In the class, we challenged conventional writing and crisis management wisdom, we ruffled feathers, we insulted your English teacher, challenged your Public Relations professor, brushed off your legal team, and empowered you to change the way you write crisis communications statements.
We focused on ways to:
Increase comprehension by your stakeholders
Ensure greater accuracy by the media
Speed up the statement approval process
…and much more
As a bonus, schedule a confidential discovery call to privately discuss the crisis communications challenges that you want to conquer in 2021 by using this link https://calendly.com/braud/15min
Be well; be safe; be prepared,
The SituationHub Team
Crisis communications and media training expert Gerard Braud, CSP, Fellow IEC is based in New Orleans. Organizations on five continents have relied on him to write their crisis communications plans and to train their spokespeople. He is the author of“Don’t Talk to the Media Until…”
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If you want to be a crisis expert, examine what goes right
in most crises and what goes wrong in most crises.
In the age of social media, one of the things that
perpetually goes wrong is that eyewitnesses tell your story long before your
official, well-informed account is ever told.
A perpetual pain, problem and predicament for public
relations people is that since so many people fail to plan ahead, they wait
until they are in the midst of a crisis before they write the first word of
their crisis news release.
Imagine you have a fire and explosion. Imagine that people may be dead or injured. Imagine that there is a fire and evacuations are necessary. And imagine that in the midst of all of this chaos and anxiety, you have to open a new Word document and start writing a news release. Yes, imagine that you are staring at a blank computer screen and writing from scratch. That, my friends, is insane.
Furthermore, you’ll spend 30 minutes to an hour drafting your release. Then your crisis management team will spend 30 minutes to an hour marking up and making edits to your first draft… so that pisses away two hours. By the time you finish your second draft and the approval of your second draft, it will likely be 3 to 4 hours before your company releases their very first statement. Keep in mind that within the first 60 seconds of that explosion, eyewitnesses started posting pictures and video on social media. Some eyewitnesses may be broadcasting your crisis live on social media. You are insane if you are going to let 3 to 4 hours pass without an official news release.
At a minimum, your organization should have a First Critical Statement issued in one hour or less of your explosion. A First Critical Statement is a basic pre-written news release that can be edited and released in 5 to 10 minutes. If you don’t have one, download one free from my website. Use the coupon code CRISIS
Today, on a clear, sunny day, you can likely write 30 smart, well-worded sentences that could be used as your crisis news release for that explosion.
What might that look like?
It would include:
How many are dead
How many are injured
How many are missing
Are evacuations underway
Where are people being evacuated to
What corrective actions or responses is your company taking
What should the community members do
Which agencies are responding
A clear statement that says it would be inappropriate to speculate on the cause until a full investigation is completed
A sincere statement of empathy without it being a statement that inadvertently accepts any responsibility that would cause your lawyers to halt all communications
A managed expectation of when things might return to normal
Communications about contingencies for the community, customers, and employees
How to write the perfect crisis news release?
Write it like a news story.
Don’t bury the lead.
Don’t make it self-centered and company facing.
Write it like a speech, because you’ll want your spokesperson to read it to the media at a news conference.
Write it for the spoken word and not for the written word. That means eliminate sentences with commas. Use short, staccato sentences. Never use compound sentences.
Leave blanks in the document for facts that can only be added on the day of the crisis.
Use multiple-choice lists when answers can have many variables.
Make sure you have subject-verb agreement baked into every sentence.
Your goal should be to have one pre-written news release for EVERY item that you list in your Vulnerability Assessment that we talked about in Monday’s blog. My goal is to always have a minimum of 100 pre-written news releases in every crisis communications plan.
If you know the pain of a lengthy news release review by executives and lawyers, you should take comfort that a pre-written news release can be pre-approved. That means the language and sentence structure has been cleared and given the green light. The only thing that needs to happen before you release your statement is that you need to double-check the facts on the day of your crisis.
