I was called by BCBusiness magazine writer, Kristen Hilderman, with the question: Does every company need to know how to communicate in a crisis?
The short answer is yes. Any company or organization can face a crisis requiring them to work with the speed of social media to protect their reputation. Once a worst case scenario hits, the scramble is on to do and say the right things.
This subject is extremely topical because Vancouver’s two recent SkyTrain shutdowns, in the same week, were aggravated by poor communication with many hapless commuters trapped on trains.
This followed Lululemon founder, Chip Wilson, creating his own crisis by implying women who require larger sizes shouldn’t buy the company’s yoga tights.
He got publicity alright. But it was the wrong kind. The online petition fell just short of calling for a complete boycott of Lululemon stores and their products.
Laterally speaking, it was the Mount Polley mine tailings pond dam failure releasing that brought crisis communications to the forefront. The flood of 10 million cubic metres of waste water, plus more than four million cubic metres of sediment flowing through a failed tailings pond dam, created its own flood of public outcry and media questions.
Imperial Metals seemed slow off the mark — they communicated with a news release on their website. That quickly got stale and nobody in the head office was available to respond to media questions.
So what are best practices in these situations? Have a crisis communications plan. Ensure that it is practical and that it works. Run a crisis simulation so you can find and resolve any glitches.
That plan should be a quick-response blueprint for anything that might imperil your organization’s reputation.
Make sure the plan is short and workable. Templates for holding statements, fact sheets, topics and key messages, news releases, media advisories, as well as a resume of predictable questions and recommended answers, should be appendices. Crisis communicators should be able to use the templates to cut and paste to meet current needs.
Select key spokespeople and put them through media training. There is a well vetted methodology for managing crisis communications by communicating effectively with media and stakeholders.
With all that in place, issues and crisis management is still very challenging, as those who have been dealing with recent events know all too well. But there is a way through and preparation is everything.
A reporter called and started asking questions. I knew the answers and was well into giving information on behalf of the client when it hit me: I’m not authorized to be this company’s spokesperson!
As a communications consultant for this client I was empowered to provide information – send out pre-authorized backgrounders, fact sheets, news releases. But I was not authorized to speak on behalf of the company. I stopped in mid-sentence.
“I’m not a spokesperson for my client so I don’t want to be quoted,” I said, probably too sharply. I caught the reporter cold. He was taking down everything I said and fully intended to pepper his story with Alyn “Edwards said…. According to company spokesperson Alyn Edwards…”
It was almost too late that I realized I had set a trap for myself and I was right in it. I knew better.
During the hundreds of media training sessions I have conducted, I stress that companies must appoint and train anyone speaking for the organization and they should only offer information in areas of their direct knowledge and responsibilities.
I also tell them to negotiate every interview. When reporters call, don’t start answering questions until you know exactly who you are talking to, how to contact them and have asked these other key questions:
What is your story?
What information do you want from our organization?
Is there a focus or angle that you are pursuing?
Who else are you talking to?
What questions do you have?
Only with full information should a company or organization decide that an interview will suit its goals and interests. That’s not always the case.
Several years ago, a call came in from a meat processor in the Vancouver area. It was during the XL Meat e-coli crisis in Brooks, Alberta. The B.C. company was not related in anyway. But it was receiving calls from reporters wanting ‘localize’ the story. They asked to take video and photos of their plant operation and interview managers about food safety.
My strong advice was to thank reporters for their interest, tell them the plant is in full compliance with all food safety standards and explain that no unauthorized persons can enter the plant.
I recommended the company not say anything beyond this because, as soon as the public saw pictures or video of that meat packing operation, the company would be immediately associated with the e-coli outbreak and its business could suffer greatly.
If the interview is a good fit for your organization, negotiate a time and place for the interview which gives the spokesperson adequate time to prepare key messages.
Sending a fact sheet or background information in advance of the interview describing the organization, its products and services along with information detailing the subject of the interview could head off up to 30 minutes of needless questions. That also helps ensure accurate reporting.
That’s what communications consultants can deliver while being careful not to unwittingly become a spokesperson for their clients.
Obviously B.C. Premier Christy Clark’s new director of communications Sara MacIntyre didn’t do her homework on local media. She had done the same job for the Prime Minister and may have been bounced for being too aggressive. But the back east media is small ‘c’ conservative. They are somewhat pushy but not uber aggressive.
No holds barred out here. When you tell a good reporter in British Columbia that they can’t do something, they are definitely going to do it. Reporters demonstrate the long-held tradition of a free press every day.
Veteran Global Television cameraman Paul Rowand took MacIntyre on while videotaping the Premier who had just invited reporters and camerapersons to follow her into a Vancouver trade show. “No go” from MacIntyre was met with “what did you say?” from Rowand as he kept walking and videotaping while firing off questions including “who are you and where are you from?”
The gum-chewing MacIntyre snapped back with sneering answers with the most condescending looks. Then she did the ultimate no-no: She stood right in front of Rowand’s camera in a futile attempt to block access to the Premier.
The embarrassing Global TV coverage that resulted from the altercations has now gone viral. I will use it in media training as an example of how not to manage media relations.
Former CTV reporter Chris Olsen (Olsen on your side), who was Premier Clark’s past press secretary, lost his job to the feisty MacIntyre. Olsen got off side in his attempts to manage the media even though he was once one of the reporters. The Premier’s office thought he couldn’t do the job. Well, what about MacIntyre?
She’s now off side with reporters who will find ways to continue to make her look bad. She forgot that you may be able to manage reporters, but you can’t control them. You would be better off trying to herd cats.
Maybe she should ask some key reporters for advice on how to facilitate positive news coverage on government. Christy Clark says she stands for open and transparent government. What does Sara MacIntyre stand for?