Crisis Management: Don’t Let Your Company Be A Sitting Duck: Crisis planning
As hard as it is to believe, if your company prepares for a public fiasco it might actually avoid it! Indeed, your very preparation could neutralize media interest. I have now watched this happen repeatedly with clients. Furthermore, even if you don’t escape public attention entirely, at the very least your preparation will help you weather the predicament more gracefully.
I got my first glimpse of this strategy as a reporter a number of years ago, but it took me a long time to fully appreciate how much it can help my clients and help you.
Here’s what happened.
I had uncovered some bidding irregularities in a local government agency. While not as serious as bid rigging, it did involve mismanagement and the wasting of taxpayers’ money. Believing myself to be Mike Wallace’s heir apparent (reporters often believe they are on a “mission from God”), I couldn’t wait to confront the head of the agency with my discovery. With penetrating questions in hand that I felt certain would skewer him for his betrayal of the public trust, I went looking for the official. I spotted him coming down the steps of his building. The TV news photographer and I leapfrogged up the steps to challenge him. The camera rolled as I stuck my microphone in the official’s face.
“Mr. Green,” I said, “We have uncovered severe bidding problems in your agency, what have you got to say for yourself?”
I had him. I was sure of it. My pulse was racing.
This agency chief looked me squarely in the eye and with a calm, reassuring, almost penitent tone, said, “Rick, you are absolutely right. We do have problems with our bids. We have made mistakes. As the one responsible, I apologize, and we will fix them. Thank you for asking me about them.”
My heart sank. His instant acknowledgment of the predicament and his willingness to fix it rendered my remaining questions irrelevant. My expose was gone. My righteously indignant ambush was gently swept aside by a few sincere words from a man whose only wish seemed to be to do the right thing.
That took all of the bite out of the story that night. It was ho-hum. In the place of my eagerly anticipated “bad guy caught by a vigilant press” was this seemingly honorable man stepping forward to make amends. I don’t think we ran any further updates on the matter. Why should we? There was every indication the public’s interest was being protected without the hounding of the media.
Months later, that same official told me how his interview had elevated the standing of his agency. He said that complete strangers would recognize and congratulate him for his forthrightness and sincerity. He said it was his best media interview ever.
This official gutted my story with his determination to fix the problem, to do the right thing, and not to flinch from his duty. His willingness to correct the trouble cut the heart out of my report. Why? News stories, by definition, concern events that run counter to our expectations. Incompetent officials, uncorrected deficiencies, wasted money are the building blocks for hard-hitting journalism. Conversely, competent officials correcting deficiencies to save money are boringly predictable. Where’s the expose?
Because of that, not only can a “we’ll fix it” strategy minimize public embarrassment of your own company or institution, it may occasionally eliminate the need for a story at all. That could have happened with the bidding flap.
If this official became aware that I was investigating him, and had he, on his own volition, contacted me to tell of his willingness to own up to the bidding problems and fix them, we may very well have decidednot to do the story at all.
This actually happened with a client of mine. While I cannot go into detail, what I can say is that my client and I anticipated a potential problem. We extensively prepared how we would explain it to any reporter who inquired about it, and we stood ready to respond rapidly. Sure enough, a reporter heard of the situation and called my client and me. He asked about what appeared at first glance to be an error on the part of the company. Nevertheless, because we were prepared, we quickly and non-defensively demonstrated to the reporter that 1) the company did not make a mistake, 2) the problem was unavoidable, and 3) it could happen to any similar company.
Ultimately the story was never done.
I am confident that had my client not been prepared, a story would have been inevitable.
So what is the lesson for you?
Whether on your own or with a consultant, take these simple steps:
- Analyze your vulnerability.
- Decide what you will do if the problem surfaces.
- Decide what you will say if the problem surfaces.
- Respond rapidly to any media inquiries. (In some circumstances, you may even want to initiate contact with the press.)
As relatively simple as this is to do, I remain perplexed at the number of companies fully aware of threats to their reputations that do little or nothing to prepare to confront them. Please, don’t be one of them.