The Predictable Part of a Crisis

January 31, 2014

By Mark Bernheimer

It’s an oversimplification to say that reporters love the negative. It’s more accurate to say that the media demonstrate a “bias toward drama.” And drama, alas, is usually bad.

Crises — those dramatic negative stories — capture the majority of the media’s dwindling resources. The low-hanging fruit of the news business, these stories are usually easy to cover and popular with viewers and readers.

So it’s imperative to be ready for crisis, but what kind of crisis? Employee malfeasance? Workplace violence? A tainted product? A social media firestorm?

When it comes to crisis communications planning, those details may actually matter less than you think.

First and foremost, a reporter covering a crisis simply wants information. In the hazy, chaotic atmosphere that envelops breaking news, reporters want to get the facts, which they can relay as quickly as possible to their audiences. (And in the social media era, journalists increasingly seem to emphasize speed over accuracy. But that’s another column.)

To be even more specific, most reporter questions will usually fall under one of three categories, no matter the nature or severity of the issue

Memorize these categories, and prepare for the questions that may fall under them, and you will survive virtually any crisis.

1. What happened?

It doesn’t take a journalism degree to come up with this, which is the most obvious and important question.

Even if somebody else (first responders, regulators, employees) has informed the reporter, then he or she will present this question as a way of weighing your version of the facts with others.

Of course, the answer will evolve as the crisis unfolds, so this question is likely to come up more than once.

2. What caused this?

How exactly did this happen? What went wrong? Whose fault was it?

Once the series of events has been established, you can expect reporters to zero in on the cause.

Of course, in the immediate aftermath, it may be impossible to know. Don’t let someone pressure you into speculating if all of the facts have not been established yet.

3. What are you doing to prevent this from happening again?

Are you going to fire somebody? Change your employment screening policies? Discontinue the product line in question?

The easiest way for a journalist to wrap up a story on a crisis is to report the resolution. The trouble is, management usually doesn’t make such decisions until long after the crisis has passed.

Often, it is sufficient simply for a company official to assure the reporter that it takes these matters very seriously, the investigation is ongoing, and that it will implement any changes that need to be made as soon as they are identified.

Ironically, the hours immediately following a crisis are often the easiest to handle from a PR perspective.

There’s simply so much we don’t know yet and most reporters understand that, even if their persistent, detail-oriented questions suggest otherwise.

But as time passes, media expectations grow. Once the dust settles, a secondary messaging strategy will be in order. This one must include updated information, more details and confident reassurance that everything is under control.

Mark Bernheimer is a former CNN national correspondent, and the founder of MediaWorks Resource Group, an international media training and consulting firm.

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Stephanie Neal Johnson says:

So, as a former journalist and now PR professional, the problem I have with this line of questioning is "whose fault is it?" I don't think you provided advice for that. It is a simple question, and our simplistic minds want to go there. But it isn't always an easy question to answer. What if no one is to blame? What if it is a series of events, or even a weather event or so-called Act of God? Avoid the trap of hindsight bias. It is easy to assign fault in hindsight. Real leadership solves problems moving forward, and won't fall into the trap or throw anyone under the bus. Help your leadership stay away from could have, would have, should have. It will help your company in the long run. Read "Thinking Fast and Slow" and other books like this for more tips.

Feb. 18, 2014

Joanna says:

As an attorney, I think the last thing a PR professional should do is speculate about "whose fault it is" when you may not have all the information early on in a crisis. I think Mr. Bernheimer's advice is spot on in that regard: Don't allow yourself to be pressured into speculating when you don't have all the facts. Mr. Bernheimer isn't advocating pointing the finger or playing the blame game once the facts are ascertained. Rather, he is simply making the point that, "We are still investigating the facts," is a perfectly fair answer to the "whose fault is it" question in the early aftermath of a crisis.

March 2, 2014

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