A pre-written news release is your best friend during a
Crisis communications and media training expert Gerard Braud, CSP, Fellow IEC is based in New Orleans. Organizations on five continents have relied on him to write their crisis communications plans and to train their spokespeople. He is the author of “Don’t Talk to the Media Until…”
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The worst sentence to begin a news release is, “We are excited to announce…”
If you hire a so-called public relations expert to write your news release and they write this, you should fire them. If you have written this yourself because you’ve seen others do the same thing, please stop.
Nothing says you value yourself more than your audience or customers than the dreaded, “We are excited” sentence.
In the world of customer satisfaction, your goal should be to celebrate the joy and benefits that you bring to your customers.
Here are 4 tips to avoid the worst sentence in the world:
1. Stop writing it.
2. Begin your news release with a customer-focused sentence, such as, “If you need XYZ, your life is about to get easier because of a new product/gadget being introduced today.”
3. Measure your “I”/”we”/”you”/”them” use. Your news release should contain more sentences that focus on the customer than the company.
4. Measure your “how” to “why” use. Stop focusing on how your product works and focus on why it improves the lives of your customers.
There is no doubt that the internal decision makers are excited. But the key to better sales is to make the consumer excited. When the customer gets excited they buy. When they buy then you can really get excited.
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Where is the ExxonMobil news release for the ExxonMobil Torrance Refinery explosion? An explosion is a crisis, which requires expert crisis communications. The media would expect information on the corporate news release page. Media want it fast and easy to find.
But look what you find on the ExxonMobil news release page – A fluff release about a summer jobs program.
Oil may have come from the age of the dinosaurs, but public relations in 2015 shouldn’t be prehistoric in nature.
Is ExxonMobil playing hide and seek with their news release?
At the bottom of the ExxonMobil page I found three social media links. I clicked on Twitter and found a statement that I’ve written about before – the dreaded and preposterous, “Our top priority statement.” The Tweet says, “Our top priority is the safety of our employees, contractors and neighbors in Torrance.” Obviously it isn’t your top priority, otherwise you would not have had an explosion with four people sent to the hospital, right?
Come on PR people: Enough with the bad clichés that you can’t defend. My top priority is to get public relations people to stop saying, “Our top priority.”
The link on Twitter sends me to this news release page, which did not appear in my initial search. Note the time stamp on the hidden news release – 10 a.m. ET on February 19, 2015. Now note the first sentence of the news release – it indicates the explosion happened at 8:50 a.m. PST on February 18, 2015. If there is an earlier release, it is hidden from me.
I have to question, why does it take nearly a day for a news release to be posted? This is absurd. This is 2015 and we live in the age of Twitter. No corporation should go more than one hour before a news release is posted. And don’t blame it on your lawyers or your executives. An expert public relations leader must learn to deal with lawyers and executives before a crisis so that your crisis communications can move with haste and professionalism. Your crisis communication plan should be filled with pre-written and pre-approved news releases. Geez!
Even on Twitter on the day of the explosion there is no ExxonMobil Twitter post related to the explosion, yet citizens are posting images and details about the crisis trending on #torranceexplosion.
Now let us examine the news release as ExxonMobil plays hide the facts and details. Compare the ExxonMobil release that mentions an “incident,” to the headlines on Google, which uses words such as “explosion” and a host of descriptors such as “rips though refinery,” “rocked by large explosion,” etc.
While ExxonMobil uses clichés such as “top priority” and “incident,” the NBC Los Angeles website describes, “Crushed cars, mangled metal, flames and a health warning.” Their lead says, “Hours after an explosion ripped through a Torrance refinery, residents for miles around continue to grapple with ash, a gas odor and concerns over poor air quality…”
Something tells me this was more than an “incident.”
In a crisis, it is important for official sources to provide official information. It is also important to control SEO. From a control perspective, the corporation should be controlling the flow of accurate information, rather than surrendering to the rumors and opinions for the public.
In the 2014 Fortune 500 list, ExxonMobil is listed as second. Some might wonder if their PR is second rate.
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A troll may target your social media site randomly and verbally attack your company for something they don’t like on the spur of the moment. Trolls usually seek out corporate sites during a crisis to add their mean two-cents. Trolls may rise to the level of organized activists who attack your site as a group.
