Crisis Management is NOT Crafting Messages

As a “profession” of communicators and public relations practitioners, it’s time we came to grips with an important reality.

Crisis management (and, by extension, crisis communication) is not about crafting messages. It’s about influencing behaviour—specifically the behaviour of the individuals, executives and/or leaders whose actions or decisions led to the crisis in the first place.

For example, consider the Jian Ghomeshi scandal. When the former radio host was fired from his job at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), he immediately took the initiative with his now-infamous Facebook post.

Step one in the standard crisis communication handbook is to get in front of the issue. Check. Step two is to control the message. Check.

(I can’t believe people still attempt to control the message. When a trade journalist with a smartphone can generate a YouTube clip that generates nearly 400,000 views, it's time to recognize that controlling the message is now out of the question. At best, we can only influence the exchange.)

Ghomeshi’s post (now removed from Facebook) portrayed a downtrodden radio host whose sexual habits were at best misunderstood and, at worst, a fascinating form of cultural discrimination.

The post was well-written. It laid out his logic, and managed to tug at the heartstrings of fans. It received thousands of likes in a few short hours. In short, I have no doubt that some consultant somewhere (i.e. Mr. Ghomeshi’s agency at the time) was patting him- or herself on the back for crafting a well-designed message.

But it crossed the line between spin and sin. And any senior PR practitioner worth his or her salt would have pointed it out to him.

Mr. Ghomeshi is now facing multiple criminal charges of sexual assault. While it is up to the courts to ultimately decide whether the sexual acts were as consensual as Mr. Ghomeshi claimed in his post, there are a couple of lessons for those of us, as “professionals,” who help organizations steer their way through issues, emergencies and crises.

First, get to the truth

We are not lawyers. We have no obligation to represent individuals (or organizations) when they are lying. In fact, we probably shouldn’t represent them because, if we do, there’s a high probability any stink will stick to us.

(As an aside, I have long yearned for the day when the media know to dig deeper because the PR agency has fired the client early in the crisis. When that day arrives, I believe we’ll finally be able to call ourselves a profession.)

The first step in any crisis is to ask tough questions behind closed doors to determine what is true and what isn’t. We need to look executives in the eye and determine whether they are honestly attempting to deal with the issue, or if they are looking for some form of spin to save themselves from whatever got them into trouble in the first place.

If they are unwilling to answer our questions, and we’re an outside consultant, we should get up and walk out until they are. If we’re an internal consultant, we should polish our resume and start sending it out. It’s only a matter of time before it’s needed.

Second, help them understand the consequences of the truth

This element of crisis management has two sides: the consequences of not telling the truth to the outside world; and the consequences of telling the truth.

In my three decades of experience, by the time a crisis reaches this point, there is a short-term game and a long-term game.

In the short term, not fully disclosing the truth may mean the issue will fade after a time. After all, the world has a relatively short attention span. But it’s only a matter of time before all those problems hidden under the bed or in the closet are brought into the open again by social or traditional media—or both—and lead to irreparable damage to an individual or organizational reputation.

Think I’m kidding? The following statement was found in a recent article about Dalhousie University that had nothing to do with the recent debacle at the university’s school of dentistry:

“Dalhousie also recently began inquiries into the behaviour of 13 male dentistry students after they were linked to a Facebook page containing sexually violent content about women.” The journalist is bridging back to Dalhousie's problems, and because of the way it mishandled bringing out the truth, Dalhousie can expect reporters to “bridge” to that problem for years, if not decades.

Over the long-term, disclosing the truth is generally the only option that enables the organization to protect its reputation. We need to help our clients understand this concept before we can help them communicate.

Third, help the world understand the truth

This is the communication part of crisis management. The organization must come clean, apologize for its actions if necessary, make reparations where possible, and help the world understand what it’s doing to ensure a similar problem never emerges again.

There you have it; three guiding principles that can help solve any crisis.

Two-thirds of this solution has nothing to do with communication. In fact, if you attempt to communicate without identifying the truth and its consequences, you’re attempting to spin your way out of a problem. If that happens, don’t be surprised if the crisis lingers and the organization’s reputation takes a hit.

And, in this world, it's only a matter of time before the stink starts sticking to those who engineered the spin in the first place.

Defining the Line Between Spin & Sin

For spokespeople to be effective, it’s vital that they understand the nuances between lies, deception and spin.

In her book LYING: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life, philosopher Sissela Bok defines deception as that which occurs when “we communicate messages meant to mislead … meant to make them believe what we ourselves do not believe.” To her, lying is “any intentionally deceptive message which is stated.”
lying cover

In other words, to lie, you must make some form of statement; you cannot lie by simply omitting facts. If you omit facts to create a false impression, you are practicing a form of deception.

During my 33-year career, I have seen very few media training consultants or public relations practitioners counsel clients to lie or intentionally deceive the world when they face stakeholder groups or reporters. However, I have witnessed many situations in which the client (as spokesperson) has spun an issue or not been forthcoming with the truth. (Ignoring the question and talking about “what’s really important” is a perfect case in point.)

Defining Spin

In a presentation to the American Political Association a few years ago, political scientist John J. Mearsheimer provided a definition of spin that I have used many times because it clearly delineates spin from both lying and deception. According to Mr. Mearsheimer, spin occurs when someone links together facts in a way that attempts to portray an individual or organization in the best possible light.

Chances are, if you’ve ever sent out a résumé, you have practiced a form of spin. Spin involves downplaying or ignoring certain facts that would create a negative perception, and emphasizing those that create a positive perception. The emphasis is on making the individual or organization look as good as possible by focusing attention on the positives.

