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Dear Friends,

We have all reeled from the horrific news of the tragedy at Virginia Tech. How could anyone have predicted the plans circulating in the head of a person so mentally ill that he felt he was “left no choice” but to murder 32 students and faculty in cold blood before taking his own life? Who would have thought that Monday, April 16th, would become anything other than another fine day in the lives of students and faculty at Virginia Tech?

That’s just it. We never know when CRISIS is going to hit us. This issue of People Skills for Skilled People (PSSP) will tackle the crucial topic of crisis communication planning. As skilled professionals, we must always be ready when the unthinkable occurs.

First, though, we know that you would want to join us in keeping the victims of the Virginia Tech massacre and all other similar tragedies, here and abroad, in our thoughts and prayers.

“When Crisis Strikes”
Vol. 4, No. 3

Think about those times when you were stopped in your tracks and glued to the television news of a major catastrophe like 9/11. Somehow, work could be put off, meetings could be postponed, and everyday life could be put on temporary hold because something bigger happened, something more important than you.

Crises come at us when we least expect them. The tragedies of Columbine, the Amish school shootings, the World Trade Center, Oklahoma City, and other planned destructions of innocent people as at Virginia Tech, are clear crises, taking us completely off-guard. When the horror is simply too awful to comprehend logically, we desperately search for understanding through others’ eyes. We seek refuge in collective reactions and we are therefore drawn to the television news. Who is making that news? People just like you and us. People like Charles Steger, President of Virginia Tech, who probably never imagined he would be interviewed by national news anchors, much less the international press. He had no time to prepare; he had to be already prepared. And so do we, all of us.

As the skilled professionals of our society, we may one day become the source of information during a crisis. Our crisis might not be as newsworthy and heart-wrenching as Virginia Tech’s, but it is a crisis nevertheless: a product recall, a juicy lawsuit filed against us, a protest on campus, an angry picket line outside our office headquarters. The crisis may even be a positive one: Someone in your department wins the local mayoral election. Or the $140 million state lottery. Or a Nobel prize. Anything that creates sudden news with time sensitivity is a crisis, and demands excellent crisis communication skills. Most often, skilled professionals must respond to the media: print, radio, television, and now the Internet in its various forms (such as blogs and streaming video). Occasionally, crises require us to address a gathering of people in person. At times like these, we rarely have a moment to take a breath, much less plan and practice our remarks. Crisis communication demands true on-your-feet thinking.

Ideally, you come to the crisis situation having been thoroughly trained to meet the media, create memorable sound bites, and manage the “message” you want to send. In case your crisis communication skills might be a bit rusty, here are some tips for getting through the experience:

  • First, determine who should communicate on behalf of your organization. In a loss-of-life situation, no one but the highest ranking leader will do. At other times, your designated communication officer should be the “go-to” person for media inquiries. It is to your advantage to rely on a communication professional whenever you can, because they are trained to manage all the messages to fit together smoothly.
  • Next, determine the overall message you want to send. Every word that you speak should amplify that message. In a loss-of-life tragedy, your ultimate message is an expression of compassion for those who have lost loved ones and a total commitment to safety of everyone else. In an embarrassing sexual harassment scandal, your message is that your institution will investigate the accusations thoroughly because harassment of any kind is intolerable. “We are dedicated to being a positive, productive workplace where everyone can work without fear.” Everything you say should add to the overall message.
  • When you are ready to be interviewed, please remember that the first thing you say has a huge impact. If you even hint at being defensive or deflective, you will not be seen in a positive light. Whenever there is a loss of life, your first words must reach out to those who have suffered such a horrible loss. Be other-directed in virtually everything you say.
  • Never ever say “No Comment.” Instead, say something like:
    • “We definitely need to study the impact of this situation further, and we’ll get back to you as soon as we know more.”
    • “Unfortunately, we do not have any more details at this time.”
    • “We agree that this matter deserves careful evaluation. You can be sure that our organization will do just that.”
    •  “We have not had the opportunity to read the lawsuit yet, so I am unable to comment on the specifics at this time. I want to assure the public that the truth will come out and people will be informed.
There are many ways to honestly say that you don’t have the whole picture right now without looking like you are evading a tough question. Lawyers sometimes advise skilled professionals to say “no comment” so that there is no chance you might say something you’ll regret in court later, but to a journalist, “no comment” is a sure sign that there is really a story here—and a good journalist will start digging even faster and deeper.
  • Skilled professionals who work with the media all the time know this maxim: Never lie. Ever. Period. Especially in this age of instant communication, you will be found out—and then your BIG troubles will begin!
  • A companion to the commandment to never lie is this: Everything that comes out of your mouth must be true to the best of your knowledge, but not everything you know to be true should come out of your mouth. Be strategic and circumspect. You are less likely to get in hot water for something you didn’t say than for something you did say. “Loose lips sink ships” is still true today.
  • Project the appropriate emotional response to match the situation. Dr. Charles Steger, President of Virginia Tech, was praised for projecting the right amount of gravitas in his public remarks. Especially when the situation contains a lot of confusion, do whatever you can to project the image that things are under control while still showing how serious this crisis is. Then-Mayor of New York Rudy Guiliani and President George Bush both achieved that high rhetorical purpose skillfully right after the 9/11 attack in 2001.
  • Investigative reporters are especially experienced at creating questions designed to entrap. Do not take the bait of a hypothetical question. If you find yourself faced with a difficult question to answer, you can get out of it by “going meta.” “Going meta” means invoking meta-communication—that is, talking about how we are talking. The best way to describe this technique is to go to a philosophical level to comment on the hypothetical question that was posed. “Yes, that’s always a challenge, isn’t it? Our goal is to have enough cross-checks in place that such a thing would never happen here.”
  • Don’t feel you have to answer every question that is posed to you. Politicians are actually too good at this. Although we don’t want to overdo it the way some of our government leaders do, it’s still a good idea to simply not address something that is posed, if answering the question would lead you down a dangerous rabbit hole. When Diane Sawyer confronted President Steger on the morning of the Virginia Tech killings, she said, “People are calling for you to step down…to resign…because you failed to lock down the campus after the first two killings.” Dr. Steger ignored the supposed call for his resignation and instead focused on the facts, as campus security understood them, after the first two victims were found. He explained what was done at the time and why campus security thought that the killings were confined to the dormitory only. He offered the explanations without seeming defensive. In fact, he projected regret at not knowing then what they knew now.
  • Always be gracious and well mannered. The media is not always polite, and sometimes they will come off a little jaded or “world-weary” while you’re trying to explain matters that are serious to you. Always take the high road. Express gratitude for the opportunity to talk with them (even if you’re secretly wishing the earth would open up and swallow you whole) and always thank them at the end of your interview. If you treat the press with respect, they will be more likely to treat you that way in return.

It’s true that none of us will ever know whether we’ll be thrust on the public stage in a media frenzy until it happens. Then it’s too late to study what you should have done. The best organizations provide their top leaders with media training regularly. Just going through a mock interview once or twice in your life isn’t enough; everyone needs occasional brush-ups to keep their skills in a state of readiness. When the stress of a real crisis situation hits, you will be so grateful that you had those yearly workshops on handling the media. Because stress is so much a part of all crisis situations, media training must be ongoing at regular intervals so that you are able to feel truly prepared when the time comes.

In addition to training your top leaders in media-handling, your organization should also have a viable and up-to-date crisis plan or disaster plan. Take a moment to find yours on the shelf. Is it dusty? Are the lists of “go-to” teams in the document full of employees and officers who are no longer with the organization? Is the website address still accurate? All phone numbers the same? Are email addresses included? Crisis communication documents and disaster plans can get out-of-date fast. If you are responsible for any aspect of the safety of your organization, please update your crisis communication plan. Please retrain your people. Please do this—now—for the future of your organization and the community it serves.

Yours in good communication,
Jan and Neal Palmer

Communication Excellence Institute offers Crisis Communication Planning and Media Training customized for your organization. We invite you to read about Crisis Communication on our website at  http://www.talk2cei.com/services/crisis_comm.htm and Media Training at this website page: http://www.talk2cei.com/services/meeting_media.htm. Whether you select CEI or another organization as your provider, the most important thing is that you do it. Update your media training and your crisis communication plan NOW!

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