The Public Relations Strategist

It Might Get Loud: Getting Your Story Out in a Crisis

October 26, 2017

[getty images]
[getty images]

“A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.”


Mark Twain’s wisdom seems quaint in today’s pulsating, hyper-connected world, where a negative story can go viral before you even realize you’re not wearing any shoes. The good news is the digital and social media that instantly hurtled details of your crisis to smartphones and desktops everywhere can also be employed to counter the damage. But getting your story out in a crisis isn’t just a matter of which channels you choose. That’s probably the easiest part. The hard part is making sure you’re communicating the right message.

Building your narrative sounds easy, but it isn’t. The brilliant entertainer Steve Martin has a great routine about how to be a millionaire. “First,” he says casually, “get a million dollars.” It’s the same with building your narrative.

And you won’t succeed if you can’t build a simple, effective narrative that gets to the core of your issue and resonates with the public. I learned this lesson during the most difficult challenge of my career, when I was head of communications for giant insurer AIG during the global financial crisis.

The world came crashing down on AIG in September 2008, when the company required billions in government assistance to stay afloat. The situation went from controversial to incendiary when it became known that millions in contractual payments were owed to a number of AIG employees.

The uproar was deafening, not to mention debilitating to the thousands of AIG employees who were doing a good job running profitable businesses.

The media, Congress and much of the general public pounced on AIG. The company’s ability to conduct business was put in serious jeopardy. There was a rapid succession in leadership — four CEOs in the span of 14 months — and it seemed that anything we said or did only fed the fire. We faced two critical problems: What was the story we needed to tell? And how could we tell our story in the face of a full-on media and public frenzy? 

Some of the biggest challenges to managing a crisis are internal. People run in different directions. Personalities change as tensions rise. New players are introduced into the mix, such as outside bankers, lawyers and consultants. And there is no shortage of opinions about how things should be handled, ranging from “Just say ‘no comment’” to “If we can just explain things, they will understand.” 

The first critical moments can make or break a crisis recovery. Choose the wrong strategy, and you will waste precious time and resources. In the case of AIG, there was no time for a dissertation on the intricacies of credit default swaps. And simply staying silent wasn’t an option either. Our customers, shareholders and the public wanted — needed — to hear from us. Would we honor our insurance policies? Would we remain a going concern? 

Without the luxury of time or message-testing, we quickly built our communications strategy around two core message points that emerged in all of our conversations:

  • AIG will take care of its policyholders.
  • AIG will repay the government.

Both goals were essential: If AIG didn’t honor its policies, then it would lose the confidence of customers, it wouldn’t be able to stay in business and it wouldn’t be able to pay back the government. And if AIG couldn’t pay back the government, then it would be broken up and sold off. 

Start inside 

Fortunately, each of AIG’s CEOs understood intuitively that the first step in communicating your story is ensuring that everyone in your organization is aligned with it. If a path or action isn’t understood and accepted internally, it’s difficult to get support for it externally. 

So we started with a series of small group meetings with senior leadership along with several in-person, live-streamed town hall meetings held at key company locations.

Over the course of just a few days, every one of AIG’s 120,000 employees around the world had the opportunity to hear — and provide feedback to — AIG’s CEO and senior management about where we were headed and why. The feedback we received helped us refine our narrative and prepare for the next phase in recovery communications.

Use the right channels to reach the right audiences

Communicating internally was one thing. Telling our story externally was quite another. It’s impossible to overstate the hostility that was directed at AIG at the height of the crisis. Employees were accosted on the street, ugly threats were an everyday occurrence and much of the mainstream media was obsessed with finding the next hate-AIG story. 

Our credibility was so low that anything we issued was either smothered in derision or became the hook for another round of nasty articles. So we worked with some fair-minded journalists who understood the issues and with whom we had developed solid relationships. 

By telling our story though trusted, credible third parties and by staying disciplined in our messaging, our story began to resonate, the frenzy began to calm and we started the process of recovery.

Be focused and persistent

While getting your story right early on and making it simple and relatable are the first and hardest steps when dealing with a crisis, getting your story out to the public requires focus and persistence.

Focus is essential for working through the internal and external noise that can be deafening in a crisis. Focus is also crucial to avoid wasting time and energy. There may be a visceral urge to hit back at an unfair story, but is it worth the time and effort? Is it consistent with your strategy?
 
And there simply is no substitute for persistence. Yes, it’s important to choose the right channels, and you may even need others to help you tell your story, but you have to keep at it. Eventually, the noise will fade, and your message will endure.

The good news is that, whatever your crisis, it will pass, and the sun will come up. The truth is that people are very forgiving if you say you’re sorry, mean it and make the situation right. The people of AIG faced the darkest days any organization could experience. But through it all, they took care of policyholders and paid back the government. In fact, U.S. taxpayers actually made about $23 billion from their support of AIG. True, AIG shareholders weren’t so lucky. But the company survived the crisis and is rebuilding value.

AIG succeeded because it developed the right message, told its story with focus and determination, and followed through on commitments. That’s a formula for success in any crisis. 

Nick Ashooh

Nick Ashooh is senior director at APCO Worldwide, focusing on corporate and crisis communications. During a career spanning more than 40 years, he has headed communications for five Fortune 500 companies, including AIG, Alcoa and American Electric Power. He is a member of the Arthur W. Page Society’s Hall of Fame.
 

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