The scene is familiar to anyone who has watched cable news: A reporter with a microphone catches a CEO outside of his office and asks about a recent company controversy; the CEO is surprised and annoyed; he shoves his hand in front of the camera and says, “No comment,” before scurrying away.
At Mack Communications, the phrase “no comment” makes us cringe. More often than not, the public assumes guilt when they hear it. “No comment” is now equated to, “Yes, we’re guilty, but we don’t want to admit it,” or “We have something to hide.”
In today’s interconnected world, it’s incredibly easy for companies to communicate with the public. A business can email, Tweet, or send a press release. It’s also very easy for the public to speculate and spread false information through these mediums, fast. Saying “no comment” provides no information, encouraging the media or public to create their own narratives.
Although it makes us cringe to see publicity go bad, we find that sticky situations can lead to lessons learned. After mulling it over, here’s what we think were a few of the top public relations/communications bloopers and blunders of 2016. Let's hope for fewer in 2017!
Ryan Lochte gets rowdy in Rio:
Olympic medalist and swimmer Ryan Lochte made headlines during this summer’s Rio Olympics after sharing a dramatic account of being robbed at gunpoint after a night out partying. However, once the press realized a few of his details didn’t quite add up, the Brazilian police conducted an investigation and revealed a different story: Surveillance footage had Lochte and posse drunkenly vandalizing a gas station. National embarrassment, a public apology, and a 10-month suspension from swimming ensued.
Mack assessment: As we’ve said before, honesty is the best policy. Lochte might have been able to prevent the situation spiraling into an international spectacle if he had copped to his mistake right away, and done damage control from there.
Flint, Michigan's water woes:
After switching water sources in 2014, residents of Flint, Michigan began to complain about dirty, discolored water, rashes and bad aromas. By 2015, water testing done by Virginia Tech revealed elevated lead levels, and the Michigan EPA began sounding the alarm over water quality. Yet even as evidence of the toxicity of Flint’s water continued to mount, officials at the Michigan statehouse downplayed the concerns of residents. By 2016, Obama declared a state of emergency in the city. The state government was pilloried over their handling of the situation, which put tens of thousands of people--including children--at risk.
Mack assessment: This is a classic case of a mismanaged crisis. When things go south, the first step is to acknowledge the crisis and speak to the concerns of the people affected. Too often companies and governments bury their collective heads in the sand, hoping the problem will go away. Ignoring the problem only exacerbates the crisis.
Brain cramp takes down Gary Johnson:
During an interview with MSNBC in September, a commentator asked Libertarian presidential nominee Gary Johnson how he would address the refugee crisis in Aleppo, Syria. Johnson’s response-- “What is Aleppo?”-- was like the shot heard around the (Twitter) world. In what would later turn out to be an accurate prediction, the New York Times speculated that “the stumble could be a serious blow to Mr. Johnson’s campaign.”
Mack assessment: For TV interviews, it’s crucial to prepare beforehand to avoid being caught off guard. Sometimes, though, journalists may throw you a curve ball. Johnson would have benefited from learning how to block a question in order to respond only on topics you’re ready for.
[Photos via CNN]
With today’s endless news cycle, it’s more important than ever to respond to crises promptly and directly. That’s one reason why having a crisis communications plan in your back pocket is so important. It’s good to have facets of your plan memorized however, just in case you get caught off-guard by a particularly persistent reporter.
Although it’s best to always answer as honestly and directly as you can, keeping these five questions in mind may help you have more confidence in reassuring the public.
1- What happened?
Mack advice: Only tell what you know, and avoid speculation.
2- Why did [problem] happen?
Mack advice: Be willing to admit fault, but avoid pinning blame on anyone/department in particular. Making guesses can hurt the reputation of parties in the short run that weren’t involved at all.
3- Can this problem happen again? How do you know?
Mack advice: Be honest. Reassure the public that you’re doing everything to solve the current issue.
4- What are you doing to solve the problem?
Mack advice: Again, honesty is key. People want to see companies take action after a crisis, so give tangible examples of what your employees are doing to solve the problem.
5- Who else can we talk to and where can we receive updates?
Mack advice: It’s important to have a website available for crisis situations that can provide updates to the public. Be sure you can direct people there if asked.
Difficult situations often produce the wrong response when it comes to media relations and crisis communications. The instinct to run and hide just won't cut it.
Your long term success will hinge on how well people see you as forthcoming. People judge character. They want to see someone who can be trusted, someone they can believe, someone they see as doing everything possible to fix the problem.
Tell the truth, to the extent that you can. If there are details you're not allowed to discuss, explain why.
In a nutshell: do the right thing.
That includes responding in a timely manner.
Mack Communications | @mack_comm
Tell your story: don't leave it to the media to get it right. You'd be surprised at how many businesses and organizations do exactly the opposite. Whether it's fear of the media or a bunker mentality, that kind of thinking is usually a recipe for badly damaged media relations.
How do you tell your story? Over explain the issue and the response. While you're dealing with the media, take the same information directly to the public through social media and your own website.
The goal for any crisis communications plan is to control your message while you control the crisis. If you don't, you suddenly have two crises, the original event and a secondary crisis of a poor response.
You need three key tools for effectively communicating during a crisis:
It's important to have a plan in place so that you're able to manage your message and respond to the media in a timely manner. A plan involves selecting key personnel and what responsibilities they will have, a point person for social media, a media distribution list and determining your media staging area if you believe one will be needed. That's just to get the ball rolling.
Think through the possible scenarios
It's one thing to say you're going to prepare for a crisis, but quite another to take the additional steps of assessing what possible crises you might face in the future. In other words, there is no one specific crisis that may occur.
So, one of the first steps in crisis planning is an accurate assessment of what might go wrong that could trigger the need to communicate with the public, employees and/or stakeholders. Think it through and you'll likely come up with several possible scenarios.
Tough questions and difficult circumstances can try anyone's patience, especially if you have to face the media in the middle of a crisis.
That's why staying cool under pressure is so important. Easy? Not at all. But essential.
The public, your customers, your employees -- they all want to see you succeed. They want to see you're in control. They want to know that you're handling the crisis.
They want to know that everything will be okay.
When you're dealing with a difficult subject and getting peppered with questions from the media, one very effective strategy in media relations is what we call broadening the issue.
YOU'RE NOT ALONE
After all, what you're experiencing is likely not unique to you or your organization. The problem may affect many others or the issue may have surfaced in other ways at other companies.
TAKE THE SPOTLIGHT OFF OF YOURSELF
So, you want to help reporters understand that this is not simply your problem. In this way, you help to take the spotlight off of yourself and focus it on a much larger playing field.
What's worse than a crisis at your company? A crisis with no crisis communications plan.
As we have counseled clients and here in The Mack Report, you really don't want to make a crisis worse by failing to address your communications needs while also trying to deal with the crisis itself. That's why a crisis communication plan can be worth its weight in gold.
A crisis communications plan starts with making sure you've identified the key players who will address the media and have all of their contact information available. In addition, you need to consider any or all of the following: