Crisis communication resources to help you protect your revenue, reputation, and brand.
Effective crisis communications when “it” hits the fan.
Our blog is filled with deep resources to help with your crisis communication needs. Whether you are writing a crisis communication plan, seeking the best media training tips, or digging for case studies on crisis situations, you’ll find it here. Our goal is to give you all of the public relations resources you need to protect your revenue, reputation, and brand.
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By Gerard Braud
The 2 single biggest complaints I have heard from executives over the years, after they have done an interview, is that “the reporter took me out of context” or that “the reporter left my best stuff on the cutting room floor.” (If you are young, the cutting room is where film was edited for TV news prior to the mid 1970’s. Film that was not used in the story was thrown to the floor during editing.)
Here is the God’s Honest Truth – First, if it was your best stuff it would be in the story. What you think is your best stuff and what the reporter thinks is your best stuff may be very different. But no reporter leaves your best stuff on the cutting room floor. Secondly, reporters never intentionally take anyone out of context. If you are taken out of context there must be a reason for it and I think I know why. Let’s break it down –
In lesson 3 I emphasized the importance of talking in well worded, professionally written quotes. Why do we all know Neil Armstrong’s quote, “That’s one small step for man; one giant leap for mankind?” The reason we know it is because it is a well written quote from a professional writer and Armstrong practiced as part of his pre-flight training. It was not a spontaneous thought or ad lib by Neil Armstrong as he became the first man to set foot on the moon.
Your best stuff should be a well written practiced quote. Hey, if it is good enough for Neil Armstrong, it should be good enough for you.
Unfortunately, spokespeople who refuse to go through media training are usually guilty of making some spontaneous, inflammatory statement that becomes the quote. Generally they say something really dumb that they regret later. The problem is once it is said, it’s said. There is no taking it back. There is no do-over.
So my big rule for you in this category is that someone is going to edit what you say; it should be and must be you. Editing starts when the quote is written.
And remember this — reporters all recognize a good quote. If you want proof, attend a news conference and watch the reporters as they take notes. It is like watching a ballet as all of the reporters raise their notebooks at the same time to write a quote or fact as the spokesperson says something important. Then all of them put their notebooks down together, then raise them all together again as they hear the next important quote or fact.
Let’s now look at the issue of, “they took me out of context.”
Being taken out of context is usually the fault of the spokesperson. It is generally caused by the spokesperson being unclear, transposing important words, speaking in jargon or trying to give too many facts. That results in the reporter misunderstanding what the spokesperson meant. In short, something gets lost in translation.
How can you keep from being taken out of context?
Don’t try to overload the reporter with facts. Reporters write in an inverted pyramid style. That means they start with a headline that is the synopsis of the story. Then they add the next broad general fact and so on. Seldom does the reporter get into great detail and an abundance of facts. So, don’t get caught in the trap of trying to give too many facts.
Also, realize that the flaw of giving lots of facts and details is often a personality trait. Accountants, engineers, doctors and lawyers live in a world of details where numbers and facts must be precise. Hence, they want to be exact in what they say and they say too much; they give details beyond the reporter’s comprehension. A print reporter is likely only writing a 12-20 sentence synopsis, a radio reporter is only writing 6-8 sentences and a TV reporter is only writing 10-12 sentences. Usually the miscommunication begins when the spokesperson may want to tell the details of “War and Peace” but the reporter is only looking for the CliffsNotes.
If you keep it simple you help the reporter write their story without miscommunications or misinterpretation and you won’t be taken out of context. That’s why in so many media training programs the trainer will ask the spokesperson to focus on just their 3 most important messages.
Next, forget the corporate and non-profit jargon, buzzwords and the government acronyms. Jargon, buzzwords and acronyms are speed bumps to comprehension. They are easily misunderstood by the reporter. The reporter then writes what they think they heard you say. However, if you were not clear, then the story will be wrong. It is your fault and not their fault.
