Crisis Communication: How To Stay Cool on the Hot Seat

In the event of a crisis or a security breach, the media will come calling. Heres your playbook for making them allies, not antagonists.

Businesses deal with crises from time to time—whether it’s an incident that barely warrants attention or

a major event that makes headlines across the country. When something really bad happens, such as a natural disaster that forces a company to evacuate headquarters or a security breach that results in lost or stolen data, the media will come calling. How organizations deal with the blitz could affect the long-term impact of the crisis. An effective and constructive response might help put the company in a positive light during a tough time. An ineffective or antagonistic reaction might make a disastrous situation even worse.

Here are some things organizations should and shouldn’t do when dealing with the media after a security incident or business-interrupting event.

Do…

Be truthful. When it comes to dealing with the media, honesty really is the best policy. “One of the most important things is to try to understand what the media is interested in. The media is interested in accurate, truthful information—something that will be of interest to their readership [or viewers],” says Brit Weber, program director at the School of Criminal Justice at Michigan State University in East Lansing, Mich. “If you don’t know the answer, indicate that it’s information you don’t know at this point and hope to [provide] later,” says Weber, who has worked in various fields of crisis management since 1972. At IT services provider EDS in Plano, Texas, “our whole approach to any kind of thing like a crisis is to have open transparency; be forthcoming and tell as much of the story as you can within the limits of the law and good common sense,” says Dave Morrow, chief security and privacy officer, responsible for corporate crisis management. “Be as open and communicative as possible,” Morrow says. “I’ve seen some instances where good or bad external communications really made the difference between a crisis being handled really well or being handled really poorly.” He cites the oft-mentioned Tylenol product-tampering case of 1982 as an example of a good practice in dealing with the media.

“They were very forthcoming and got ahead of the curve,” Morrow says. “Tell the truth and don’t try to lie because a lie will come back to bite you.” He says EDS in the summer of 2006 had to deal with a case of a stolen laptop that contained sensitive data. The company told clients and the media exactly what happened, Morrow says.

Provide useful information. Going into a shell during a crisis isn’t wise, experts say. “We hear people repeatedly say ‘no comment.’ That’s not going to make the incident go away nor the media,” Weber says. Instead, organizations should be as forthcoming as possible with information about the specific incident, and provide any relevant background information that will help the media put the situation in proper context. “Tell them what you do,” Weber says. “Provide a fact sheet or release that explains what your business does.”

The process of dealing with the media during a major crisis should be managed by a crisis management team or similar function, to ensure that accurate and up-to-date information gets out.

Plan for crisis management and include media relations. Having a plan in place for how to handle a crisis and the accompanying media coverage is better than dealing with these things on the fly. “Think through options and course of action before you need it,” says Tess Koleczek, chief privacy officer at E-Loan, a financial services firm. Those involved in managing media dealings in a crisis should include the CEO, head of the division involved and representatives from legal and public relations, Koleczek says. Jonathan Bernstein, president of consultancy Bernstein Crisis Management, agrees that preparation is crucial. “The biggest mistake is failure to plan. That has a cascading effect in terms of the types of errors that occur,” he says. Without planning, “you can’t respond as quickly and you won’t be prepared for what to say and do in advance.”

People from public or media relations should be part of the planning process from the beginning, says Morrow. “Today we had an exercise that we do quarterly on some [crisis] scenario, and we included the internal and external corporate communications folks,” Morrow says. “We have to let them know how things are handled.”

Train your spokespeople. “One of most important things is that the person who’s talking with the media should be someone who has gone through some type of training on dealing with the media and providing what they need,” says Weber. In a crisis, many organizations automatically put the CEO in front of the media, Weber says. But if the chief executive or other designated spokesperson isn’t comfortable or familiar with reporters, cameras and microphones, that could backfire. “All spokespeople need to be trained to deal with friendly interviews and in-your-face ambush interviews,” says Bernstein. “It’s not an intuitive skill.” Establish an ongoing ­relationship. Organizations that keep media outlets—such as local newspapers and TV stations—informed on an ongoing basis will be less likely to have misunderstandings when a crisis arises. They might even rely on the media for help in disseminating information. “It’s very important for corporations to have a collaborative or partnership process with the [local] media,” says Weber. “Don’t wait for an incident to happen.”

At EDS, “we have to have a certain amount of trust developed between the various members of the media and us,” says Morrow. “If something goes wrong, I need the media to help me get the word out to people and institutions. If we have an incident at one of our facilities, we need [the media] to get the word out because I certainly can’t do that.”

Don’t…

Treat the media as an enemy. This a common response—and a poor one, experts say. It’s natural to circle the wagons during a crisis and view the media as a threat. But oftentimes the more an organization shuts out the media, the more reporters and editors speculate on what happened or what’s still happening during a crisis. Reporters will look for sources inside and outside the company, who might provide inaccurate or outdated information. “If I’m that media person and if I perceive that you’re hiding information, I’m going to be interested in trying to find why you’re hiding it,” says Weber. “Treating the media as an enemy is very negative. Even if things are not reported like you [want them to be], it doesn’t mean the relationship is broken at that point.”

E-Loan doesn’t see the media is an enemy, Koleczek says. “We take the opposite approach and actually believe that the media would be a good resource to communicate with our consumers,” she says. “We would welcome the media to share how we are handling the problem and to let consumers know what steps we are taking to rectify the situation.”

Let the media be the only source of news. Although news media strive to get accurate information to the public, it’s important that organizations not rely solely on media outlets to tell the story. “Even though the media is telling their version, you as a corporation still need to communicate with your most important resources,” including employees, vendors and shareholders, says Weber. “Don’t rely on the media as a single source, even if it is accurate. All those [groups] want to hear from you.”

To help get the word out, Weber recommends using communications tools such as employee newsletters. In addition, officials can make personal appearances to groups such as a chamber of commerce or business association.

Forget your employees. The people who work at the organization must be kept apprised, as much as is reasonable, during a crisis. Many organizations tend to keep employees in the dark during a difficult time, and that’s a mistake, Weber says. “They all have associates who want to know” what’s going on when there’s a crisis, Weber says. “Employees will start calling the media if there’s a major crisis like an evacuation. That’s why it’s vitally important to tell your employees what’s going on,” so they don’t give out wrong information. Morrow says EDS employees who aren’t authorized to communicate with the media are instructed not to provide information. “We’ve been making our employees very aware that there are certain ways to treat requests for information, and who to call,” he says. “We don’t let employees respond to the media on their own.”

Bob Violino is a freelance writer. Send feedback to csoletters@cxo.com.


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Dated: July 01, 2007

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