Media and Crisis Management
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Media and Crisis Management

How to Avoid a Battle of the Soundbites

Posted on: July 28th, 2012

Crisis Management: How to Avoid a Battle of the SoundbitesCrisis response

An environmental group attacked a client for emitting dangerous chemicals as part of its manufacturing process. The organization sent out a news release to attract reporters. Sure enough, potentially troubling TV and newspaper coverage began. Nevertheless, after some initial anxious hesitation, company executives collected themselves and responded quickly and reassuringly just as we had previously planned for such a circumstance. The resulting news stories were fair. Attention faded.

But what if the opponents had sustained the attack? (Think about what could happen to your business as you read this.) What if they had inflamed continuous news coverage, agitated residents, and alarmed local officials and regulators? The dispute could have become protracted, messy.

Relentless bombardment is terrible for a company to endure. I know! I once worked with a business under such an attack for years. It is hard to extract yourself. The trauma multiplies when lawsuits are filed that harden positions, trigger depositions, require hearings, and put everyone’s ego on the line. Such predicaments give me insomnia.

Since I always want to know more about how to keep clients out of such seemingly intractable fights, I recently attended a seminar called “Dealing With An Angry Public” jointly conducted by MIT and Harvard in Boston. A lot of others worried about sleepless nights were there too including representatives of 100 companies and institutions including Coca Cola, Amoco, Amnesty International, Bell Atlantic, Los Alamos and Livermore Laboratories, EPA, IRS, and even the Federal Reserve.

A traditional crisis approach

Before you can appreciate insights from such a conference, you first have to think about how you would handle a crisis like the one described in the second paragraph. What would you do and say if your company were accused of polluting the environment or endangering the health of your neighbors and the conflict was threatening to spin out of control?

Would you:

· Indignantly argue that your opponents are wrong or misguided?

· Claim that you have proof that you are not a threat?

· Maintain that your neighbors are perfectly safe, and that they should take your word for it?

· Say, “No comment?”

Those would be the traditional responses for many companies under attack.

The “Mutual Gains” approach

The professors in Boston take a different tack. They call it “Dealing With An Angry Public: The Mutual Gains Approach To Resolving Disputes.” That’s also the name of a book by professors Lawrence Susskind and Patrick Field. It is a “Win-Win” philosophy well worth considering. When faced with a public controversy, here are Susskind’s alternatives for crisis resolution and my interpretations of them:

1. Acknowledge the concerns of the other side. During a controversy, there is a natural tendency to go into an “us vs. them” mode. It is easy to believe that the last thing you want to do is to give your critics any credibility. Some lawyers particularly do not want you to accede anything to the opposition. On the contrary, Susskind says that while you do not have to endorse the other side’s point of view, you can acknowledge that they have a position they believe in and that you have no problem with them expressing it. This leaves the door open to joint problem-solving.

2. Encourage joint fact-finding. Another tendency in a crisis is to adopt a “trust me” attitude. You say, “Here is our proof that we are doing the right thing.” You assume that others should automatically buy your argument. Susskind argues that you would have more credibility if you worked with opponents to help third parties determine the true facts. You can still disagree on the interpretation of the facts, but you do at least have an honest approach to laying out the facts.

3. Offer contingent commitments. Yet another inclination in a crisis is to say that your plant operates safely and you have the track record to prove it. Susskind suggests taking the extra step of offering a kind of guarantee. While you say you are confident that you are operating in a manner that is not a threat to the public, you nevertheless offer that in the unlikely event something unexpected does happen you are quite willing to compensate those affected. Again, this may give lawyers heartburn, but it gives real power to your promises to protect others.

4. Accept responsibility; admit mistakes, and share power. If, for example, your company has indeed made some mistakes previously, own up to them, and offer steps to make sure they are not repeated. In order to negotiate for the future, Susskind says you must be willing to take responsibility for the past. In my opinion, without this step you may not have any credibility.

5. Act in a trustworthy fashion at all times. Do nothing that undermines your credibility. Say what you mean. Mean what you say. Another crisis manager, James Lucaszewski, puts it this way. During a crisis, “Keep no secrets.” They come out anyway and usually in a destructive fashion. Put them on the table yourself.

6. Focus on building long-term relationships. All of the steps above drive toward this point, and I think to the heart of the “Mutual Gains” approach. The goal is for both sides to win and walk away reasonably satisfied with compromise.

Overall, I like this philosophy. It is consistent with my experiences, and takes extra measures to avoid the “We-They” battle of quotes in the press. Think about it. When you read about a dispute in the press and you hear comments from each side, whom do you believe? Don’t you typically believe that each side is making self-serving remarks that you are not sure you trust? The “Mutual Gains” philosophy sets forth a way of avoiding demonizing opponents, using third parties determine to facts, and creating genuine solutions.

I will add these steps to my crisis resolution repertoire. I hope you do too.

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