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When crisis hits…
The world of campaign politics provides a stern proving ground on which to learn and practice the skills of crisis communications. Looking back on years of experience in some very tight, very public situations, a few guiding principle emerge. In crisis, which usually arrives suddenly and with little opportunity for preparation, keep in mind some essential principles when the crisis starts to break (since your mind is likely to be spinning and overwhelmed when crisis hits, best to give it some thought while you’re relaxed and thinking clearly). The steps you take in the initial moments will shape what happens as events unfold over the ensuing hours, days, and weeks:
Act in a timely manner: Information travels fast these days, but particularly when there is a vacuum into which misinformation and disinformation can be sucked, and once gone, it is very hard to retrieve. Ever minute counts in the 24 hours news cycle. Act with care, act with thought, act with a plan – but act fast. If your words get out there first, much the better for the days ahead.
Don’t shoot from the hip: Acting fast is not the same as acting rashly. Always take the time to gather a few key folks whose opinions you respect (by phone or email or blog or all three) to ask what they would do. Then, assess what they have to say, and make a plan.
Don’t say too much: As important as saying something appropriate is knowing when to stop talking. You job is to fill the information vacuum with just enough to bring things into immediate balance. No need in the early moments of crisis to say it all, answer every question, satisfying every inquiring mind. Get it done, and get off the stage to plan the next step.
Learn everything you can: You need to know as much as you can about the situation in order to manage it properly. Ask, probe, demand – be the reporter, be the cop. Get all the facts as soon as you can. The more you know, the better you can plan.
Nominate a skilled spokesperson: It’s no coincidence that politicians, movie stars, and high profile people in a jam have someone to stand out in front from them. Whether it’s an attorney, a PR pro, or the college debating champion, a person with the ability to take the heat and stay cool slows everything down and shields less experienced people from the innumerable pitfalls of making a public statement (or answering questions).
Set a deadline to return with more: Let folks know when you’ll be back with more complete information. It might be in two hours or two days, but without a deadline they will be incessently nipping at your heels. Then, of course, you have to meet that deadline, have something further to say, then set the next deadline.
Shape the dialog from the beginning: The first words you use, the first story you tell, will have a powerful effect on whatever else happens. Be purposeful about what you say, make in clear, state it strongly, and share as much real information as you can (be areful here…). The difference between murder and self-defense can be established in a sentence or two, and if it is stated at the outset, then you have framed the dialog in an important way.
Tell the truth: Not necessarily the whole truth, however, nothing but the truth. It is virtually impossible to recover a public crisis from a deliberate lie. This rule is simple. Never tell a lie. Never. Never. Never. Never. Never. Got it?
Just one more piece of advice. Call us first. You’ll be better off that way.