Category Archives: Crisis Plan

Crisis aftershocks–what communicators can anticipate

OK, I think I spotted a trend here. Most of you probably noted it already but I tend to be a little slow. I’m calling it the “crisis aftershock.” We’ve seen it clearly in the Virginia Tech situation and now in the Minnesota bridge tragedy. Everyone in a similar position to the organizations involved are facing questions by local or regional media about how they would prevent such a thing happening to them or how they would respond. After Virginia Tech, virtually every university, community college or private college was asked by their local media how they would prevent the Virginia Tech tragedy from happening, how they would notify students, and if they would have made a similar decision to delay in notifying. This public scrutiny of their preparation is largely what has spurred many universities to suddenly act in buy notification systems. I wish that the driver for this was only the need to communicate re safety information. The reality is the embarrassment of not having a good answer to those question is what is driving a lot of very foolish purchases right now.

Everyone responsible for bridges is now having to answer the same question. This article highlights the demand for accountability–now focused on bridges that share a similar design. Communicators and leaders from every state and local transportation authority are facing questions about how can they assure that the bridges under their control won’t all of a sudden collapse. They’re in a tough spot.

So, the point is–each high profile crisis creates a series of mini-crises for anyone in the same or related business. If you make grow organic spinach and some organic spinach gets tainted with e.coli, you will be asked if yours is, how do you know, and what you are doing to prevent it. If you make baby widgets like six other manufacturers and one of your competitor’s baby widgets blows up and hurts a baby, you will be asked how you can assure your customers that yours won’t blow up.

The interesting thing is that we prepare for crises where we may be directly involved. But we don’t necessarily prepare for crises that others similar to us are involved. We prepare for the quake, but not the aftershock and it is the aftershock that may hurt us. So, add one more thing to your list of crisis preparation items.

Duke University lacrosse–now the prosecution is on defense

This article from the Associated Press about Duke University’s silence in the aftermath of the rape accusations against members of the lacrosse team highlights a critical challenge and conundrum for crisis communicators.

The article certainly reads as if the University’s position of largely remaining silent while the media storm around the students was swirling looks smart and responsible. The basic theme is that the University was intent on not allowing the case to be tried in the media but let the courts decide.

“I don’t believe the issues have ever been Duke’s support of the students,” Burness said. “The issue has been there is a process in our democracy by which questions of this magnitude are addressed. It’s only when you get before a judge or jury that the truth can be determined. You have to have faith in the system, recognizing it can be difficult to do but realizing that’s how system works.”

Early in the case, when scrutiny of the university and the program was at its height, Brodhead was cautious in his statements, saying the case should unfold in the legal system instead of in the media. School administrators said this month that bad publicity was the likely cause of a 20 percent drop in early admission applications.

Burness’ statement that “there is a process in our democracy by which questions of this magnitude are addressed” is really the key. Yes, but, well, there are actually two processes. One is the court of law, the other is the court of public opinion. Wise leaders need to determine early on in a major news story of where their danger really lies. In some cases, the court of law can do more damage to the long term viability of the organization than the court of public opinion–depending in part on how the story is being played out. An example of this is the numerous legal actions against widely accepted and used medications. The billion dollar lawsuits can grind on in the background while the public blithely continues to consume–that even when the media is playing prosecutor to the fullest extent.

But in this case, the lacrosse team and the University itself was on trial from the moment the situation became news. Silence in the face of such accusations is normally interpreted as guilt. As the errors or evils of the prosecution come to light, the University is having to defend itself against those who say they didn’t stand behind the program or the students. The explanation of Mr. Burness, looks, well, weak and defensive.

The proof is in the pudding, of course. As the story points out the University experienced a huge drop in applications for enrollment. This is a result of the court of public opinion at work, not the court of law. And I would guess that if a survey were taken of the most respected universities, Duke would have fallen down that list quite a bit in the aftermath of the lacrosse incident.

So, here’s the conundrum. I can certainly understand and want very much to support the strategy the University pursued and the sentiments expressed about the desire to let the legal system work as an excuse for not being more vocal. The problem is, the evidence in this case shows it doesn’t work. You can’t end the media storm by silence. You can emerge later when the wind is shifting in your direction and pretend you response or lack of it meant something different than it did. And you can’t deny that you lost the battle in the court of public opinion. And you can’t claim that that matters less than winning in the court of law.

