PR Playbook - Weathering a Crisis: Is Management Telling the Truth?

By Terry Hemeyer

The key to being successful and weathering any crisis, whether it be a local, national, international or personal in scope – is asking the right questions beforehand, doing the right things in the moment, and analyzing your past actions with a critical eye.

When it comes to crisis management, the before, during and after are nearly equally important, yet communicators are rarely prepared on all three fronts.

Before: Ask yourself the tough questions
Have a plan and know your vulnerabilities. Understanding your organization’s vulnerabilities and gathering intelligence before the crisis is mandatory. You need to make it part of your job. Once you have an awareness of potential areas of concern, you can mitigate them and message them. In the best case, you can address the issue so thoroughly as to remove it from your vulnerabilities list.

When assessing vulnerabilities, remember the human assets. Employees are your biggest asset and your weakest link. In many cases, employees or managers will cause a crisis in your organization by making bad decisions or acting inappropriately. Ensure this is considered in your list of vulnerabilities, and over-communicate to employees about their role in the organization, communication procedures and health and safety rules. The intent is to solicit their support.

Ultimately, planning ahead is about much more than a crisis planning document-- in many cases, it's all about ensuring that you, as the leader of the communications team, have a "seat at the table." 

What amount of confidence, respect and credibility does your management have in you? This is critical to your role when a crisis hits. You don’t want to be an order taker. If you're not sure where you stand, ask yourself, "Are my vulnerability assessments acted upon by management?" 

If the answer is no, this unfortunately, will not be an easy fix. It takes months of work to gain the confidence of your executives. Start by doing exactly what they want, to the best of your ability.  Doing things that benefit the company's bottom-line will go a long way. Then, once they have confidence in you, begin to make communication recommendations about what you perceive to be the best course of action.

During: Make the (right) tough calls
When an employee makes a serious judgment error, or equipment malfunctions with grave results, or a key executive leaves the company—you'll have the chance to put your plans to the test. 

In a crisis scenario, remember that silence can be golden. You can never take back statements made in haste during a crisis. The number one rule is to get in, and get out—the best crisis management is quick and anonymous. In the best-case scenario, you'll draft well-composed statements that you'll never need to use. But it won't always be that easy, and when media, community groups, shareholders and the public are all demanding answers, a calm, patient exterior will help put your internal team and the public at ease and gain their confidence.

Be truthful and transparent. An untruth repeated often enough can become fact. Set up and manage a “truth squad” to instantly correct inaccurate information. Your truth squad is responsible for monitoring all public information on the issue, and flagging and immediately correcting any inaccuracies. Demand that every decision pass the “60 Minutes” test. What choices would you make if you knew your crisis would be broadcast on “60 Minutes”? If you suspect you're not getting the truth (or the whole truth) from top management, you have to understand your options. You can meet with your general counsel, or a member of the executive team that you have a trusted relationship with, to try and sort out the issue—or you can leave the company—there is not much middle ground in this scenario.

Be smart. Play devil’s advocate and put yourself in the shoes of the other side. Anticipate what they perceive and what they might do. Think like them and advise management accordingly. At the same time, stick to what you know best: communications. Don't get caught up in legal, operational or financial counsel. Advise your management on how their decisions might impact the public perception of your organization.

Be innovative. Know when to use alternative communications strategies beyond traditional and social media. Consider face-to-face discussions, meetings with key publics, “Google words” advertising, select cable, etc. It's also a good idea to seek out the advice of a trusted “third party” during a crisis. They are removed enough from the situation to provide valuable objective input.

And finally, have the guts to “fail fast” – don’t keep going down a wrong road.

After: Analyze your performance
Good crisis management: "They handled the problem well."

Great crisis management: "We didn't know they had a problem."

In the best case scenario, crisis situations are prevented, minimized or fixed before they become a public issue.

After the dust has cleared, take a serious look at the plan vs. the actual. Use the crisis as an opportunity to update your crisis plan and make any adjustments that are needed, whether it be to the members of the crisis team, response procedures, or emergency notification systems. Every crisis is different and you need to treat it that way. Playbooks, plans and drills are guides, but every crisis takes different twists and turns.

And finally, never stop learning. Be well read, keep your team small, stay quick and “live and breathe” the crisis 24 hours a day. Having luck, good timing and the facts on your side are also helpful.

Originally published in O’Dwyer’s Magazine, January 2014. Terry Hemeyer serves as executive counsel to Pierpont Communications and is on the faculty at The University of Texas at Austin teaching PR strategies. He has handled hundreds of crisis situations during his career, including issues for two U.S. presidents, advised major organizations on multiple crisis situations and handled contentious executive departures. His education includes the Stanford University Graduate Executive Program, an MA from the University of Denver and a BS in education from The Ohio State University.                                      

Terry Hemeyer