Category Archives: Crisis Communicator

Crisis management basics and ICS

It’s easy for me who is into the communication and communication technology game to forget that crisis communication starts with an effective crisis response. In working with clients, I have to keep going back to the basics of crisis management. It’s been a great benefit to me to have had much exposure to the Incident Command System. If you are not familiar with ICS and you have anything to do with managing crises for your organization, I strong advise you to become familiar.

ICS was created in the 1970s by the fire service. It was designed to help manage a fast moving event (like a wildfire) when there are multiple agencies involved. The problem was simple. You have all these people show up to help. They have their own ways of doing things, their own command structure, their own language, their own communication technologies like radios, their own cultures, their own attitudes, etc. How do you get them to all cooperate and work together. The answer is a very simple, scalable management structure that everyone must learn and adhere to. Plus other key principles such as interoperability of systems.

ICS has been proven to be very effective. It moved out from the fire service into fire departments, emergency management departments and eventually some federal agencies like the Coast Guard. From there it began moving into the private sector, largely because of the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, the post-ExxonValdez legislation. This law requires oil companies, shipping companies and those dealing with oil near the water to conduct annual drills with the Coast Guard and other local and state agencies. These drills as well as actual spills always use ICS.

I first became aware of ICS in the middle of a major incident involving a gasoline pipeline explosion with three fatalities and an entire community in shock. Since then I have been involved in dozens of incidents and drills using ICS and have adapted it for use in responding to crises for almost any kind of organization. If you have interest, comment here and I will send you my own basic document.

Zidane apologizes?

I heard on tv last night that Zidane finally apologized. Typical, I thought. Like most companies caught in a crisis with their reputation at stake, they finally think about long enough, consult with all the attorneys in the Outlook, get lots of conflicting advice, and then do the right thing. Too little. Too late.

The problem with Zidane’s presumed apology is that I can’t find it. The Seattle news station who carried the story didn’t show Zidane apologizing, they showed video clips about how the French treat tourists (you guessed it, a whole series of vicious headbutts with the words “merci.”

And now I did a quick search of news sites and I can’t find the apology. What I do find are more and more videos that not only replay the vicious headbutt but take it to outrageous new extremes. Here’s one from a UK website that shows the headbutt as seen by the Germans, French, Italians, Americans, etc. Pretty good.

But for crisis communicators there’s a really big lesson here. Apologize early, apologize often, and get it out there fast. If you don’t you will get lost on the far more entertaining comment that is web-driven and far more compelling than your most tearful mea culpa.

Media training basics

There are lots of people in this line of work who do media training. Everyone comes at it from a particular perspective and almost any training can help to prepare someone unaccustomed to facing media interviews to perform much better under pressure. Here are a few of the key items we try to help clients with when asked to help with media training.

1) Know what the reporters want. They usually have a story in mind and in most cases, they have a role for you to play and it is their job to get on tape what has already been preconceived in their mind. Don’t assume they are interested in what you have to say or your perspective or your company’s position. If you are on camera you are going to fit a ten second spot that helps fill in the holes and provide a compelling, entertaining story. They may be looking for human reaction, they may be looking for the standard “our hearts go out..”, they may be looking for you to appear baffled, uncomfortable and guilty. They will try to control what you give them so that it fits their needs. but it is not necessarily your job to fit their needs.

2) You control the mike. When they put a microphone in your face or ask you questions with pen in hand, you are in control. It feels like you are not, but a media trained person knows that they are in control. In control of their face, their demeanor and their words. That’s why it is critical to understand before the interview what you want to leave them on the tape to work with. It’s critical to know very well what the key messages are and how you wish to convey them. Then the primary task is to respond to their questions in a way that provides only what you want to provide.

3) How you say it may be more important than what you say. That’s why choosing a media spokesperson is important and tricky. They may be smart, think fast on their feet, know the right answers, and all that. But if they come across as uneasy, unconfident, untrustworthy there is a big problem. There are a number of people who just naturally have a “deer in the headlights” look and they don’t do well on camera. Neither do those who look sour or angry or mean. The natural demeanor of someone is important and training can help make adjustments but often it is easier to find a spokesperson that doesn’t require that kind of training. History would tell a different story if our President didn’t continually come across as the goof off frat boy.

4) Authenticity. This seems counter to all above and if it seems that way, there is something wrong. The point is to be effective you have to be open and honest, trustworthy, responsive and communicate effectively the messages important to your organization, and do this while being totally yourself. The ones who do very well at this succeed on all counts. But it ain’t necessarily easy.

The advantages of being "not cultured"

Apparently Zinedine Zidane, the French soccer star who head butted an opponent, was responding to an insult the opponent, Marco Materazzi hurled at him. Zidane said Materazzi called him a terrorist. But according to this story posted on newsvine, the Italian said he couldn’t have called him a terrorist because he doesn’t even know what a terrorist is. He’s “not cultured” enough for that.

