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The PR Hurt Locker: Ten Land Mines to Negotiate in a Crisis (six through ten)

The previous post covered the first five of ten land mines to avoid in a crisis: guilt, no plan, lack of culture and core values, big hat (no cattle) and CEO ego. The following delve more into hazards to negotiate during implementation.

6. Attorneyitis

This land mine occurs when otherwise good messages and communications that the CEO and crisis team have approved get handed off for legal review and come back bruised, bloated and infected with the deadly disclaimer virus. Short, compelling copy turns fuzzy around the edges. Statements of fact become weighted down with convoluted clauses and abundancies of redundancies (In one set of Frequently Asked Questions that Gable PR crafted to explain a law suit our client filed against a magazine for libel and slander, a sharp 19-word sentence nailing the editor for deceit was turned into 100 words of circumlocution without a verb). The test: read a sentence out loud and if everyone’s eyes glaze over like you were reading from C-Span transcripts or they laugh so hard they herniated, start over.

7. Torpor at the Top

(also called Coagulation in the C-Suite)

The media are almost always on deadline and pressed to complete their rounds of interviews with sources from all sides. Many have preconceptions that will drive the coverage, often in a way not appreciated by the target organization. With a well-rehearsed crisis plan and message strategies in place, an organization can dedicate itself to responding as quickly as possible to the media call instead of setting it aside and agonizing what to do while waiting for the lawyers to return your call. The process includes knowing the time zone where the media call originated so you don’t stuck in a time warp between west coast and east coast and lose the opportunity to respond. Providing solid facts and evocative quotes ensures more balanced coverage. If the organization is in the right, its fast response and candor can lead to establishing positive media relationships that can be of major benefit for decades.

When crises hit, companies without plans or facing some of the other land mines outlined here can struggle internally in determining a course of action. Some advisors tell the CEO to delay, which can be brilliant or fatal, depending upon the crisis. Copy often gets written by committee. In situations such as these, communications professionals or outside consultants brought in at the eleventh hour need to light fires under the corporate derrieres of those in the executive suite and loosen the clotted communications channels. Getting back to the media with even a short statement (“We are checking all the facts and will get back to you as soon as we have an answer.”) can help mitigate pending disaster. By not responding or responding after deadline, you get immortalized with the regrettable line that usually appears as the last sentence in the story: “The company was unavailable for comment.” A speedy response, on the other hand, generates a positive impression; the guilty don’t return media calls or have the lawyers call.

8. Dueling Fiefdoms

We’ve seen warring factions fire off random shots of bad advice within the corporate halls in hopes of furthering their own interests in internal turf wars rather than contributing energetically and without guile to the master crisis plan for the overall good of the organization. Lack of corporate alignment and certainty of purpose have broader ramifications in preventing an organization from achieving its business and marketing goals. In a crisis, the problem is exacerbated and accelerated. Good organizations exhibit grace under pressure through positive, consistent communications. For the unaligned and contentious, disaster looms. The media find the inconsistencies among dueling factions and probe deeper, confronting one faction with the claims of another and repeating the process until the inside story unfolds with conflicting voices from every corner.

9. Stuck in Jargon or Legal Land

This isn’t necessarily fatal, just annoying and a potential roadblock to getting your compelling messages through the clutter and promoting good media relations. Speaking in a sincere, human voice will help build bridges with the media and the ultimate target audiences on the other side of this filter. As noted in Attorneyitis, 100-word sentences without a verb don’t cut it. Jargon in a particular niche and working with trade journals can be acceptable. In a crisis, when broader financial, business, consumer and investigative reporters are involved, one needs to apply what some media call the “Bozo Filter.” This methodology came to light during a Media Relations Summit in New York featuring journalists from a wide range of leading publications, news services, on-line sources and broadcast. One noted technology journalist with one of the world’s most respected publications said he had set up Bozo Filters on his email to automatically delete messages from certain agencies or individuals and those containing words he felt were useless or meaningless. For creating compelling messages, start with the evidence developed for your crisis communications plan. Analyze the background information, input from outside resources and historical coverage of the industry, company, organization or related topic. Think big picture. Envision perfect coverage. A trick Gable PR uses to help clients focus on the goal is to have them imagine the perfect headline for this situation. What would it say and where would it appear? Then, can we work backward from perfection and align all our plans, themes, core values, evidence strategies and tactics to bring it to life.

10. No comment

This often springs from some of the considerations listed above (guilty, attorneyitis, torpor at the top). Avoid this nuclear land mine whenever possible. Even providing a comment that you will get back to the media as soon as you’ve had a chance to conduct an internal review, analyze the complaint or get input from those outside the organization is better than saying “no comment,” which comes across as “guilty as charged.” Armageddon may seem eminent, but there will be a future. Salvaging a small part of the reputation during difficult times can provide a starting point for building a new one for the future. Work with your crisis team to analyze your different message strategies and what you hope to achieve for the long term.

A Final Word

Some experts estimate that less than five percent of all crises are fatal to an organization or individual. CEOs reinvent themselves regularly, particularly in industries with high failure rates (technology, biotechnology, Internet). Companies and organizations go through constant change, deal with major public issues and keep moving forward. The path becomes much easier with a continuous investment in image as a part of corporate strategy, developing strong core values, having crisis PR plans in place (and rehearsed) and avoiding potential land mines when your next crisis erupts.

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