Gerard Braud – Being Opportunistic – PR Sins of 2009 & How to Redeem Yourself in 2010

As we look back at the sins of 2009 and ways to redeem yourself in 2010, today’s lesson is about how to be opportunistic.

Opportunistic means you take advantage of a situation to get what you want. Maybe it is because I grew up in a large family and had to fight my 3 older brothers and a younger sister for everything I got, but being opportunistic has served me well in life.

Being opportunistic means that when you observe a situation, you use the power of persuasion, supported by a business case, to convince your boss to let you do what needs to be done, even if you’ve previously been told “no,” as we discussed yesterday.

You can apply this technique to many of your communications needs, but since I write crisis communications plans and teach media training, I’ll share with you a real life example of a HUGE opportunity that passed many people by in 2009.

Every year I get a wave of inquiries from people who want me to help them write their crisis communications plan, and most want a package, complete with a crisis communications drill and train their spokespeople. Many of the inquiries come this time of year because so many people these items on a list of goals and tasks to complete for the coming years. But many of those plans didn’t get written in 2009 because people were told “no, there’s no money in the budget.”

Then in April 2009, the Swine Flu epidemic began. This crisis presented a huge opportunity for you to go back to your boss, paint a grim picture, explain the potential negative impact the Swine Flu could have on your businesses, and get the funding you need.

Another way to be opportunistic is to get help from other departments. Pandemics are a huge concern for risk managers and human resource managers. In every risk management and human resources seminar, there are classes that focus on dealing with pandemics. This is a big issue for them. That means that if you are opportunistic, you can partner with those other managers to convince leadership that a crisis communications plan is an important element of risk management and employee communications.

Most of you who subscribe to the BraudCast are in internal communications, external communications, media relations, PR and marketing. And many folks in these fields are, by their very nature timid, and often take “no” as a final answer. I’d suggest that for 2010 you set as one of your goals to become opportunistic.

Look at it this way… In the case of the Swine Flu, workers would get sick, workers might die, productivity, production and sales could suffer… and you’d be called upon, likely at the last minute, to start crafting both a strategy and messages to deal with the impending crisis. That’s not really fair to you, is it? Especially if there is a solution, namely a pre-written crisis communications plan with pre-written templates. And if you already have a plan, you know it needs to update and tested. I have one client who is so opportunistic that I help him conduct 4 crisis communications drills every year.

So if you know in your heart that being prepared is the right thing to do professionally… then the answer is, being opportunistic is also the right thing to do professionally. If you achieve your goal and still do it legally and ethically, there is nothing wrong with being opportunistic.

Timing is critical when you are trying to be opportunistic. You have to be ready build a business case immediately after a crisis begins and present it to leadership while the crisis is still fresh in their minds. It doesn’t matter if the crisis is where you work or if it is a high profile crisis in the news. I can tell you from experience that each day that you get further from the crisis, the more likely leadership is to forget the trauma and devalue your proposal.

If your 2009 sin was a missed opportunity, your redemption in 2010 is setting a goal to be more opportunistic.

Tomorrow, we’ll talk about Shinny New Objects.


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H1N1 Swine Flu Crisis Communications Plans in Vacation Land – Mexico and the Swine Flu

I’m just back from a summer vacation to Mexico, where I’ve been thinking about you.

My wife, 2 daughters and I went on our annual scuba diving trip to Cozumel, Mexico, to find the island is virtually deserted because tourists are afraid they’ll get the Swine Flu.

One tourism official tells me it is worse than the last 5 hurricanes combined.

So what are our communications lessons?

Some may say Mexico is the victim of the old adage that, “no good deed goes unpunished.” I would say that is only partially true.

To Mexico’s credit, it did alert the world early of a possible Pandemic, to which the World Health Organization responded with a bevy of travel advisories. Those advisories indicated it would be a risk for people to travel by cruise ship to islands such as Cozumel. The cruise companies responded by canceling most of their trips to the island.

Experts applaud Mexico, indicating this is the first time Mexico actively engaged in such crisis response and crisis communications. And for this, some would say the drop in tourism is their punishment for the good deed of being proactive.

In the world of public relations and crisis communications, this lack of tourism amounts to a lack of crisis communications plans and skills by the tourism industry and the individual tourism destinations.

For example, when we arrived in Cozumel on a flight only three-quarters filled, we were greeted by a sign in the airport that says, “there have been zero cases of Swine Flu on the island of Cozumel.”

Well this was news to me. My airline never told me this. Travelocity, with whom I booked my trip, never told me this. My resort never told me this. The airline, the travel agency and the resort all should have a formal, well written crisis communications plan with instructions on how to communicate this critical information. Each failed to communicate with me.

Crisis communications is about keeping people safe and protecting the revenue of your organization. Swine Flu has taken a huge financial toll on Mexican tourism destinations. Tourism officials have invited tourists to return, but I’ve seen no extraordinary campaign to undue the Swine Flu stigma.

And if you’d like to look at the facts, to date, Mexico has reported 10-thousand cases and 117 deaths while the U.S. has reported 33-thousand cases and 170 deaths.

What lesson is there in this for you? Don’t depend upon others to do your crisis communications for you. If you want true crisis communications, it needs to come from your crisis communications plan. And the midst of a crisis is the worse time to plan for or write communications for a crisis. The best time to do it is on a clear sunny day when emotions are low, pressure is low, and you have clarity of logic.

Swine flu could still become an issue for your organization later this year. The best time to prepare is now.

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Have You Stopped Communicating Yet?

Here’s a new warning about the Swine Flu. Beware if you work in an organization where everything is quickly going back to normal and you’re being told to cease all communications related to the Swine Flu.

The reality is the Swine Flu doesn’t appear to be spreading at catastrophic pandemic rates, but in the world of media relations, crisis communications and employee communications, you should be doing 2 things:

First continue writing any unwritten communications you may need to eventually issue as it relates to the swine flu.

Secondly, convert everything you have written into templates that you can easily access and use for similar disasters… everything ranging from other pandemics, to bio-terrorism to mass casualty events… and definitely have your messaging ready should the Swine Flu escalate in the near future or later, during the 2009 flu season.

Swine Flu is a classic smoldering crisis that would involve communications about precautions, policy regarding infections, infection notification, death from infection, and all clear communications. In Tuesday’s Swine Flu teleseminar I’ll be getting into each of these more in depth.

Also remember my admonition to you just 2 weeks ago when this story broke – now is when you should be requesting the time and budget you need to establish a holistic crisis communications plan and system. PR people often fail to be opportunistic. Trust me, people in other departments, like Risk Management, are being opportunistic. Not only are they being opportunistic, but they’re also preparing for the future because pandemics affect the profits of companies when workers can’t work.

Classic crisis and post crisis behavior is for organizations and individuals to say, “Wow, I’m glad that didn’t happen here.” Then they return to normal operations and do no further planning until the next crisis. Numerous surveys indicate that after events like Hurricane Katrina and the Virginia Tech shootings, most communications departments and most organizations did nothing to prepare for their own crisis of a similar or lesser magnitude.

Always remember that the worse time to write messages about a crisis is when you are in the heart of the crisis. The best time to write messages about a crisis is on a clear sunny day when emotions are low and logic is high.

Swine Flu Rumors & Haig – Biden Syndrome

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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For additional resources please visit these site:

Crisis Communications Resources & Learning

More on writing a Crisis Communications Plan

School Crisis Plans & Crisis Communications

Swine Flu

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 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.

Sign up at