Here’s what Materazzi said according to the news story.
“I did insult him, it’s true,” Materazzi said in Tuesday’s Gazzetta dello Sport. “But I categorically did not call him a terrorist. I’m not cultured and I don’t even know what an Islamic terrorist is.”

Now this is rather ripe for comment. Apparently professional soccer players are isolated enough from the world that they aren’t familiar with one of the most commonly used and over used terms of the last half decade. Also, apparently, it takes a cultured person to throw the really hurtful insults. An only cultured people have much familiarity with the Islamic world. This is all rather bizarre.

But my question was, if you are the crisis manager for Mr. Zidane, what the heck would you do to try to rescue his reputation? The head butt now has been seen by multiple millions of people and of course we did not hear the uncultured insult that prompted it. Is there any hope for the French star’s reputation. He received the award for the top player but now that is a matter of controversy. The whole world cup is overshadowed by one instantaneous act of outrageous stupidity and frustration, as is the career of someone at the top of his game.

Any ideas we can pass on to Mr Zidane?

Crisis communication planning made easy

Meeting with a client shortly to put a simple crisis plan in place. He’s a contractor with sizeable projects in multiple states. So this is kind of help me prep for that.

Every crisis consultant does things differently no doubt, but here is my approach with a client like this.

1) What are your goals? How do you define winning in a crisis? The answer usually comes down to wanting to minimize damage. I will remind him of the Chinese character for crisis which can be read as “risk” and “opportunity.” A crisis represents a great risk of damaging or destroying reputation and potentially the enterprise, but it also represents opportunity to enhance that reputation according to how the crisis was handled and communicated. What do we need to do in a crisis to help people think of us more positively?

2) Who will speak? Identifying spokespersons and making certain they are properly trained and prepared is essential. Also, preparing those who are not spokespeople to understand the policy and to learn how to “refer and defer” is also very important.

3) Who are the people whose opinion of you is most important to your future? That helps identify and prioritize stakeholders. Reporters are important, but their opinion is not the only one that counts. Key managers, employees, customers, suppliers, bankers, subcontractors, neighbors, potential opponents, industry influencers, government officials, etc. Know them, prioritize, and build lists to enable you to phone and/or email very quickly. I usually create lists of Level 1, 2 and 3. Level 1s get phone calls. Level 2 get emails and letters. Level 3 get more general emails and direct to website.

4) How will you communicate? Through media only? Big mistake. Prepare to manage message development and distribution to multiple critical audiences. And prepare to do it from wherever and when you’re entire IT infrastructure is down. This need is what led to the development of PIER, still the only web-based crisis communication control center. It is the reason why the US Coast Guard was able to continue to communicate non-stop during Hurricane Katrina despite having a distributed team and all IT resources under water.

In this, don’t forget your website. It is just about your most important asset for communications in a crisis. If you can completely control it without having to do go through some ridiculous chain of command and IT management process, you are flat out dead in the water.

5) How will you respond to and manage inquiries? Who will do it? Are they capable? Do you know where the inquiries will come in? How will email inquiries be managed? Who will prioritize and make sure of the responses and speed of response. Again, this daunting problem is why we created PIER which also fully integrates and manages the inquiry function.

6) Remember, now is too late. To try to put these pieces in place during an event means you will not communicate in time. It’s an instant news world and that means virtually instantaneous response. That can only be done through appropriate preparation.

Proactive or reactive–is this the toughest question?

I’m involved in helping manage a crisis right now, that like many others, highlights the question of being proactive or reactive. In this case it involved making a business decision that would be received very negatively by the community where the business is located. Knowing that there would those who felt strongly about the issue and would perhaps even take actions to harm the company, I recommended and the client agreed to conduct a proactive communication effort. When the word went out to the community through the press about the decision the company made, the reaction was much greater than anticipated. We provided a feedback mechanism on the company website which allowed people to express their opinion or vent. And vent some of them did! There were a number of positive and supportive comments but a larger number of negative and some of the negative ones were threatening, ugly, and disturbing.

I’ve now talked to some in the community who say letting the whole community know about this through the newspaper was a bad idea. Many would not have known and we brought it to their attention.

A crisis communications counselor never wants to elevate a situation or create a controversy where none exists. It is one of the hardest decisions to make is to bring something to someones attention when you know they are not going to like it. Maybe, you think, you can just quietly go about your business and only a few will notice and not make a stink about it.

I continue to believe the client did the right thing. It is based on the principle first of all that if you have some bad news, it is best coming from you than from someone else. If you think your issue will be discussed in a negative light by many people who may not understand all the circumstances, it is best to bring it forward. If you think it will erupt into a serious issue and that you will likely have to explain yourself when it does, then talk about it first because when you respond after it erupts opinions have been formed, misinformation may be rampant, and you will almost always look defensive.

In this case we had genuine reason to feel that the passions of some of those who took an extreme position could prove damaging to the company. If anything, we underestimated some of those passions and the length to which people will go when they think they are right. It was right to be proactive. But it also right to keep asking the question.