By Gerard Braud
Few organizations in the world face the communications challenges of America’s Rural Electric Cooperatives.
On any given day customers could be protesting over electric rates. Workers could be under attack for disconnecting service. Board members could be scrutinized for per diems, travel or expenses. Add to that the growing influence of negative social media comments and big city media covering more co-op controversies, and you have a storm brewing. That storm demands effective communications from all executives, board members, and co-op public relations teams.
Here are three steps every cooperative should take:
Step 1: Annual Media Training with Good Key Message Writing
There is no excuse, in this modern age of media, for any executive, board member or public relations person to mess up when talking to the media. But it still happens.
Many rural people tend to be friendly, honest and sometimes too chatty. Unfortunately many executives, board members and public relations people mistake the gift of gab for the ability to be an effective communicator with the media. Many board members mistakenly believe the respect they get from their status in their communities will transfer to respect from the media. That isn’t true. The fact is many of the habits you have in everyday conversation have to be avoided when talking with a reporter.
Don’t worry, there is hope. The secret is to set aside one day every year to sit down in front of a television camera with a media training coach to practice realistic interview scenarios.
Since most reporters really do not fully understand the history and inner workings of cooperatives, your media training must adopt the newest innovations in training. Never settle for training that provides only bullet points as talking points. This outdated method leads to bad ad-libs and ugly quotes.
Modern training requires a library of pre-written quotes, learned and internalized by each executive, board member and spokesperson. When written properly, internalized, and practiced, these verbatim sentences provide context, information and strong quotes. These are all elements reporters need in their story. Also, when written in a conversational sentence structure, these sentences are easy to work into everyday conversations by leaders and employees alike.
Consider that many executives who are interviewed complain that they are taken out of context and misquoted. A well-worded, pre-planned opening sentence delivered by the spokesperson can serve as a pre-amble statement that provides context to your cooperative’s goals and purpose. This forever eliminates the issue of being taken out of context.
With annual media training you will be a good spokesperson for good news, as well as when you have to speak to the media during a crisis.
Step 2: Write a Strong Crisis Communications Plan
The worst time to deal with a crisis is during the crisis. The best time is on a clear sunny day.
- During good times, your cooperative must conduct a vulnerability assessment to identify all potential crises.
- You must write a crisis communications plan that chronologically tells you every step you must take to effectively communicate during the crisis.
- You must write a preliminary fill-in-the-blank statement to use in the first hour of your crisis when facts are still being determined.
- You must create a more detailed news release style statement for each potential crisis that you identified in your vulnerability assessment.
If you identify 100 potential crises, then you need to write 100 potential news releases, using evergreen facts, fill in the blanks and multiple-choice options. This is best done through a facilitated writing retreat with your communications team.
A classic mistake cooperatives make is to prepare communications only for natural disasters, power outages and worker injuries. A modern crisis communications plan must also cover smoldering crises such as executive misbehavior, discrimination, financial mismanagement, per diems, and even crises involving social media.
When pre-written on a clear sunny day, these documents are ready for quick release to the media, employees, customers, the Internet and other key audiences. This process is not easy and is time consuming, but it pays huge dividends during your crisis. Many organizations experience a crisis, then in the midst of it, look at a blank word document and try to spontaneously draft a statement. The statement then goes through unprecedented scrutiny and rewrites, resulting in massive delays. In the modern age of fast communications, this is lunacy. You should never put off until tomorrow what you can write today.
Writing your Crisis Communications Plan is the perfect way to get all employees, executives, and board members on the same page. On a clear sunny day you can all agree on the policies and procedures that need to be followed for effective crisis communications. Make sure your plan goes beyond standard operating procedures. Also, make sure it doesn’t rely on only the expertise of your public relations team. The plan must be so thorough that nothing in the process is forgotten, yet easy enough to understand and follow that it can be executed by anyone who can read.
Step 3: Hold an Annual Crisis Drill
Too many cooperatives make the mistake of thinking their executives can wing it in a crisis. They think a gift of gab equates to being a great spokesperson. They also think that knowledge of the business equips them to manage a crisis and the communications for that crisis.
The secret to getting it right on your darkest day is to set aside time on a clear sunny day to hold a crisis drill. During your drill your emergency managers can run a table-top exercise. Your communications team and executives act out a real-time exercise, complete with news conferences, using role players to portray the media.
When done correctly, a drill exposes bad decision-making, bad behavior and outright incompetence among responders, spokespeople and those in leadership roles. Conversely, annual drills teach your team members how to effectively work together during a crisis. Team members are taught to achieve effective communications while also working to end the crisis.
As your facilitator prepares your drill scenario, make sure you include realistic elements of social media, since social media can spread good and bad news faster and further than the reach of traditional media.
As more cities sprawl into rural areas, they bring more homes and electric customers into your cooperative territory. The sprawl also brings more media attention and more scrutiny of your operations.
The best way to prepare for the increased attention you will get, is to plan on a clear sunny day and never to wait for the dark clouds to roll in.
About the author: Gerard Braud, CSP, Fellow IEC has helped organizations on 5 continents communicate more effectively with the media, employees and customers in good times and bad. He facilitates writing retreats and workshops to help cooperatives write and complete their crisis communications plans in just 2 days. He also trains cooperative board members and leaders on how to become effective spokespeople.