Media and Crisis Management
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Media and Crisis Management

Is that any way to deal with an accident?

Posted on: July 28th, 2012

Crisis Management: Is that any way to deal with an accident?Crisis Response

You get some of the best crisis insights by looking in your own back yard.

For instance in my home city of Winston-Salem, NC, there was a stumble while communicating about the drowning of a 16 year old at a city pool a number of years ago.  I emphasize “my home” because I usually respect the way the city handles difficulties, and the Mayor (a friend) has an uncanny knack for doing and saying the right things at the right time.  Most on city council are problem-solvers.  In fact, speaking in the local newspaper, the mayor admitted that the city’s release of information to the public could have been handled better and a council member said, “Anyone would say, ‘Let”s get to the truth of the matter.’  The taxpayers have to have confidence in the people who get paid to do their jobs.”   These are hardly defensive public servants.

So the handling of the drowning was uncharacteristic, but its still a good case in point for those who want to maintain public trust.  This tragic accident had all the earmarks of a crisis being handled on the fly without coordindation.

A city risk-management official, whose job is to minimize legal exposure and was also acting as spokesperson, gave a different account of the drowning than witnesses and police.  He said the lifeguards acted appropriately.  Others said the lifeguards were confused.   A council member summed it up by saying there should have been a better spokesperson for the city.

This is not a big deal situation but it is emblematic of erratic response to a crisis.  Often one or two individuals acting alone under stress without the input of other significant colleagues blurt out information that has not been thought through by the team.  I sum up this error with an equation: your media failure = your company’s failure.  In other words, there may be 999 wonderful people doing good work but if a single individual botches public communications then all 999 are tarnished.

I bet the city has a crisis management plan.  The question is whether it was used in this case or used correctly.

Plan or not, let me repeat some critical measures that all institutions should do prior to, and during, challenges like this drowning.

  • Designate a crisis team with backup personnel.  By phone or in person, mobilize them to discuss the incident.  Select the best spokesperson.
  • Gather the facts and compare them with crisis principles such as take care of victims, fix the problem, notify all stakeholders, get your best response in the first story, etc.
  • If the team is not clear on what should be done then consider preparing three options and choose the one with the least number of unintended consequences or the option whose worst-case outcome is acceptable.
  • Draft messages and Q&A’s to fit the action chosen.
  • Communicate internally and externally as appropriate.
  • Act with lightning speed.  Your good name can be media road kill in hours.

Trust me, you can do the above in quickly which is all the more important in these days of social media.

I am confident the City of Winston-Salem knows this.  The unfortunate drowning of can be a reminder of how to protect its considerable reputation.

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