A superintendent of a school district just learned the police cuffed and stuffed a junior-high principal at his campus. And worried parents want answers.

At a non-profit highly dependent on donors, an audit revealed its bookkeeper may have surreptitiously drained dry the organization’s coffers. And a TV news van just parked across the street.

A candidate for public office, through no fault of their own, has a politically-radioactive mentor. And with a debate tomorrow night, you can bet the issue will be raised by either the opponent or moderator.

The incidents sparking the need for crisis communications take on many looks and degrees of severity. But they all have one concept in common: damage control. Like captaining a boat with a leak, you want to stop the inrushing water while simultaneously looking for a safe harbor. A skilled captain saves the ship; an incompetent one intensifies the damage during “repairs” and sinks to the bottom.

 

During my career in communications, I’ve seen many crises up close, sometimes as a witness; as an investigator during others. And during a few memorable moments best forgotten, I helped bail water and patch the hull.

With this experience in mind, I have tips to share with anyone on the hot seat or representing a client in trouble.

First tip: If you have the resources at your disposal, you can make ugly replies to search-engine queries about your problems poof! disappear. Jamin, the awesome dude who runs this site, knows how to pull off “reputation management” so Google searches don’t turn up the bad news attached to you. If this sounds familiar, UC Davis did it successfully when it wanted to get rid of search results showing one of its cops pepper-spraying protestors like he was a homeowner blasting a weed-choked yard with RoundUp. (Where UC Davis went wrong was using public money to pay for this, because the news came out during a review of the school’s finances.) Jamin tells me this service is not cheap – but it may worth every penny. Contact him to find out.

Before I continue, let me tell you about two starkly different responses to near-identical crises.

ILL WINDS BLOWING

In 2004, I was a reporter in Florida when four hurricanes averaging 145-mph max winds smashed the state. Despite weeks of uncertainty, interruptions and damage brought on by this string of storms, the response was well organized and executed efficiently. People knew where to go for help, both before landfall and during the cleanup efforts. The authorities were responsive to problems, addressing them in the moment and for the future. I almost never have anything good to say about how Florida is run, but this time, the state was on top of the emergency.

The next year another hurricane came ashore, this time to the west of Florida’s panhandle. Katrina, we will always remember, nearly drowned the city of New Orleans. Unlike Florida’s response to its hurricanes, it seemed no one was in charge of the rescue and recovery efforts in Louisiana. In an unforgivable lapse, evacuees waited for days inside the Superdome because it was never communicated to them where they should go. And when the man at the top finally spoke, his words were instantly rendered infamous by his words of praise to the political hack heading up FEMA: “You’re doing a heck of a job, Brownie.”

Speaking that line was, obviously, President George W. Bush. And the year before, in charge of Florida’s response was his brother, Gov. Jeb Bush.

 

Hurricane Charley destroyed this convenience store. I regret not trying the pay phone.

 

 

SHIP, MEET ICEBERG. ICEBERG, SHIP.

With that aside out of the way, now it’s time for my knowledge drop. But some advice about the advice:

  1. These tips are not intended to fit every crisis – but you could do worse than apply the underlying principles to your situation.
  2. Even the most effective crisis communications response is less helpful than not having the crisis at all. Chipotle, after its food-safety issues, has been held up as a model for what to do after your brand has suffered self-inflicted damage – but you can bet the company wishes it simply had paid more attention to making sure it served burritos and bowls OK for consumption. Then again, apparently Volkswagen did the math on the financial gains to be had by cheating U.S. emissions laws minus the price of getting caught vs. the cost of following the rulebook – and cheating was the winner.
  3. I stand by this advice – but accept no liability for whatever happens to you when you do so. (Lawyers ruin everything, don’t they?)

DO THE RIGHT THING – OR NOT

While many of my recommendations will lean toward transparency, there is a reason I consider crisis communications, like this blog post’s title declares, a skill not always used for good. At every moment during your response, it’s essential to remember you are trying to limit the damage – full stop. Every action must be passed through that filter. Sometimes you’ll be open, apologetic and eager to set things right – but only because doing so will help cut your losses. Other times, offering up a comment will hurt you worse than stonewalling. Crisis communications can be an incredibly cynical undertaking, and not everyone can do it and feel good afterward. That’s OK. In this way, a crisis communications manager is like a defense attorney. You know, those slick-talking, ethically-impaired shysters everyone hates… until they need one themselves.