Sum total: the silence they now hail as wisdom is far from golden.

Bank of America's liability "protection" costs them $14 million and counting

Perhaps you’ve heard the story by now. I heard about yesterday after making a presentation in North Carolina. Clark Howard, the talk show guy who helps everyone save money, had a segment on his show about Michael Shinnick who got arrested by San Francisco police at the behest of Bank of America after trying to cash a check. Shinnick had just confirmed at the BofA branch that the check had funds in it–was proceeds from a bike sale. The police arrested him for trying to pass a bad check and Shinnick had to spend $14,000 of his own money to clear his name, which he did. Bank of America apologized for its stupidity but then added stupidity onto stupidity onto stupidity. They refused his request to cover the costs he incurred to clear his name–citing their liability protection.

The bloggers took it from there and are running wild with it now. (See It’s all over Digg, etc. But what kicked this anti-BoA backlash into high gear was Clark Howard exposing the mistakes to his nationwide audience. And he suggested that BoA customers withdraw their money from the bank. Well Clark’s head must be swelling because as of 9:30 am CDT on 27th, that count is now up to over $14 million and growing rapidly. There is even a meter on Clark Howard’s website that shows how much has been reportedly withdrawn on a realtime basis.

Howard offered to pay half the man’s legal fees if BoA ponied up the rest, and they refuse. Matter of principle I suppose.

So, crisis managers, how do you handle this one? If this isn’t evidence of the growing power of the blogworld connected to MSM (mainstream media) I don’t know what is. It is a 1 plus 1 equals three equation. Clark alone couldn’t do this. His website helps, but really helps (or hurts depending on your point of view) is the connection with the blogworld that is feeding the flames. Not sure who lit the first spark, but no doubt Howard dumped a gas can on it, but now it is the bloggers and websites feeding the flames. And the meter keeps rising.

Out of curiousity, I just checked the BoA website. Of course, no reference to the Shinnick-Howard situation. Would be crazy I’m sure most people would think. But where is BoA to present their side? Certainly they have a different perspective on this. I suspect they are concerned about the precedent set by not hiding behind their liability protection. And $14 million is just a blink to them. But how big does this have to get before they start talking? And then where do they join in the conversation? Howard is having representatives on his show. Good, but Howard doesn’t like them much right now and is riding a huge wave of power and prestige in bringing them down. So where can they join in the conversation in a more neutral environment?

Anyone have thoughts about this?

How is Duquesne University doing?

I’m a little hesitant to do more grading or evaluating how an organization is doing in a crisis after some of the comments about Montreal’s Dawson College–but I’m going to anyway as that was what this blog was set up for. Another tragic university shooting–this time some star basketball players. Here’s the story:

PITTSBURGH (AP) — Armed police officers stood guard outside dormitories at Duquesne University while other officers roamed the downtown campus in their cruisers.

In the chapel, meanwhile, more than 300 students made the regular Sunday Mass standing-room only as they gathered to pray and try to understand how five basketball players could have been injured by gunfire on their tranquil, close-knit campus.

“We’re shocked because an event of this sort has never happened,” Duquesne President Charles Dougherty said. “It’s a safe campus and known to be a safe campus.”

Two players had been walking near a dormitory when they encountered a man who apparently had been disruptive at a student union dance, authorities said. The players attempted to pacify him and walked away but were shot. Players who rushed to their aid were also shot.

I checked the Sydney Morning Herald story and they also had the comment by university president Dougherty. I checked their website and it appears, although I can’t verify the timing, that they had a statement posted on the site on the 17th–the same day of the event. The statement had useful information, had comments from the president, and promised to providing continuing information and be a good source of information about the tragedy.

So, I will stay away from grading, but I will say to my eyes, the contrast between the two institutions is quite strong. It can be done. In this day, it must be done.

Too harsh on Montreal College?

This is in response to a couple of comments on this blog about my harsh judgment about the lack of communication in the early hours after the event by the college administration. I pointed to the lack of participation in news stories and the fact that the website did not have any information about the event–as it turns out probably not for about 30 hours after the event.

The two comments I received are enlightening. One, from what I would say is a member of the public and that commenter, agreed with me. The one who disagreed is from a major university emergency management department. When I make presentations about crisis communications which I do quite frequently one of the main points I make is the gap between public expectations and what those who are responsible for responding think is reasonable. These two comments illustrate this point better than I could.

