Crisis Management: Sidestepping crisis: action at lightning speed: The need for speed
If you doubt that your hard-earned business reputation can be swiftly sullied with the slash of a news story – read on. I hope that this tale will help you avoid the trap that snared a local company.
One Friday evening I watched a local evening newscast lead off with a troubling story. The reporter fingered a local company for a business practice that appeared irresponsible at best, criminal at worst. A federal investigation had begun. Based on the news report, the company seemed guilty. The morning newspaper had taken a somewhat similar approach. There too the company appeared guilty.
There is no joy in watching someone’s reputation threatened! Having once met the company president, who struck me as thoroughly professional, I wondered, “How could this business be in this much trouble?” Nevertheless, I finished work in the office and tried to relax at the end of a long week.
A call for help
Later at home as I dozed in a recliner about 930pm the telephone rang. It was the president of the company that had been blasted in the press.
“Can you help us?” the president pleaded. “We have done nothing wrong, and our company is being blamed for something that we did not do. Tell us what to do. We need your help.”
The president explained what had happened, why the government was investigating, how an investigator had cleared the company, and how reporters latched on to the story. Then I heard those dreadful words that made everything crystal clear. I immediately understood why this previously honorable business suddenly seemed in so much trouble.
The president told me that when contacted by the press the company had refused to talk to reporters.
Let me repeat. The company did not talk to the press.
The company had decided internally that although reporters were snooping for information, there was nothing to be gained by talking to them. The argument was that “Reporters will print what they want so it doesn’t matter what you tell them. Since we have done nothing wrong, let’s not get involved with them.”
Big mistake, as I will explain later.
Although it was late in the evening, if we acted fast enough we still had an opportunity to retrieve the company’s good name as quickly as possible. I knew that in just 90 minutes the late newscast would probably repeat the initial allegations against the company that were made in the evening newscast. There was also a good chance that the local newspaper would do the same in the next day’s edition.
I told the president of the company to immediately call both the newspaper and the television station and explain what was happening. “Tell them precisely what you told me,” I said. Tell them why their stories about the company were incomplete and what the truth of it is. “If you cannot find the original reporter, talk to someone on the news desk,” was my admonition. Make sure they get your side hopefully in time for them to include in their follow-up stories.
Success! Both news organizations indeed modified their stories to reflect the new information. In fact, reporters seemed to go out of their way to shift their otherwise legitimate stories away from my client. The TV news story at 11:00 was fair and balanced. The same was true for the next day’s newspaper article.
Long term action
Our job was not over yet. First, I instructed the company’s president to begin establishing rapport with the reporters and news executives who will likely do more stories about the issue. The strategy was for the company to explain what had been happening as well as what made the company appear at fault when it was not. The goal was to reopen the lines of communication that the company had inadvertently closed with its initial “no comment”. At first blush, that effort seemed to be working, and the news representatives were gracious in talking to the company president.
Second, company executives also began telling their story to clients, prospective clients, and – importantly –employees. There was to be no misunderstanding of where the truth lay.
After the initial horror, it appears that the company may indeed retrieve its reputation, but not without some bruises. It could have been far worse. Once again, its troubles began when the company would not talk to the press.
There are two important lessons for all companies from this drama.
Lesson 1 – Be pro-active in the FIRST story
In my list of ten critical crisis communications steps, the fourth step states that when it comes to dealing with the press – acknowledge fast, provide information, and strive to respond in the first story. If you believe that the news media has interest in you or your company, it is your responsibility to be pro-active. Do your best to learn what they are investigating so that you can tell your side of the story. It is critical to get your comment in the first story. If you don’t, as with the company in this article, then you permit the public to hear the prosecution without the defense. Even worse, you will then have the additional burden of having to overcome that initial negative impression.
Lesson 2 – Common sense at lightning speed
A colleague once said that crisis communications is common sense at lightning speed.
It is incumbent upon you to act rapidly to protect your good name. You cannot afford to dither and equivocate when a media tidal wave threatens to swamp your reputation. Rapid response comes from having a crisis communication plan plus coaching and/or experience in conveying your message to the media.
At the very least, when you see a lurking reporter, learn what is happening, and convey your message that you are attempting to act in the public’s best interest. You may think that is the reporter’s job. It is yours.