 

PAIN VERSUS INJURY

Again, crisis communications = damage control. But you need to ask, what is considered damaging and how much can you take? These questions must be answered early because they should shape your reactions. Sometimes, you’re starting behind the 8-ball: If Chipotle has another run of making diners ill, it may have to shut its doors for good. Yet a high-end steakhouse that passes along e. coli one night after decades of sterling service most likely can shake off the blow.

Then there is the makeup of the person under scrutiny. Some people hold their honor so dearly, under the slightest criticism they’ll be falling on their sword in disgrace. Others, and I’ve worked for a guy like this, are completely shameless, so their response after making an epic mistake is “U MAD BRO?” If you don’t mind the heat, who’s to tell you to get out of the kitchen?

Also to be considered are the victims (there may be none; they may be nuns) and any potential punishment. So at the very start of your response, you better understand the crisis’ context, both externally and internally. Failure to accurately assess the situation can lead to a snowballing disaster – or a complete overreaction.

With that in mind, let’s get to work cleaning up your mess…

SET THE TONE EARLY

These should be the first words from you or your client: recognition of the crisis. While a simple acknowledgment may seem like a bare-minimum response, there’s no better way to blow credibility than publicly dismissing a potential problem. So admit something happened… but don’t say what. For one, the cause of your incident may not be known, so any mention would be speculation. In that same vein, declare you’re going to fix the matter… but don’t say how or when. Just as the cause may be a mystery, a solution may not be obvious. And even if you do know the cause of your problem AND the answer, you’ll still want to leave yourself some wiggle room in case things go sideways. There will be plentiful opportunities later to discuss the what went wrong and how you’ll make it all better.

Your second move should be to reassure your stakeholders that things now are safe, although what’s considered “safe” is open to interpretation. Yes, the principal got hauled to jail – but your children are OK. Yes, the organization is missing tens of thousands of dollars – but the money we still do have is in a bank vault. Yes, my mentor is a political liability – but I am my own person.

And if things aren’t safe? Well, go get on that NOW. You have no greater priority, because if there is still danger no one will listen to a word you have to say.

 

For evidence of the importance of these tips, look at SoCal Gas’ early response to methane leak near Porter Ranch. At every turn, the utility dug itself a hole deeper and deeper: No, there isn’t a leak… Yes, there’s a leak but it isn’t dangerous… And what did SoCal Gas get for its denials? A conviction and lengthy sentence in the court of public opinion, because everything it now says has to be considered garbage until proven otherwise. Frankly, I’m convinced the only reason the utility’s leadership wasn’t strung up is the disaster’s lack of an eye-grabbing visual – unlike the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, which led to oil and birds washing up on the coastline for ready-made catastrophe porn.

 

ONCE THE DUST HAS SETTLED

OK, you’re past the initial bombardment of What’s going on? How could this happen? questioning. Now it’s time to work out a long-term strategy and deploy tactics to bring that plan to fruition…

EVERYONE ON THE SAME PAGE…

One of the most effective crisis responses in which I’ve participated came about due to hubris. The desert city where I was employed as the mayor’s communications director had decided, long before my arrival, the dry riverbed snaking through town was both an eyesore and an opportune location for an urban lake. So the city fought nature, building two giant rubber dams to create a body of water large enough for sailing, triathlons, regattas and the like. Sure enough, the merciless sun dried out a dam to the point where it simply exploded on a hot summer night, like an overheated balloon. Just as ashes to ashes and dust to dust, the water sank into the ground, leaving the city with an empty, muddy ditch.

 

“What you call a catastrophic failure, we call improvised wetlands restoration!”

We staffed the Emergency Operations Center until 1 a.m., and were back at City Hall by 8 a.m. for a meeting of top management. And during that meeting, we crafted the messages for repetition over the following five months: We will refill the lake. We already are working on the installation of a replacement dam. We will reimburse the organizers of any canceled events. Everyone knew what to say.

It’s important to point out the meeting wasn’t a blamestorming session; just a lot of info flying back and forth. Among the topics: when the new dam would arrive and how long for installation; which events would be cancelled during that span; the lake’s economic impact, so we could sell how important it was to get things back to normal, rather than let the riverbed stay dry as suggested by the community’s penny-wise but pound-foolish.

Of course, the city was in the fortunate position of having that replacement dam on order and possessing the ability to pay off the promoters. Having good news on the horizon goes a long way in helping take the sting out of bad news.

…BUT A SOLOIST SINGING FROM THAT PAGE

As great as the response was, there was a big screw-up. It came at the initial press conference. After the mayor spoke to the media, the city manager also made remarks. I don’t know why. But he’s the one who almost kneecapped the city by announcing the lake would be refilled “by November.”