The thin line between spin and sin lies somewhere between the creation of a true impression and a false impression, resulting from which decisions or facts are included, which facts are omitted, and how the facts are structured.

In other words, if the facts are true and the impression left by those facts is true, the overall approach is ethical.

However, if the facts are true but the impression left by the selection or organization of those facts is false or misleading, the precise location of the ethical line needs to be discussed or reviewed by all those involved. If we leave this impression, are we opening ourselves to criticism?

If the facts are untrue, and people in the organization know them to be untrue, the organization is lying.

Spin is not necessarily a form of deception, provided that the story created by the facts is not intended to mislead and the facts underlying the story are true. But the line between spin and sin is definitely crossed when there is no conscious effort to portray an accurate or truthful version of the story.

Asking Questions—the Only Protection

The only protection someone has against deception, lies or spin is asking questions. By definition, this makes the skill of answering questions extremely important if an organization’s spokespeople hope to maintain high moral ground during situations of real or perceived hostility.

By asking questions, stakeholders and journalists can determine which facts are highlighted and which are ignored, and whether the person answering questions is engaging in some form of deception, lie or spin. This is why interviews, not just résumés, are important to the hiring process.

From a formal perspective, this is what happens when prosecutors and defense attorneys (or plaintiffs and defendants) square off against each other in a court of law. This is also what happens in the court of public opinion when reporters ask spokespeople about the actions, activities, opinions and behaviours of the organizations they represent.

And, in an information-driven world, this makes the skill of answering questions clearly and concisely absolutely critical, and pause-answer-stop the foundation on which the line between spin and sin can be constructed and maintained.

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eric
Eric Bergman, BPA, ABC, APR, MC, FCPRS, is Canada's most credentialed and experienced media training consultant. For more than 25 years, thousands of spokespeople from five continents in the private, public, corporate, professional, entrepreneurial and not-for-profit sectors have benefited from Eric’s approach, coaching and feedback.

Contact Eric if you’re interested in applying his proven approach. Your spokespeople will gain the competence and confidence to manage exchanges with journalists to win-win outcomes, while protecting themselves and their organization every step of the way.

Separate Print From Broadcast

One of the most important considerations in dealing with journalists boils down to one simple question: Is this a print journalist, or a broadcast journalist?

In this post, we’re going to briefly compare print versus broadcast, and focus on succeeding with print interviews. During later posts, we’ll focus on broadcast, namely sound bites and live interviews.

Print journalists are those whose stories have to be read to be understood. It includes words printed to paper, certainly, but also includes words printed on-screen. Bloggers and tweeters are perfect examples.

Broadcast journalists operate with the spoken word. Their stories have to be heard to be understood. Television and radio are included in this mix, as are podcasters, videobloggers, and virtually anyone with a smartphone and a YouTube account.

Difficulties arise when the spokesperson doesn’t understand that what works well with one doesn’t work well with the other.
This quote says that media training that focuses on P-A-S is best.

With print journalists, the information provided in the interview must go through the journalist, an editor, and a headline writer before it’s read by the end audience—the people the spokesperson would like to influence for his or her “win” during the exchange.

The route to the end audience is always indirect. As information goes through those stages, it changes. And it does so very quickly.

To be successful with print media, spokespeople need to be clear, concise and focused in their answers. Answering the question and stopping is desirable more often than not. Smart spokespeople recognize that most questions can be answered in ten words or less.

That way, when messages are inserted to influence end audiences, they rise to the top. They are not surrounded by clutter that may or may not be used by the journalist.

To recap: Pause-answer-stop is your primary tactic. When you expand your answer, only do so with the intention of talking to an end audience. And the audience you address should be consistent with the question asked.

That’s how messages are woven in, not driven home.

In Praise of Pitching

I read with interest Andre Beaupre’s article entitled 7 Reasons why it’s time to retire ‘pitch’ and ‘pitching’ and I must respectfully disagree with his perspective. I don’t believe these words date or harm the PR industry.

The word “pitching” arises from comparisons to baseball. The pitcher is on the mound and pitches the ball to the catcher.
Picture of someone pitching a baseball as an analogy to pitching to the media.

If you’ve ever witnessed such an event, you know that the catcher throws the ball back to the pitcher and the process repeats itself. It is, therefore, two-way by its very nature. The pitcher does not have a large bucket of balls from which he (or she) keeps throwing, without any regard for whether the catcher actually catches.

But what people unfamiliar with this exchange may not know is that the pitcher does not blindly throw fastballs, curve balls, sliders, knuckle balls or changeups to the catcher without a thought of what the receiver is expecting. The catcher first gives the pitcher a sign to indicate what he (or she) expects to receive.

Competent media relations practitioners understand what journalists need or expect to receive, and tailor their pitch accordingly. What harms us is not the word, but the behavior of exuberant individuals within our profession who keep firing pitches from their large, limitless bucket.

I don’t believe the word “pitching” damages our reputation. What is infinitely more damaging to our reputation is when we train spokespeople to keep firing the same messages from the same bucket, regardless of whether the journalist is even remotely interested or listening.

So let’s not focus on the word. Let’s focus on the approach, and make all of our exchanges with journalists two-way, with the expectation of creating win-win outcomes from which everyone benefits.

In this, I agree with Mr. Beaupre. Two-way exchanges are the foundation on which long-term relationships of lasting value can be constructed.