Finally, before the interview is over, ask the reporter if they clearly understand all of the words you used. An embarrassed reporter may nod their head in agreement, yet be too embarrassed to ask you to define certain terms that you used.
In summary… Keep it simple.
In our next lesson we’ll address bias in the media.
By Gerard Braud
My wife often reminds me that it’s “not about me.” But she forgets that I come from a 15 year career as a journalist, where everything was about me.
Everyday it was my story; my interviews; my scoop.
Reporters have big egos. Accept it. You can’t change it so don’t even waste your time and energy.
To be successful in an interview, you have to know and understand the wants, needs and desires of a reporter. They include:
• I want a hot story.
• I want to be the lead story, which is the first story in the newscast or the first story on the front page.
• I want to build a positive reputation.
• I want to advance my career.
• I want to impress my boss.
• I want a raise.
• I want my TV station to have the best ratings.
• I want my newspaper to have a high readership.
• I want to be recognized as a good reporter by my peers.
• I want to win awards.
Do you see a trend here? I want, I want, I want…
Give reporters what they want, but give it to them on your terms. Take care of them and they’ll take care of you.
Help them tell a great story and they will treat you right.
The best single tip I have for you in this category is to talk in great quotes. A quote is one of the single most important things a reporter needs for a story. Sure, facts are important. But when it comes time for the reporter to write the story, your quote makes or breaks the story.
Most spokespeople concentrate too much on trying to convey facts.
The anatomy of a TV news story is this: the reporter writes 1 or 2 sentences to set up the premise or “lead” for the story. The next 2 sentences are a quote, followed by a 2 sentence transition that sets up a second quote. Then the reporter wraps up the story with a summary. A newspaper story is similar, but 3 to 4 times longer.
When you speak in quotes you are actually writing part of the reporter’s story. I’ll bet you didn’t realize that.
Here is one other weird thing that reporters do that no other professionional does. A reporter gives away a portion of their job each day to a complete amateur. Yep – A lawyer doesn’t let an amateur try their case or write a contract; an accountant doesn’t let an amateur do the math or balance the books; an engineer doesn’t let an amateur run the chemical plant; a doctor doesn’t let an amateur do surgery. But a reporter turns over a portion of their script – the quote – to you – an amateur. Doctors, lawyers, engineers, accountants, etc. are not professionally trained writers. Yet they are writing a portion of the reporter’s story when they start talking in an interview. Some part of that interview will be quoted and that means you are writing a portion of the final script.
Great quotes are seldom spontaneous for the spokesperson. That is why they are best written by a professional writer and public relations expert. It is the spokesperson’s responsibility to ask for help crafting quotes and then also their responsibility to go through media training and practice so the quotes are internalized, honest and sound unrehearsed.
In our next lesson we’ll examine those age old responses from spokespeople who say, “the media took me out of context and they left my best stuff on the cutting room floor.”
By Gerard Braud
The Big IF is what I call my philosophy of media training.
I ask every executive that I media train this all important question: If you could attach a dollar to every word that comes out of your mouth, would you make money or lose money?
This is true for corporations that depend upon customers.
This is true for non-profits that depend upon donations.
This is true for government agencies that depend upon taxpayer and legislative approval for funding.
Say the wrong thing and your customers will buy elsewhere.
Say the wrong thing and your donations will dry up.
Say the wrong thing and funding to your government agency gets cut.
Say the wrong thing and lose your job. It is that serious.
Many executives are hesitant to carve out time in their schedule for media training. Why? Primarily because they think they are too busy. That translates into they are too busy doing things that help them or the organization make money (although, send them an invitation to a charity golf tournament and most will fit it into their schedule.).
Many people who do media interviews also let their egos get in the way. They are afraid to go through media training because they are afraid someone will see them mess up. It is for that very reason that I tell all of my media training students that at the end of class I insist they destroy the video tape used in our role playing interviews so that all of their mistakes stay in the training room.