I have worked with a number of schools and universities on crisis communication issues, including right now helping one of the largest universities in the nation prepare to respond quickly to incidents such as this. It is a daunting challenge. But the reality that has to be faced is that the public and stakeholders such as parents of students, key donors, government officials, etc., expect to hear from the university or school involved in this kind of incident. They expect to hear fast and directly. We live in an instant news world. News helicopters and remote video crews are on scene in minutes. The Coast Guard talks about the Golden Hour. In advising clients, we talk about the first half hour. It is clear that the only way it is possible to respond in a situation like this to meet these ridiculous expectations is to prepare in advance. That’s why my book is titled “Now Is Too Late.” Responding during an event is indeed too late. The response needs to be planned in advance and when it happens, the triggers simply have to be pulled.

There is no question at all, particularly given the complexities of the response as the expert who commented from an emergency management perspective knows very well, that communicating with stakeholders in the first hour after an event is very challenging. But it is necessary. Not because I say so but because the stakeholders have developed that expectation. How? Because the media operates in an instant news manner and the stakeholders understand the capability of internet-based fast, direct communication.

Organizations, including large universities, have significant challenges to communicating with stakeholders in this kind of rapid fashion. But the choice to me seems clear. Either find ways to address those obstacles and get that ability to communicate, or face harsh criticism about the failure to communicate in a way that meets expectations. Not from me, because my view really doesn’t matter. But from stakeholders whose lives are impacted by what happens in the event. It is their expectation and their perception of the institution that determines the long term impact on reputation.

What CEOs know and don't know about crisis management

The Burson-Marsteller research report CEO’s views of crisis management strategies is one of the most interesting documents to come around in a while. Burson-Marsteller Crisis Mgt Study

It is as interesting for what it indicates CEOs don’t know about crisis management as what they do know.  One finding that is very interesting is that it takes 3.2 years for a company to recover from a crisis.  If that isn’t a justification for preparation I don’t know what is–especially when you realize that most crises are “smoldering” in the sense that the reputation damage can be largely averted by dealing with it aggressively early on. Here are a few other key findings about what CEOs think. These are rankings of strategies in order of importance:
— Quickly disclose details of the scandal/misstep (69%)
— Make progress/recovery visible (59%)
— Analyze what went wrong (58%)
— Improve governance structure (38%)
— Make CEO and leadership accessible to the media (34%)
— Fire employees involved in the problem (32%)
— Commit to high corporate citizenship standards (23%)
— Carefully review ethics policies (19%)
— Hire an outside auditor for internal audits (18%)
— Issue an apology from the CEO (18%)

For the most part, it appears that CEOs “get it.” I certainly question why only 18% believe that issuing an apology from the CEO is important–me thinks a blindspot there. But what is truly remarkable and demonstrates a level of ignorance about the instant news world and the importance of the internet for communication these days is this finding:

One of the more surprising findings of the market research conducted by the firm is that only 5
percent of senior executives believe that updating their website can be an effective tool in their crisis
management and corporate reputation turnaround strategy.

I can only conclude from this that either I and a lot of crisis management folks I know don’t get it and place too much importance on using your website for conveying information to the public, or we as an industry have a very very very long ways to go to get the word out to CEOs that their website and all the internet communication technology is critical in emerging from a crisis. Maybe they can even avert some or shorten that recovery time. Seems they’d be interested in the cost savings there.

Mel Gibson–doing it wrong and doing it right

Mel Gibson stepped into it big time. He got arrested for DUI. But much worse he made some anti-Semitic and sexist remarks. Well, he was drunk. But that’s a real problem.

What he did right was the response. Read it here on CNN.  

When you’ve really screwed up, here is what it takes:

– full and complete admission of the errors without defensiveness and without any conditions or “yeah, buts.”

– recognition you have a problem that needs to be fixed.

– asking for help in getting it fixed.

– detailing specific actions being taken to address the problem.

Every company or organization or celebrity caught in this level of serious difficulty should take a lesson. What if Martha Stewart had done this? “I screwed up, I’m sorry, I should have known better, I will pay the price.” Would she have gone to jail? Lost the millions in share value? Lost the respect of most of the world? I don’t think so.

Why is it so hard for us as individuals and companies to admit when we are wrong?

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.

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.

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.