How to Avoid a Media Crisis (Or Be Helpful During One): April Meeting Recap

The Academy Awards. Chipotle. EpiPen. Uber. Ryan Lotke. 2016 was a banner year for media crises, and 2017 is off to a great start. So crisis managementgetting crisis management tips from Libba Letton at Freelance Austin’s April meeting was timely, useful and definitely fun.

Libba has built a career in the media crisis trenches, including in her work with Whole Foods, and her tips came with fascinating personal stories. Here’s what she had to say.

Know your value.

You’re valuable as a freelance communicator because your job is to bring an outside perspective. You’re responsible for making sure people on the street, not just insiders, understand what your client is saying. Case in point: United Airlines lacked perspective on how their communications – including the word “re-accommodate” – would be received by people outside their company and industry.

Start with the plan.

First, find out what plan your client has for a crisis. Who will talk to the media? Who will monitor social media? If they don’t have a plan or if it’s outdated, here’s where you come in.

Make sure your client knows you’re available. Tell the CEO you’re there to help if a crisis happens, but you need to be able to get in touch with them right away. Talk about how you will handle the first 24 hours. And make sure everyone, including the security guards, knows how and when to call you.

You’ll need a group of people on the crisis team, including:

  • The CEO and/or CFO
  • The head of operations
  • Legal counsel
  • PR rep (that’s you)

Identify whether you have a crisis.

There are multiple causes of media crises, but some common sources are:

  • Mismanagement
  • Discrimination
  • White-collar crime

Crises can be sudden or come from problems that have been brewing. Sudden events could happen after a plane crashes, an executive dies or people get food poisoning. “Smoldering” crises occur when people see a problem and know it’s brewing.

Because of social media, brand crises initially spread within an hour, but companies take an average of 29 hours before they respond. That’s a problem.

You know you have a media crisis on your hands when:

  • It interferes with your normal operations.
  • There’s a threat to property or people.
  • People are freaking out on social media.
  • Authorities or EMS are called.
  • The media is called.

Talk about the money.

More than half of companies that face a major media crisis never regain shareholder value. To get your CEO out of denial, show them how a crisis plan can save the company money. Good communication leads to more settlements, so building trust with your audience is just good business.

Unfortunately, it’s often lawyers who tell the CEO what to say or to not say anything. Lawyers hesitate to communicate, however doing a bad job of communicating increases the rate of lawsuits. Make sure they know you all need to work together.

Focus on the media statement.

It’s the client who has to fix the problem. Your main job is to get them to sign off on the media statement. The first hour after something happens is all the leeway you get, so you have to scramble.

First, make sure you know what happened – who, what, when, where, why – then put that in your statement. When you need to include an apology, make sure it’s real and not fake.

When crafting your statement:

  • Use the KISS rule (keep it simple, stupid),
  • Keep it short.
  • Avoid jargon or legalese.

Remember, if you don’t get the story out, someone else will. You can bet the media will be talking to the people involved. If you don’t have the whole story, be honest. Tell the media you will tell them when you have more info, but don’t fight.

Keep your people informed.

Do send your communications about a crisis to employees, but consider everything you send as public. Never assume an internal communication is confidential.

Don’t forget to send statements to the board of directors. They don’t like finding out about a crisis through the media.

Avoid common mistakes.

Some classic communication errors include:

  • Communicating inefficiently or not at all.
  • Having a sparse social media presence.
  • Communicating inaccurately or inconsistently.
  • Choosing the wrong executive as the spokesperson.
  • Being caught unprepared or defenseless.

Most importantly, make sure the people affected by the crisis learn about it through you and not through the media.

Prepare, prepare, prepare.

When crafting your plan, ask your client, “What are the top three bad things that can happen?” Find out what keeps them up at night. Human resources, finance and receiving will all have different lists, so be sure to ask different people.

When you have a list, write a media statement for each potential problem. For example, a chicken farmer should be prepared with statements about bird flu, animal rights activists and FDA audits. When you write your statement, think about what questions you’re likely to get from a reporter.

You won’t have time to figure out your client’s internal procedures, so make a list of the people who will be involved and get them trained.

That includes some quick-prep for your executives. Give them some sample bullet points about a situation, have them practice giving a statement and give them immediate feedback. You’ll want to have employees media trained once a year.

Use psychology.

You’re not just a media expert; you’re a psychologist. Use every good psychologist’s mirroring technique – “I know that must make you feel frustrated” – and meet people where they are with an emotional response.

Just ride it out when you need to.

One example: John Mackey of Whole Foods wrote an op-ed about health care reform criticizing Obamacare. He didn’t let the VP of communications look at it in advance. He just hit the send button and left to hike the Appalachian Trail. Making matters worse, this was during August when there’s typically a slow news cycle, so everyone wanted the story.

Who are Whole Foods’ core shoppers? Democrats, most of whom support Obamacare. There was an uproar, of course, and people were yelling at employees in stores. The problem was that no one could speak for Mackey and no one could reach him. Libba couldn’t throw Mackey under the bus and say he doesn’t speak for all employees. She just had to ride it out and ask reporters to keep it in perspective.

Try to head off the rogues.

Rogue communicators can be a problem. If it happens, meet them with an emotional response: “I get why you were so excited to talk about it, but we need to package it. So next time let’s . . . “

Training the frontline staff can head off rogue communications. These people often bear the brunt of a crisis because they deal with the public, but they can also be ambassadors for the company.

When anything happened at Whole Foods, Libba did a team member Q&A for employees to read when they checked in, including questions like “What should I tell customers? What is the issue?”. (Remember: Write everything as if someone could take it to the media.)

You don’t always need to respond.

Sometimes it’s OK to turn down an interview, but you should explain why you’re doing it. Libba once declined an interview from a Mother Jones reporter who she felt hated Whole Foods by telling him, “You never believe what I say and you quote me in a way that’s out of context.”

Sometimes you need to apologize.

People are trained not to apologize, but sometimes you need to. When an executive balks at admitting a problem, hold up United Airlines as an example of what happens when a company waits too long. Remind them who your audience is.

However, you must apologize in a real way. Express regret for people’s suffering, and say what you’re going to do to fix it. (Did you know there’s a science to apologizing? Here’s just one article about it.)

Sometimes you need to stand your ground.

Although a crisis can make big companies look like a bully vs. the little guy, there are times when you need to come back strong instead of just getting punched. Remember the accusation about a Whole Foods’ cake hoax? The company’s statement vehemently denied the charge. (They were also lucky that they had a video.)

With media crises, Libba said, it’s not “if” but “when.” Adding crisis management to your freelancer toolkit can add real value for your clients. Things may get rough, Libba said, but you just deal with it. Things will get better.
However, you might want to find out whether the CEO is a hiker. Just in case.

Lisa Roe

Lisa Wyatt Roe is a freelance writer, editor and social media strategist with experience in newspaper copy editing, magazine publishing and Facebook wrangling.

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