“Crises do happen and only some are preventable,” says Susan Reisler, vice president of Media Profile Inc. “How you react is more important often in the circumstances of the crisis.”
The question of what to tell the media when a crisis occurs for your client, company, or law firm can make or break their reputation - sometimes in a matter of mere minutes, in our world of electronic media where first impressions matter.
“When a company is at their worst, the media is at their absolute best - we live for that kind of stuff,” says Glenn Garnett, executive editor-in-chief of Sun Media Corp., with evident glee. “If you’re not prepared, we are most certainly prepared for you.”
With that chilling introduction, lawyers on the company or firm’s communications team, be they in-house or outside counsel, need to understand how to communicate appropriately with the public during a crisis.
Garnett says the normal human reaction when things are out of control and management doesn’t have a full grasp of what’s going on is to clamp down, to keep one’s head down, say, “No comment,” and hope the whole thing will blow over - but it doesn’t blow over.
“With the 24/7 media cycle, with newspapers posting to web sites on an hour-to-hour basis
. . . as soon as we see smoke we are there, and if you won’t tell us what’s happening, somebody else will.”
“Your company has never been leakier,” he says, noting that reporters get a lot more anonymous tips these days. Whereas in the past, reporters had meetings in alleys and smoky bars and passed brown manila envelopes, today sensitive corporate information can be sent their way in an instant via e-mailed memos, spreadsheets, PDFs, JPEGs, etc.
So what’s the first thing a company should do?
“At the very top of the list is to have a crisis plan, to revisit, and revise it often, because eventually - pardon my English - s**t happens,” says Garnett. “And when it does, you better be ready.”
“It is actually very comforting to put down the worst-case scenario and how you would deal with it,” says Reisler.
Now, crisis plans are nothing new; they are standard operating procedure these days for most companies. But Reisler stresses the need for these plans to include a component devoted exclusively to media relations.
Companies need to set down the basics, which include: the creation of a crisis-communications team; how internal and external communications will be disseminated; who should speak to the media, and when. Then, the plan is to be updated quarterly, so that when new people come on board, everyone’s familiar with it.
Dealing with employees is also key.
“I think you have to consider that your internal audience is perhaps your most important audience,” says Reisler. “You have to have a system in place where your own staff are communicated with. They have to feel confident that you’re dealing with it . . . they have to understand why it’s important that the people who have all of the knowledge be the ones to speak, not the ones who know just one part of the story.”
As for the overall picture, your crisis-communications team needs to have a goal.
“This is not about spinning,” says Reisler. “It’s about getting accurate information out, which is all the more important today, because once you get inaccurate information out, it’s very hard to correct it.”
There is another “number 1,” says Garnett. “Never, ever lie.”
“Always tell the truth,” agrees Reisler. “Don’t make excuses. Take responsibility.”
Once the press does get wind of the fact that there was a coverup - which is nearly inevitable in these days of electronic communications - things just get worse, says Garnett.
“Not only do you have the original problem . . . but there’s a general impression that the company is lying, actively, and taking some of the energy it should be taking to fix the situation, to hiding it.”
“Sarbanes-Oxley certainly proves that because of what’s happened in corporate malfeasance south of the border, everyone is now on extreme high alert to whistle-blow. And with that additional incentive for people who were already blabbermouths, it just makes sense to come clean,” says Garnett.
“We’ve got to kneel down and say, ‘We’re sorry and we won’t let it happen again,’” says Reisler. “We’re doing all we can . . . this hasn’t happened before, we have procedures in place, and we should have had them up earlier.”
This is an example of a company getting ahead of the story and not behind it, says Reisler. By underestimating a crisis, media will feel deceived, and the people involved can appear incompetent - whereas if the problem is projected to be difficult to solve, there will be no fault assessed when this indeed proves to be the case. On the flipside, if a difficult problem is solved quickly, it reflects well on the company/firm.
Timeliness is also important, she says, as silence often means guilt in the mind of the public. She adds that companies today commonly use their web sites to provide updates on a regular basis as information becomes available.
“Even when you have no information, always say you will update people when you do get information. It’s really important to be seen as the credible source of information, because if you don’t do that - reporters abhor a vacuum and they’re going to go elsewhere . . . People need something, even if it’s, ‘We’re very concerned at the moment, but we can’t tell you more at this time.’”
From his perspective in the media, Garnett says some of the other big communications mistakes a company might make in a crisis include not being available enough, failing to put the right person in charge of dealing with the media, and failing to frame the problem in layman’s terms so that the public can understand what’s going on “so that they don’t let their imaginations run rampant.”
Reisler agrees. Depending on the significance or seriousness of the crisis, it’s not necessary to have the CEO speaking all the time, she said, but it’s important to have someone knowledgeable - which isn’t necessarily the firm’s regular communications person. And this spokesperson should also remember that there is no obligation to answer everything at once, she adds.
Finally - and this should come as no surprise - there are legal steps which can be considered before certain crises become public. For example, if it becomes apparent that a newspaper is going to run something that is grossly inaccurate or damaging, these can often be stopped, sometimes by an injunction or, better yet, by a simple phone call.
“It helps a lot to have a prior relationship with all the media outlets so that you are trusted by the media outlet - by all the editors,” says Reisler, who adds that this was something companies like hers can help clients with. “So that you’re not just a big gun bearing down on them, so you have a relationship, and they don’t feel like damaging it and they don’t feel like stirring up lawsuits.
“One of the reasons we recommend people do media training in the first place and do interviews and interact with reporters is that’s how you establish a relationship. It’s very hard to ask for pity or understanding in the middle of a crisis if they don’t know you. But if you have a good reputation, if you’ve always been fair to begin with, you will be listened to,” says Reisler.
Having an outside firm such as hers can be helpful, she adds, simply because you can’t always “see the crisis through your own lens.”
In the final analysis, Garnett stresses that reporters won’t hold any target to a higher standard than they do themselves.
“We’re all human beings reporting on human beings,” said Garnett. “All we’re asking for is the straight goods - and it pays off for all the parties.”