The things I hear most often from executives who will not train are:
• I’ll just wing it.
• I’ll just be honest, shoot straight and tell them what I think.
• I don’t want to sound rehearsed. I like to be spontaneous.
My answer to that is that if you wing it, you’ll crash and burn.
As for honesty, I believe you should always be honest. The key to honesty is to choose every word carefully. For example, if we gathered a group of your biggest competitors in a room and asked you to unveil all the secrets to your business model and success, would you really tell them everything you know? Would you give them your playbook? It is a question of honesty after all. So if a reporter asks you the same question, will you tell them everything? They are going to print it and give it to your competitors.
As for being spontaneous, I spent 15 years in the media listening to people be spontaneous with me everyday. As they spoke, most days my general thought was, “I can’t believe this idiot just said that to me on camera.” By the time those comments were edited into my report and put on the evening news, most of those spontaneous, poorly worded comments were damaging to the spokesperson’s reputation, which also has a negative impact upon the organization’s revenue.
Was it fair for me to use the dumb, incriminating, negative things people said to me? Absolutely. After all, those people must have thought it was important because they said it to me. I’m just sharing their honesty with the public.
Let me also emphasize this. It’s one thing to look stupid in the news report. But the damage does not stop with the damage you do to your personal or organizational reputation. Every time you damage your reputation you lose money. How much you lose depends upon how big of a gaff you make and the specific topic.
When you say something stupid that gets in print, on the radio or on TV, you also destroy your credibility with your employees. You also cause embarrassment to your employees and you potentially have a negative effect on their productivity; that will cost you money also.
So I ask the question again: If you could attach a dollar to every word you say, would you make money or lose money?
A well prepared, well rehearsed, well internalized message makes people want to do business with you, buy your products or support your cause.
As for not wanting to sound rehearsed, it is important to realize that the old adage about practice makes perfect, is true.
Many people make the mistake of trying to memorize what they want to say. Memorizing means you only know the words in your head. The secret is to internalize what you want to say. Internalizing means you know it in your heart and you know it in your heart to be true.
In order to internalize your message, you first have to go through the process of learning it in your head before transferring it to your heart, then sending it from your heart to mouth.
If it is a lie, you cannot store the message in your heart and you will not be able to effectively verbalize it. So internalizing your message means that it is a well worded honest message.
My final tip on this topic is to treat every interview with the same importance that you treat every business deal. Before entering into a contract, countless hours are spent in preparation and negotiations. Why? Because it affects the bottom line. Well, the same due diligence and time needs to be put into preparing for a media interview. That means you need to schedule time to anticipate questions, prepare well worded answers, and to train and practice until you get every answer perfect every time. Then and only then should you do an interview with the media.
Every interview is as important as every business deal.
In our next lesson, we’ll take a look at the wants, needs and desires of the media.
by Gerard Braud
This first lesson may seem counter intuitive, so let me explain what I mean. You don’t want to talk to the media, but to the media’s audience.
Ask yourself, who is that audience and how smart are they? The general rule is that the average person who watches TV news has a 6th grade education. And, the average person who reads a newspaper reads at an 8th grade reading level. Those listening to radio news fall into those same ranges.
So when you do a media interview, you need to be talking to those people and using words and language that those people understand.
Drop all the big words. You don’t win any prizes for being multi-syllabic.
Can the corporate jargon. Synergistic win-win collaboration means nothing to anyone but you.
And get rid of the government speak and axe the acronyms. Neither your audience nor the media should need to be a code talker to decipher what you are saying.
Think of it like this… If you were asked to speak at career day to a 6th grade class at your local school, what would you say? In fact, my assignment for you is to call a local school and ask to speak at the next career day. It’s a great exercise.
OK, so the skeptics out there may disagree. Here are the things I hear from the skeptics:
• Well I’ll just tell the media what I know. It’s their job to simplify it.
