Caught on the fly, would the receptionist know to whom such calls should be steered? Would a partner know how — or even whether — to answer the reporter’s questions? Would those not authorized to speak know to hold their tongues?
This is crisis communications. And, far too few professionals are sufficiently versed in how to conduct themselves in the face of a reporter’s call.
The problem is that handling a crisis should be required knowledge. The 24-hour news cycle of yesteryear has been replaced by a 10-minute cycle fueled by blogs, news site updates, and even Facebook posts and Twitter tweets. In this hyper-competitive environment, sources could unwittingly hurt their own cause by not first considering the long-term implications of a question poorly answered.
Once one bad quote hits the airwaves, newsprint or the Internet, it’s irretrievable.
Crisis communications and reputation management is the practice of preparing for the possibility, even likelihood, that something will befall the firm or an attorney.
As any criminal defense or white collar attorney knows, it’s not whether the accusations are true. That’s for the courts to decide. It’s how the matter is handled in the court of public opinion.
The goal in crisis communications is to address the problem openly, with appropriate, honest responses delivered swiftly.
Creating a Crisis Management Plan
Central to successfully navigating this arena is the crisis communications plan — and that plan starts at the top. One person should be appointed to spearhead crisis communications. The plan outlines what “spokesperson” is pre-approved to speak for the firm to the media, who is on the response team, how responses will be formulated, and even how the firm’s social media will be utilized.
Having one spokesperson is vital. By establishing a “single voice” for the firm, it’s easier to ensure that the comments and information flow are consistent and the firm is positioned in the best possible light.
How will the firm respond? A response can take the form of a press release to the media or a phone call to individual reporters or editors with whom the firm has built a trusted relationship. That outreach could be followed by a post to the firm’s blog and newsroom, followed by and an update to its Facebook and/or linkedin page and a tweet.
Role-Play and Crisis Scenarios
Once the hierarchy and general response mechanisms are in place, the firm and its public relations team then create and perform role-play scenarios for several possible situations. The goal is to mitigate risk by improving how responses are handled.
Among other considerations…
- When a reporter calls and asks, “Can I speak with someone who handles calls from the media?” the person answering the phones should know never to offer commentary. The caller should be transferred or directed to the individual designated to take such calls, or the marketing director or publicist, who will facilitate further discussion.
- If the “spokesperson” is not available, how will the staff respond? Guidelines will establish who — if anyone — can represent the firm and speak to the media instead. This should be a very select group — possibly only the most senior executives, and then, only after getting sample questions in preparation for the interview.
- Prepare before — and during — crises. This includes media training. Knowing what — or what not — to say to the media doesn’t come naturally to everyone. Sometimes, working with a public relations firm in advance on media training — that is, role-playing to discover what questions you might encounter and how to answer them — can help to make executives comfortable being interviewed.
- Avoid saying, “No comment” or “Can I get back to you in a few days?” in response to a reporter’s question. It can appear the company is hiding information or avoiding the issue. If a response has not yet been prepared, say, “We’re still looking into this matter and will gladly respond once we’ve learned more.” This can be as little as 10 minutes or later in the day. Always ask the reporter’s deadline so you know how long you have to tailor a response. But stalling may ensure the story runs without a response.
- When responding, consider your audiences. These can include clients and prospects, partners, employees, associates, paralegals and the media. Different audiences may require different responses to address each appropriately.
With the right crisis communications preparation and effective media training, any firm and its principals can help to mitigate the risk of negative publicity by being ready for the day a journalist calls. Create a crisis communications plan, practice executing the plan, work with internal and external media relations and reputation managers, and strive to ensure the firm is prepared to present itself professionally when it’s the media on the other end of the line.
By Don Silver
1776 North Pine Island Road, Suite 320
Fort Lauderdale, Florida 33322
South Florida Legal Guide 2013 Edition