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The Jones Report
November 2001
Public Relations
When ‘Normal’ Isn’t Anymore – Working with the Media in a Crisis
By Betty A. Lovell, APR
Minutes after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, while many employees were leaving the office to be with their families, public relations and marketing professionals nationwide were gearing up for some of the longest and most stressful days of their professional careers. While professionals from all industries were impacted by the events of September 11, marketing and public relations professionals found themselves under more scrutiny than ever in terms of how they represent their client and/or company to the media.
It’s doubtful if top executives of any of the companies housed at the World Trade Center buildings foresaw the kind of catastrophe that occurred. But when the unthinkable happened, some companies began implementing crisis management plans that enabled them to take care of employees and to resume business within a matter of days, or even hours. Trouble is – you can’t implement a crisis management plan if you don’t have one.
A Wake-Up Call
Corporate America received a wake-up call on September 11. Professionals are attempting to redefine a ‘normal’ business routine, although ‘normal’ is no longer. It’s not a matter of “if” but “when” a crisis will impact your world and your organization. While countless professionals have participated in some form of crisis management training, far too many people need to dust off the crisis management guide in order to know what steps to take next.
Public relations and marketing professionals are faced with challenges today that they never dreamed possible. For those with a crisis plan in place, their responsiveness to a variety of audiences is swift and meaningful. For those without one, the challenge is much greater and often has negative fallout.
Crisis Management Guidelines
While no crisis plan can fully prepare an individual for events like the recent terrorist attacks, using basic crisis management guidelines can help a company navigate its way through challenging times:
Bring the situation under control, as much as possible. People matter most. Always protect people first and property second. While three weeks have passed since the terrorist attacks, this is a delicate time. People do not want to dwell on the tragedy, but they also don’t want management to forget about the devastation and how it impacts everyone on a personal level. It’s important to demonstrate a balance of both productivity and nurturing with your internal team to maintain the emotional well-being of those involved.
Gather the facts. Get the who, what, where, when, why, how and what next.
Act quickly. Spare no expense to distribute the information you determine the media and others should have. Be mindful to how you distribute information—a message on your company’s Intranet may serve well for disseminating the basic facts in response to a crisis, but if someone has suffered a personal loss, a face-to-face visit is mandatory.
Communicate quickly and accurately. Communicate regularly with key audiences. After the initial hours of a crisis, additional problems will most likely emerge with employees, vendors, customers, etc. Let those involved know what you expect from them, and what they can expect from you. Assertive communication focuses on the most important aspects of the problem and moves the entire process forward to resolution.
Give the media as much information as possible. The media will get the information (perhaps inaccurately) from other sources. Don’t hold information that can be found on a police report or the like. Reporters can retrieve this themselves and your helping them in the process is not only appreciated but works toward building a relationship that will help get everyone through the crisis.
Don’t speculate. If you don’t know the facts, say so and promise to get back to the media as soon as possible. Then be sure to do so.
Protect the integrity and reputation of the organization. Do the right thing.
Report your own bad news. Don’t allow another source to inform the media first. Your first responsibility is to the safety and well-being of the people involved. Once safety has been restored, face the public and face the facts.
Perform an act of goodwill immediately after the crisis when appropriate and possible. In response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, companies who had a sense of crisis preparedness had plans in place within the first 48 hours after the attacks and were launching memorials, tributes and fundraisers for the victims and their families (as well as the firefighters) by the weekend that followed the attacks. For a tragedy of the magnitude of the New York and Washington, DC, attacks, it’s helpful to join forces with others in your industry. Whatever the chosen benevolent involvement, make sure this is an effort that is equal in importance to other back-to-business undertakings.
Working with Media in a Crisis
When working directly with the media, it’s important to remember that reporters provide few surprises in a crisis situation. They want to get the basic information easily and quickly, usually with some kind of human interest angle. Print reporters usually will need and use more information than their colleagues representing broadcast media. Newspaper reporters are interested in basic facts for today’s edition and background and implications for tomorrow’s edition. Broadcast journalists, on the other hand, will want less but will be in more of a hurry and will seek more updates.
Depending on the magnitude of the crisis, you can often expect the media will be on the scene immediately. In other situations you will need to initiate contact and provide information. As soon as the basic facts are known, you should be in contact with the media. The initial contact should be followed with a formal statement, including any updated information and plans for investigating the incident. Members of the media will expect to receive complete information: background material; some indication of how the organization intends to proceed; information about the impact on your staff and volunteers; regular updates; and after-the-crisis follow up.
A company spokesperson should be forthright in dealing with media questions. There are, however, some questions he or she simply cannot and should not answer, including: money estimates of damage; insurance coverage; speculation as to the cause of the incident; allocation of blame, or anything “off the record.” It’s important that the company’s spokesperson help facilitate the reporter’s request for information and the like. An answer of “no comment” is not acceptable because this answer can imply a lack of cooperation, an attempt to hide something or a lack of concern. Good crisis management calls for open, honest communication with various target audiences.
Balancing Act
The comment heard most often during a crisis situation: “I just want things back to normal” or “I want things to be the way they used to be.” Sadly, “normal” changes completely during a crisis. In light of the recent terrorist attacks and the threat of additional attacks, “normal” is no longer. We must now move to redefine “normal” and focus on a new, different sense of normalcy. In moving through a crisis, it’s important to strike a healthy balance of work and remembering. The emotional scars of those around you may not be visible, but they are there.
When getting back to business, it’s important to balance the work with some “higher purpose” initiatives. People ultimately want their lives to have meaning. A crisis merely brings this to the surface. A prompt implementation of visible methods demonstrating a balance of “getting back to work and remembering” positions a company as a compassionate and caring corporate citizen in the eyes of its employees, vendors and customers.
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