• I don’t want to dumb it down.
• What will my peers think?
• My audience is different.
My answer is bull, more bull, definitely bull and absolutely bull.
If you want the media to get it right then simplify the information for them. Do their job for them. Do the translation for your audience.
No one wants you to dumb it down and I’m not asking you to dumb it down. I want you to simplify it. There is a difference. I want you to be inclusive. I want you to respect what the audience may or may not already know. Be kind. Help them out.
As for what will your peers think, seldom will your peers be your audience when you do a media interview. Chances are your potential customers are your audience. Doctors should not use technical medical information but should use bedside patient language. Corporate people should not use corporate speak but customer speak.
New research also indicates that even people with college degrees and advanced degrees prefer to read at an 8th grade level. Information overload means they really want to be able to skim and quickly digest everything they have to read, whether it is a newspaper, e-mail, web site or memo.
You have a responsibility to communicate in a way that the media’s audience will understand. You have a responsibility to communicate in a way that is easy for the media to understand, digest and repeat.
So our first rule is “don’t talk to the media.” If you’d like a reminder, send an e-mail to me asking that I send you one of my “Don’t Talk to the Media” post cards. You can put it on your desk where you’ll see it every day. (my address is firstname.lastname@example.org )
In our next lesson, we’ll talk about the connection between profit and a media interview.
Swine Flu and Crisis Communications are our topic this morning.
Two of the worst classic behaviors of crisis communications are beginning to take shape as we get several days into the Swine Flu hysteria. So I come to you today with warnings so that you can look for these behaviors, then I want to give you actual steps to help stop them dead in their tracks, then I want to give you steps you can take to set the stage to keep them from happening in the future.
The first behavior is managing rumors, which is harder to control than ever before because of Social Media and web communications.
The second behavior is what I call Alexander Haig syndrome, which we I may be renaming to Joe Biden syndrome.
First let’s address rumors. Good communications is about how do I want my audience to behave. That needs to be the goal of all of your communications. Not listening to rumors and going to officials sources is the behavior we want out of our audiences at this time, be that audience media, employees, customers, hospital patients, school children, parents, citizens.
My wife works at a school where the rumor e-mails started pouring in yesterday. All were e-mails forwarded from a friend warning that there were secret cases of Swine Flu that the hospitals, schools and government were not telling us about.
This is exactly why I always preach that in crisis communications you have one hour or less to begin your own communications and why making this one hour deadline means stockpiling a massive quantity of communications templates that you can access quickly. This is why when I write a crisis plan with a client we often create 100 or more communications templates in a day.
The most effective words that you can use in your communications are, “This is what we can confirm.” You should also include the phrases or admonition, such as, “We ask members of the media, employees and members of our community to avoid repeating rumors and turn to official sources for information.” Then your statement should tell the audience what those official sources are, emphasizing that your website is THE official source for all information related to you and your services.
The ability for rumors to be spread via e-mail and text messaging scares the pants off of me. A rumor can circle the globe several times via the web before your executives even meet to discuss this. In this short amount of time I can’t tell you all I know about writing messages in advance, but if you’d like to know more just call me at 985-624-9976.
The second classic flawed behavior of a crisis is what I call Alexander Haig syndrome, which is where someone who is not a top decision maker tries to take control of the situation and begins making bold, flawed decisions and statements. (This of course is a cultural reference to March 30, 1981 when President Ronald Ragan was shot and Secretary of State Alexander Haig proclaimed he was in charge, even though he was only 5th in line for the presidency.)
But the reality is, good crisis planning and good crisis communications planning must always take place on a calm, clear, sunny day and not in the throes of a crisis, where panic and anxiety are present.
When panic and anxiety are present we experience 2 extremes. The first extreme is decision paralysis where people are afraid to make decisions because the decision may be the wrong decisions. We saw that at Virginia Tech where officials waited 2 hours and 16 minutes to issue their first communiqué, when the reality was that had they communicated faster, they may have been able to save lives because that first communiqué went out 11 minutes after the second assault began, which resulted in 29 more deaths.
