Crisis Management: Worst-Case Questions – Your Secret Weapon in a Crisis: Crisis communications
True story. You have just spent days – including an entire weekend – preparing to protect your reputation during coming news coverage. At zero hour the reporter ignores much of what you prepared and writes a story from a wholly unexpected, more controversial, and legitimate point of view! “How did that happen,” you wonder? Why did the journalist sidestep or minimize your thoughtfully crafted messages? How could you so misjudge the reporter’s intent and find yourself in an unforeseen hot seat?
That’s what happened to a client who encountered the unexpected headline and story. Fortunately the startling article was not disastrous and did not derail the long-term effort. And yet the sheer surprise of it all was unnerving to the conscientious client who thought he was organized to meet the unanticipated.
This incident is a cautionary tale about preparing to face crisis or critical issue communications. You and your team must look deeply into the issue and beyond simply drafting talking points you would like to see in the press.
Here is a process that works!
- Ask yourself, “What are the worst-case questions we could face?”
- Answer those questions with reassuring actions and words.
- And – here is the real payoff – examine your worst-case answers to learn what your key messages should say.
Let’s look at how to execute this:
- Pull together a team of at least three trusted colleagues for worst-case brainstorming. Do NOT do this alone or with just one other person. More is better. Like jewelers holding a gem up to the light to look for flaws, turn the issue over and over in your collective mind to see it from all perspectives.
- Consider worst-case questions your audience would ask. What concerns them? What do they care about? How will this issue affect their lives? What is the first thing that will cross their minds when they learn about your situation? Do this thoughtfully and you may be taken aback to realize that what is important to you and your associates may be of little interest to the average citizen.
- Consider worst-case questions that reporters would ask. Since journalists seek the “abnormal” – anything that departs from the norm, the routine, the expected – they tend to skew negative and skeptical. They are inclined to presume you guilty, and will probe for weaknesses in your arguments no matter how positively you try to portray the situation.
- Now, as I said, here is the magic to addressing worst-case questions. Your key messages should inherently answer most of the worst-case questions. If your messages do that, then reporters will pay more attention to them. Conversely, if your messages move away from worst-case questions, reporters might consider your comments irrelevant to their audience and editors. So, key messages and answers to worst-case questions complement and reinforce each other. Ensure that they do.
One more piece of magic that comes from probing worst-case questions: If you can’t determine what your key messages ought to be, let the worst-case questions reveal them to you. Since, as I said, your messages should address the tough questions, then the questions can lead the way to them.
Looking back on it, my client was in a last-minute crunch to get ready for his challenging situation and to consult with me about it. He was also essentially working alone. With more time and a team brainstorming worst-case questions I believe he likely would have anticipated the reporter’s tack and not been blindsided.
So, factor in enough time to answer worst-case questions before you tackle a controversy. Being forewarned is forearmed, and what you do and say should be much more useful to the audiences that rely upon you.
Two final thoughts:
1) In non-crisis situations, brainstorm the most-likely questions rather than worst-case.
2) A good batch of Q&A’s should never be used in lieu of key messages. Q&A’s help you deal with the unexpected, but you need key messages to focus your comments in your interviews.