More instant news lessons from a recent crisis

Wrapping up from a Memorial Day weekend crisis event and wanted to reflect on a few lessons learned. It’s not appropriate to go into too many details but it did involve extensive news website, newspaper and broadcast coverage in a major market.

When the event happened, the reporters either did not try or could not immediately reach the appropriate media contact person for the main company involved. But the ran a report based on comments from a spokesperson from another company involved that were completely erroneous and, if left unchanged, could have quite serious consequences for the business of the main company.

Despite the clearly erroneous report, and despite the knowledge that the information the person provided was clearly in error, the reporter would not correct the statement because it would have meant contradicting the quotation that was a lead in their story. However, we could not get approval from the authorities within the main company (our client) for our 14 hours to correct the misinformation. It seems clear in retrospect that they did not see the urgency, the communication managers involved in the company did not have the standing or willingness to push the business manager responsible for clearing the statement, and the attorney involved either was largely unavailable, unaware of the consequences or didn’t care. Not sure.

We were able to put a corrected statement out noon on Memorial Day–but we had confirmed the correct information 10 pm on Sunday night. All morning on Memorial Day all major news outlets ran the incorrect information. The corrected statement did nothing to stop the damage because by early afternoon the outlets were onto some other story.

Herein lies the problem. Approval processes, legal reviews, and complicated bureaucracies are simply not geared up for the instant news world. They apparently did not see the critical difference between getting an approved correct statement out by midnight versus noon the next day. This is old world thinking at best–when news evolved in days and hours, not minutes and seconds.

An essential problem is that even if communication managers understand the implications and risks, if those who are responsible for approving information and therefore timely release don’t understand it, communicators have little choice but to sit back in frustration and anguish while the precious time ticks by. I think this means that communication managers have a huge task in front of them to help educate their leaders to the realities of the post-media, instant news world so that they are all on the same page relating to speed.

But, in retrospect, I must admit that in this case I didn’t follow my own strong advice about being too media centric. We could have communicated privately to customers of this company (a relatively small group of industrial customers) to let them know the media reports were incorrect. We could have done this without official approval from HQ because it was very much in the purview of local management to do this communication. But, we on the communication side were so focused on the incorrect media reports, we simply didn’t recall and act on this simple but important step. One more example of crisis communicators being too media centric–in this case, me.