The other extreme is the Alexander Haig syndrome, where people make bold decisions and bold statements that historically end up looking stupid. Vice President Joe Biden has done this today, proclaiming on national news that he has told his family that he would not fly, take mass transit or go anyplace where a large crowd may be gathered. None of these are actual recommendations from the U.S. government, nor are they the recommendation of national health experts.
Both Haig and Biden are famous for saying dumb things. We may already be seeing the impact of this behavior as school systems cancel all sporting events to prevent crowds from gathering. The reality is, sporting events could still continue with players playing safely, but perhaps with no crowds are with limitations on crowd sizes.
The test is on decision paralysis or Haig/Biden syndrome come by judging whether or not your leaders are having to make decisions on the spur of the moment or whether most of the decisions were made on a clear sunny day. In the case of Haig, the founding fathers decided on a clear day in 1776 that the Vice President, and not the Secretary of State, is in charge if the President is incapacitated. In the case of Joe Biden today, the Centers for Disease Control and the World Heath Organization have official guidelines that they laid down on a clear sunny day to determine whether it is safe to take a plane, ride a train, use mass transit or go to a crowded shopping mall. Biden’s advice is not only unsound, but could have serious financial consequences by bringing commerce to a halt at a time when the economy is already hurting.
So what steps should you take if you have not already taken them?
Step 1) Hold a Vulnerability Assessment meeting today to discuss all the scenarios of what could happen to your company/school/hospital/agency as it relates to the Swine Flu. That means discussing how you will manage and respond to rumors, and how you will respond if the outbreak progresses.
Step 2) Decide what actions you will take as certain events unfold, such as what are the parameters that trigger certain behaviors and communications. When I write a crisis communications plan, for example, it has levels of severity, designed to indicate specific communications strategies. The Centers for Disease Control, for example has a 6-point scale of severity, designed to trigger key responses. Currently we are on level 5 of the 6-point scale.
Step 3) Start writing. You need communications written today that you may never use, but that is at the ready should you need it. Think of these as fill-in-the blank templates to which you can add the who, what, when, why and how on the day you need them. But today, much of what you need to say on the day of the crisis can be written. You can list agencies that you are coordinating efforts with. You can list precautions people should take. You can create fill-in-the-blank sections that might describe injuries, infections or fatalities should it come to that. I think that today you may be able to write 75%-90% of what you might need to say. This saves you an enormous amount of time when the crisis really hits, allowing you to communicate rapidly and beat the rumors.
Step 4) Do Media Training now. Never let a spokesperson wing an interview. Media are reporting lots of stories on precautions and what if. Many of the spokespeople I see look like deer caught in the headlights; many look robotic and read statements with a monotone voice. Your credibility is higher when your spokesperson looks comfortable and sounds like they know the material. Some spokespeople do well delivering their statements, but then flush it all down the drain when they screw up during the question and answer portion of their news conferences. Many just don’t understand how to stick to their message and how to use those messages to answer a negative question.
Step 5) Schedule a Crisis Communications Drill as soon as possible. It is critical that you test the behavior of your communications team and your leadership team to make sure everyone can work together, follow written plans, and play well together in the sand box while under stress. In the book “Good to Great” the author says make sure you have the right people on the bus and in the right seats – that is, make sure you have the right employees in the right jobs. He goes on to say that if they are not the right people in the right seats that you should get them off of the bus as quickly as possible because of the irreparable damage they can do. Of all the Crisis Communications Drills that I’ve conducted in my career, twice the company had to fire people who performed so poorly in the drill that it was clear they were not the right people in the right job. One of those fired was because he displayed Alexander Haig syndrome and withheld critical information from the Crisis Management Team. The other person was in a public relations position and she was unable to get her first statement release during a 4 hour drill because she had no pre-written templates to work from and because she was focused on too many other things and not focused on rapid communications.