(Silent gasp from city officials, who participated in the same meeting as the city manager when it was decided to announce the lake would be refilled by THE END of November. Juuuuust a little difference there. But what’s 30 days among upset residents, event promoters, and recreationalists?)

I’ll never know why the city manager made that error – but in my estimation, he shouldn’t have been speaking at all. The mayor had made our planned remarks; what else did the city need? When you’re responding to a crisis, have as few “public” faces as possible. Otherwise, you risk diluting the message, at best, and at worst, having someone go off script.

And the worry of someone failing to sing with the group voice can be far more serious than a well-meaning spokesperson losing the plot. It’s been known, in complicated, ugly situations, for an institution and its designated talker to have diametrically opposed goals. It doesn’t happen often, but if your organization is in a situation of every-man-for-himself, don’t be surprised if the person chosen as the public face uses the position to stick in few shivs as an act of self-preservation.

 

There’s a not-small chance the Oval Office will look like the warehouse in the final scene of Reservoir Dogs.

 

And if you follow my advice with only one person talking, please make sure you put them in a position to speak with authority. When you’ve got a major problem on your hands but keep your spokesperson in the dark, it’ll only take a few replies of “I don’t know” to questions until you get a comeback of “What DO you know?” Don’t let your message get undercut by an unreliable messenger.

BOW AND SCRAPE

So far, I’ve told you how to stop losing esteem after a mistake. But how do you go about getting it back? Humility helps, as does penance.

When there’s an angry mob at your castle gates, it’s best to offer up something so everyone will set down the pitchforks and torches. After SoCal Gas botched its initial responses, it could’ve bought some goodwill by throwing money at those displaced by the leak. But, no, it blew that by trying to cheap out.

Consider a public apology, spoken loud and clear. Perhaps voluntary pay cuts for the duration of the crisis. Symbolic gestures only go so far in restoring the public’s trust; willingness to endure a tangible loss goes much further.

Please note this is not to the time to vow “to get to the bottom of things.” Because after a serious error, you’re expected to investigate what went wrong. In the same vein, no one wants to hear how you are suffering: Most won’t care while the rest will be glad. Also, punishing the guilty right away rarely helps. For one, you probably need those people to clean up the mess. There will be time later for heads to roll. However, those who are guilty should be removed from positions where they can continue to do damage. The public needs to know the people responsible for screwing up can’t do it again.

Also, if you’re reacting to an outside actor accurately assigning blame, that can be spun by agreeing with the findings. In fact, going even further with your disapproval plays well, as people will appreciate you donning the hairshirt at an appropriate time. However, the rule of thumb is, criticize but don’t generalize. It’s one thing to admit your poorly-maintained gas pipeline caused a massive explosion, quite another to say there are many examples nationwide of dangerous pipelines.

 

“For all the criticism we’ve taken, our company never gets thanks for the pipelines that didn’t explode…”

A PLACE CALLED HOPE

If your restoration efforts involve milestones – stopping the leaking well, finding the crook – every achievement sends a message that things are returning to normal. So if your crisis response has events related to the recovery, promote those to the hilt.

SILENCE CAN BE MISINTERPRETED BUT NOT MISQUOTED

If you’re big enough – or the people you’ve hurt are small – there may be few repercussions to saying nothing. “No comment” is a card you should always be willing to play. And if nothing else, don’t invite trouble by talking too much. A fantastic cautionary example comes from the town where I began my communications career. Long after I had left, the organization running the annual parade/arts festival/carnival called the newspaper, asking for a story to help raise money. And why was this needed? asked the reporter. Because, replied the non-profit, we’ve been cleaned out by an embezzler. (facepalm)

BITING THE BULLET

In the aftermath of a crisis, you can do everything right yet still have to take the fall. Perhaps you’re being fired so your superiors can say, We did something. Maybe you lost the election despite your snappy comeback at the debate. It happens. And when it does, try to go out gracefully – because that’s still part of your crisis response. Think of it this way: Lance Armstrong getting exposed as a fraud, well, that happens quite a bit to competitive athletes. It’s a shame, we say, but shrug and move on. But going all scorched-earth on those who testified against him, that’s on Lance and Lance alone.

 

Winner, Tour de France, 1999-2005. Cancer survivor. Jerk.

GOOD LUCK, WE’RE ALL COUNTING ON YOU

Crisis communications is as much about feel as it is about preparation. Sometimes, you’ll be forced to improvise, so don’t get too wedded to any plans you’ve made. And when things are at their absolute bleakest and the walls are closing in, try to remember no crisis lasts forever. Sure, you may have to bear the consequences the rest of your life but if that doesn’t motivate you to never screw up again, what will?