Crisis management experts love to talk about the value of scenario planning exercises: setting aside time and resources to imagine various potential calamities and how best to handle them. But, while it’s always great to be as prepared, the people and companies faced with a communications crisis are often not the same as those that happened to invest in planning for just such a scenario. So, when they reach out for PR help, there aren’t existing PowerPoint decks to consult and phone notification chains to kickstart a response.
Culled from our experience with clients, stakeholders and lawyers we’ve worked with, as well as years spent working on the journalism side of the game, below are key learnings from BerlinRosen’s Crisis Management and Legal Affairs practice—where we advise clients ranging from law firms, global corporations and high net-worth individuals to nonprofits and advocacy organizations—on the first five phone calls to make in order to survive the crisis.
The single most important phone call to make or return is to the very people that are coming after you. Avoid the head-in-sand approach and engage directly with the reporter(s) that are chasing or already writing the story. The goals of that initial contact are to: (1) open a line of communication so they know who to come to for information, (2) extract all you can about what they know and when/how they’re planning to report it and (3) understand whether they’re receptive to receiving background information in addition to actual statements. Resist the temptation to hide from reporters in hopes that the story goes away—it rarely does. The only real risk of engaging with the reporters is the (negligible) difference between stories that say “declined to comment” instead of “could not be reached for comment.” In exchange, you gain critical insight into their reporting that can shape your response. Furthermore, if you ignore a reporter but then take issue with a story after it posts, it will be much more difficult to change or influence the piece. Any reporter will be less receptive to your arguments after the fact.
The most precious commodity in a crisis management situation is time and you don’t get much of it. The best service you can provide to clients is helping them understand that, today, “rapid” response will almost always need to be faster than they would prefer. Even initial conversations about the best course of action should be had with the actual decision-makers, rather than beginning with mid-level personnel which must then float proposed steps up the corporate ladder.
Relatedly, those conversations can’t wait until the next day or even “later today.” Rapid response will almost always need to be faster than a client would prefer. It means getting an initial statement into the earliest write-ups—and in a prominent place within them—because those are the ones that will proliferate on social media and set the tone. It means getting on conference calls at 10:00 p.m. because that’s when the next day’s New York Times story comes online with new comments from an adversary that may—or may not—merit a response.
One of the most critical rules in crisis communications management is that you don’t want to make a bad situation worse. Looping in a company’s legal counsel, whether in-house or outside (or both), is a critical component to not breaking that rule and bringing them into the fold right away serves several key purposes. First, lawyers often know where the bodies are buried and a critical component to a good crisis plan to gather all available information as quickly as possible. Relatedly, any public statements should be vetted not just in the context of the immediate situation but also with an eye towards litigating a matter in the long term. Crisis communications is both a short game and a long game and you need to make sure that your short game doesn’t create problems down the road.
Whether it’s a member of your own team or someone from the client side, identify and activate someone to research the broadest possible context surrounding an issue. Is the current problem an off-shoot of, or even similar to, a past problem that the client has had? Is it part of a larger trend that might make reporters more likely to cover, perhaps necessitating a more aggressive initial strategy? If the crisis at hand is an “us versus them” situation, are there vulnerabilities that you can leverage? Put simply, assign someone to make sure you know everything there is to know as quickly as possible.
Companies and individuals are, by definition, biased about their own crisis situations. So, no matter how pitch-perfect a response might be, having outside validators available to reporters and other key constituencies is an effective component of a crisis response. The ideal mechanism is to identify a specific person that can act as a validator wrangler: someone with strong relevant relationships that can marshal support quickly. Whether it’s a current or former employee, client or partner organization, jumpstart this process as one of the first steps to a crisis response.
Prioritizing these five calls, ideally within the first two hours of an emerging crisis, will create the foundation for an aggressive and strategic crisis response.
This article first appeared on O’Dwyer’s Crisis Management edition.