By Todd Ragusa
A majority of my work deals with crisis communication and issues management. It is challenging, requiring unpredictable hours and periods of intense, all-consuming concentration, but it is incredibly rewarding.
While each case is unique and requires a tailored response, I follow three basic rules when approaching this type of work:
1.) Know the issue.
2.) Give just enough information.
3.) Always be honest.
1.) Know the issue
Gather the facts, analyze them, and understand the nuances. It may seem obvious, but this critical first step is often overlooked or rushed when developing a rapid response strategy.
When the clock is ticking, even veteran communication experts feel the pressure to respond right away, but this may not be the best method. In many instances, it is better to intentionally slow the pace of the story, rather than release an ill-considered statement. Having to retract information hurts the credibility of both the client and the PR professional. It is impossible to backpedal gracefully – just ask CNN regarding their coverage of the recent Supreme Court ruling – so avoid the embarrassment by getting the story right from the start.
Crisis and issues management cases usually involve voluminous reams of information: contracts, correspondence, legal filings, petitions, depositions, news reports, legislation, charters, etc. What is one to do with all this information? Know it in and out, backwards and forwards. A half-baked response to a media inquiry can easily land a client or a cause in hot water. It takes long hours and late nights to pore through everything, but this level of dedication is the bedrock of a sound strategy.
2.) Provide just enough information
My first rule is to know all the facts, but that does not mean they should be passed on to the public wholesale. Belief it or not, withholding information requires restraint. I am not talking about keeping secrets, though I do often consult on confidential matters. Rather, I am warning against the error of indiscriminately spewing an abundance of details.
This is particularly an issue with clients who believe that right is on their side. Their first tendency will be to inundate the world with mountains of minutiae in support of their case or cause. The trouble is that the world usually does not care, and even the relatively small microcosm that is interested may not care that much.
This is well-trodden territory in the field of communication, with countless articles regurgitating the alleged importance of boiling an issue down to 3-5 “key messages.” In some cases, the standard 3-5 rule works fine; in other cases, it should be unashamedly contravened. In reality, “just enough” information differs for every situation and segment of the target audience.
Replacing the 3-5 rule with the “just enough” philosophy may require a paradigm shift for many PR professionals and an acceptance of the fact that a message delivered is not the same as a message received. Everyone processes, interprets, and assimilates information differently, based on their level of interest, their proximity to the issue, and their intellectual capacity to understand it. If the target needs to pick up the kids from school, make dinner, or finish a big report, then they may not have the energy or ability to fully appreciate the complexities of the story.
The goal, then, is to make the overall picture accessible to everyone, while reserving the high definition version for the limited audience that actually wants access to it.
3.) Always be honest
This one is easy. It is not just an ethical issue; telling the truth is a savvy business strategy. Liars inevitably get caught, and lies compound difficult situations. If the truth is tough to swallow, develop strategies for making it more palatable, but do not change the facts.
Last year, I was working with a newly-minted reporter at a daily paper. He was right out of college, and still unsure about how to navigate the local journalism scene. After getting to know one other, he asked, “You are in the business of spin. How do I know you’re not lying?”
This rarely happens, but I was taken aback. His perception was that I was a professional liar. I suddenly realized that PR professionals had their own image issues to overcome. I conveyed to him that I never lie on behalf of a client. While I consider myself an honest person, this policy was adopted purely out of financial self interest. Integrity is my most valuable asset, so whatever the immediate rewards might be, in the long run, lying just does not pay.
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