Trolls are the social media equivalent of either a single activist throwing eggs on your CEO at a high profile public event or the equivalent of protesters with signs picketing outside your corporate headquarters.
Do you want to wrestle with those opinions in the midst of a crisis? I hope you say NOOOoooooooo!
So what should you do? Here are 3 steps to take:
1) You should schedule time on a clear sunny day to discuss and debate this issue with your corporate leadership.
2) Next, set policy, then modify your crisis communications plan to reflect the policy.
3) Next, create a pre-written news release template that would be used to explain the rationale of your policy, should you be forced to use it in a crisis. For example, if you took your site dark, you would need to explain why to your audience. Likewise, if you allowed your site to remain up and be overrun by trolls, you might need to explain that to your audience via a statement. Remember, these statements could be posted to your website, e-mailed to employees and stakeholders, and shared with the media if necessary.
Some might even say it is naive of some PR people or crisis communications consultants to say a social media site could or should never go dark, when in fact the final pulling of the plug could come at the order of the CEO. You can offer all of the wise counsel you want, but sometimes the boss ultimately has it his or her way, with complete disregard for what you think. All the more reason to have this discussion with your leadership team on a clear sunny day.
The decision making isn’t easy. Please schedule time to do it today. If you’d like me to sit in on the discussion, please give me a call at 985-624-9976.
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Our last article focused on the need for public relations experts to be more strategic as they accomplish tactical tasks. You were reminded that the articles you write must result in behavior change. Your Tweets, Facebook posts and videos must also result in change such as better employee productivity, more sales, or a changed behavior in your customers.
Once you have set up your strategic goals for the year, you must fight what we will call, “Emergency News Release Syndrome.”
Symptoms of Emergency News Release Syndrome include:
1) Emails from an executive telling you in the middle of the day that they need an unplanned and unscheduled news release by the end of the day.
2) An executive walking into your office asking you for a news release immediately for something that he or she has known about for weeks, but did not trust you enough to share with you previously.
3) Someone from a random department, that achieved an internal goal, wants you to write a news release to brag about their accomplishment. No one in the outside world, or even outside of their department, cares about it.
Several years ago I worked as a Vice President at Best Buy, which had one of the best processes I have ever seen for dealing with Emergency News Release Syndrome. It was in place before my arrival, so the credit goes to my predecessors.
Best Buy’s communications department had a policy that no news release would be written if the information did not correspond with the strategic objectives of the overall corporation. For example, if a corporate goal was to increase sales, the news release had to contribute to an initiative to increase sales. Also, if someone in IT came rushing to the communications department asking for a news release about a gadget that did nothing to improve sales or productivity, their request was rejected and no release was written. They were told to write a memo and place it on the bulletin board within their department.
Another policy was that there would never be a request for a news release for something that the communications department was kept in the dark about. When the executive leadership held confidential meetings about big, future initiatives, or potentially negative issues, a vice president from communications was brought into these confidential discussions from the beginning.
Both of these approaches worked because the communications team instituted a “Gatekeeper” policy. All requests for news releases had to go to the Gatekeeper. The Gatekeeper and her team would evaluate whether the information contributed to the company’s strategic objectives.
There are two somewhat sarcastic lines I use when presented with an Emergency News Release request:
• Do you want fries and a large coke with that news release?
This references the concept that you are not in PR just to take orders like someone at a fast food restaurant.
• Poor planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part.
This references the concept that in PR, your day, week, month and year should be planned out. Yes, you must be flexible on days when things are truly beyond anyone’s control, but man-made emergencies that result from poor planning or corporate secrecy are unacceptable.
You should do these things:
1) Set PR objectives annually that are in line with corporate objectives.
2) Appoint a gatekeeper and communicate to all what the PR department’s policies are regarding the gatekeeper system.
3) Push back and stick to your guns when people violate the gatekeeper system.
In short, be a welcome mat for strategically communicating and not a doormat for everyone to wipe their feet on.
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