Keep an eye on all of my websites and blogs for the latest information designed to help you. I look forward to seeing your comments on the blog.
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More on writing a Crisis Communications Plan
Swine Flu – those should be the first words out of your mouth when you get to the office today. The fact that there is a new global pandemic threat could be the best thing to happen to your communications and public relations department all year. Why? Because corporate leaders will be willing to spend money on things that you’ve been wanting to day anyway, such as write a new Crisis Communications Plan or update your current plan. You can also get money in the budget for media training, presentation training and more.
Why will they be willing to spend money? It’s because corporate risk managers, who get the ear of executives more often than communicators, know that a global pandemic could trigger their risk management plan, which generally has lots of contingencies built in for pandemics. The reason there is a big contingency plan built around this is because a mass number of sick workers will affect corporate profits, and nothing gets the attention of corporate leaders more than something that can affect corporate profits.
Twice this decade risk managers were able to get leaders to free up funds for potentially serious events that could affect corporate profits. First, the Y-2-K computer fears lead to massive sums of money being spent on precautionary projects. That was followed a few years later by the SARS Virus.
So what should you do? Walk up to the executive suite and be the leader of your organization’s efforts to communicate with employees, the media and other key audiences should there be a Swine Flu outbreak that affects your business. The media may want to interview corporate leaders just on the topic of what precautions they are taking. And when you bring up the topic to corporate leaders, they’ll ask what needs to be done and how much will it cost. Be ready with an answer and be ready to ask for more money than you need. Why? Well, if you ask for $50,000, in tight economic times they’ll ask if you can do it for $25,000. You can settle for $35,000 and begin working on your projects.
The Swine Flu is a classic smoldering crisis, for which a properly written Crisis Communications Plan is needed. Once the Crisis Communication Plan is written, it should be followed up with Media Training, then a Crisis Communications Drill.
Here are 10 steps you should take today:
1) Create a combination internal & external communications strategy. Remember that what you say to one audience you must say to all. What you say to employees is never confidential; it gets forwarded to the media.
2) Be ready to communication workplace and social precautions.
3) Be ready to communicate true risks so as to minimize hysteria.
4) Provide perspective. The maps on the news show states where a few cases have been confirmed, but the map looks rather frightening, even though only 2-3 cases have been reported in some of the states.
5) Do a vulnerability assessment. This is the first step in creating a crisis communications plan or crisis communications strategy. Know where the crisis may occur and how.
6) Don’t try to wing it the day you need to communicate. A crisis is no time to write a crisis communications plan. Write or revise it on a clear sunny day.
7) A writing retreat is a great way to get a lot of work done in just a few days. That’s the technique that I use in my 2-day program to write a crisis communications plan. Get everyone who needs to be part of the writing team together at one time. Get them out of the office in a retreat setting to write without interruption. Leave the e-mail, phones and Black Berry devices behind.
8) After the communications is written, determine the ways you’ll communicate. Get all the tools lined up. Web 1.0 tools are still some of the best tools.
9) Hold media training for the executive team. Don’t let them wing these messages. There could be touch questions that follow.
10) Hold a crisis communications drill to test your strategy. The time to screw up is in private. You don’t want to screw up the day of the crisis.
Remember, powerful communications before a crisis and rapid communications during a crisis can save lives.
Here are 2 resources to help you prepare. This link takes you to a special podcast on the subject
https://braudcommunications.com/Podcasts/BraudCasting Swine Flu.mp3
Secondly, I’m inviting you to join me for a special teleseminar in just 2 weeks on May 12 at 11 a.m. Central Daylight Time. The teleseminar will be called Swine Flu, Public Relations and You. In it we’ll spend an hour in greater detail talking about the tools you need to be prepared to communicate for what is going to be a hot topic.
For client questions & media interviews