsman. The perimeter controls both the public and the press from tampering with evidence and or endangering themselves.
Monitor the News
Set up a team whose only function is to monitor and analyze both the electronic and print media 24x7. When a story or rumor appears whose content is not accurate or favorable to your cause you will now have an effective apparatus to react with quickly and be in a position to neutralize the negative content. In some cases - try to obtain wire service copy before it is transmitted - many an error has been stopped in it's track by assisting and working closely with the media to help them keep their facts straight and accurate.
Create Daily Briefings
If the media does not come to you - you are in trouble. If you are not controlling the flow of information the media will seek out other sources (rumors) which may be less reliable and negative to the image you want to portray.
Daily news conferences held with experts in the area related to the crisis will provide the media with much needed copy and footage. It's important to coordinate the time of the news conference / briefing with the deadlines of the press.
Create Daily Soundbytes
In this age of information overload, people don't have the time to read full stories. Stories are told in two minutes on nightly TV news programs. Get your relevant soundbytes out - control the headlines and keep your messages simple.
Have at least one person analyze the events of the day and contingency events waiting to happen. Respond with relevant soundbytes that are then distributed to your crisis communications PR information team.
The Truth - and Only the Truth
Make sure that all information which is disseminated to the media is truthful. If one item is false it will tear down your sacred wall of credibility.
If you have damaging material - that no one is begging for you to disperse (unless it has already made its way to a media outlet) then keep it close to your chest. Don't wake up sleeping dogs. If the material is released - you must react immediately with a truthful response. You can also create diversions if the issues you are dealing with are extremely sensitive.
You will need to coordinate a "speaker's bureau" - trained experts who are familiar with the situation and are able to articulate on camera. Even the best of speakers can use last minute media coaching to assure that they are using the right buzzwords and that their body language appears confident and smooth. Make sure that all spokespeople are informed of all of the facts in real time and are using one singular message. Create shifts - day and night - to adjust for different time zones and assure that your speakers don't get burned out.
This is perhaps the most important element of being a professional spokesperson. By speaking slowly you are able to organize your thoughts and control each and every word you articulate.
Speaking quickly illustrates a sign of nervousness - by speaking slowly you transmit confidence and calm. In addition, non-English speakers will understand you and your comments more accurately.
Acknowledge When You Are Wrong
If your client has said or done something which was inaccurate or clearly wrong - admit this action to the press with an apology. Unlike Richard Nixon, don't ever say that you "are not a thief" when you have been caught red handed. Be honest and sincere - both the media and the public will respect and appreciate this action.
Keep Your Tape Recorders On
Protect yourself and your client. You never want to go into a news conference or an interview without having your own tape recorders and or videotape running. When the media sees these control mechanisms in place they are less likely to misquote you. And if you are misquoted - you will now be prepared to avoid a "he said, she said" situation.
In addition, if inaccurate comments are not retracted or have created more damage to your client, you are now in a position to sue for libel and or slander.
Nothing is Off the Record
When a journalist says: "OK, let's speak off the record" - don't trust them. Yes - the majority of journalists are honest and will honor your comments, but you will always have one or two which will turn off the camera lights but keep the tape running! In a crisis situation you cannot afford to have "leaks" coming out of the media.
Members of the media are among the most competitive and creative of our species. You cannot control 1,000 journalists even with an army of professional communications spokespeople.
Create media pools and select members for this pool from the very suggestions of the media who are covering your event.
In some cases, where police, military or guards are involved you never want to get to the stage of having photos of your police, military and or guards shooting warning shots at reporters.
Nor do you ever want your security personnel to resort to smoke or stun grenades to prevent a "charge" by a pack of overly aggressive media which may have agitators dispersed alongside them. If you believe that members of the media will disrespect a police or fire line and or a closed military zone - set up barbed wire on the ground which will physically prevent a charge and any negative confrontations with security personnel.
Try to provide the media with the best vantages points from where they can film and work from - an area from which your your operations will not be jeopardized.
Have members of your crisis management communications team at these various points.
Never Say "No Comment"
If you are asked questions that you wish to avoid or don't have the answers to - respond by stating: "That's a good question, I don't have the answer, let me get back to you on that". Get the reporter's telephone number and state that you will get back to him with a response shortly. If you have the time, follow-up with a response to that reporter's question.
You never want to appear as if you have something to hide. You never want rumor substituting for fact.
Create Good Vibes
If the crisis situation is ongoing (i.e. - hostage taking) and the media is camped out waiting all day in a blistering sun and freezing night temperatures for breaking news - feed them. Go to their hotels or to a perimeter barricade - ask if they personally need anything. Hand out water bottles, fruit, sandwiches, coffee, cake and good will.
Believe it or not - the media consists of warm blooded human beings who are under tremendous pressure to produce for their publishers. Try to make the situation as comfortable and as safe for them in the field as possible. In doing so, you will create a friendlier environment to get your message out to the world.
Lastly, always express optimism and sympathy for all parties involved.
Hours after the September 11th tragedy took place, speaking from the crisis site, New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani stated: "Returning to normal shows we are not afraid, shows confidence. So do things. Get out. Go to stores. Go to restaurants. Don't feel locked in. This is a horrible thing that's happened, the full dimensions of which we can't begin to understand. But we simply must continue to go about our lives".
Expressing the facts with honesty and leadership during a crisis event is your first and last responsibility.
New York / Jerusalem
LeydenDigital @ gmail.com