I recently attended and live-tweeted a crisis management seminar hosted by Buchanan PR client Pepper Hamilton. The day-long event covered how an in-house attorney should handle a crisis if and when one happens. Speaking on the panel about external relations was Judy Smith – the inspiration behind Olivia Pope, the character Kerry Washington plays on ABC’s hit TV show, “Scandal.”
Judging by the office chatter on Friday mornings when “Scandal” is in season, I think it’s fair to assume that many public relations professionals are among the show’s loyal fan base (myself included).
So, for all the “Scandal” fans who happen to work in the PR world, here are Judy’s five tips on handling a crisis:
1) Work with the lawyers. Although you, the communications consultant, have been brought on to advise your client on the crisis at hand, your client’s legal team should be the one to hire you. This will protect you under attorney-client privilege, and it’s something you should always require before getting involved in the project.
Once you are protected under attorney-client privilege and begin working on the crisis, Judy advises that you work “hand-in-glove” with the legal team. Talk to the attorneys, and strategize as one team rather than two separate entities. All message development should involve both legal and PR.
2) Never say “No comment.” As Judy put it, “A lot of times, statements don’t say that much. There are a million ways you can say ‘No comment’ without saying ‘No comment.’” An alternative to “No comment” at the start of a crisis, for example, could be “This matter has just been brought to our attention and we’re examining the facts.”
While the legal team may be inclined to keep quiet during a crisis, it’s important that they understand the implications of saying “No comment”: “If you’re not feeding the beast or you’re not saying something, that means you’re allowing somebody else to create the narrative. You’re allowing someone else to create the message about what happened,” says Judy.
When issuing a statement, Judy suggests including “At this time…” at the beginning of the message. It allows you to say what you know at the moment without locking yourself into a certain position as the crisis continues to develop. Don’t commit or overcommit to something, as crises are very fluid and often change quickly.
3) Don’t always put the CEO out there. Once you’ve decided to issue a statement, who should speak on behalf of the company? It depends, but Judy is not a fan of rolling out the CEO the first time a crisis hits. Is the crisis even large enough for the CEO to be the spokesperson? Is there someone better suited or closer to the situation who could comment? How media-trained are your potential spokespeople? Have they done this before? All of these questions should be considered.
4) Help reporters do their jobs. One aspect that makes a crisis all the more demanding is the media. While you’re trying to get all the facts, deal with the situation and finalize all the messaging, reporters are calling and emailing with requests for comment or an interview. Especially on the corporate side, where there are so many approval levels to go through, response to the media can be slow.
Despite these challenges, it’s important that you meet reporters’ deadlines as best you can. The sooner you get back to them, the more likely it is that your information and messaging make it into the story. “Quite often, when you’re sharing facts, you have the ability to make some in-roads with the reporter and get some things that were going to be in the story out of the story because of factual inaccuracy,” says Judy.
Remember, when reporters call about a story they’re working on, it is very likely that they already have an idea in their minds about the kind of story they’re going to tell; they’ve already had to pitch the idea to their editor, along with the potential sources they’ll include. “The story is already set up when you get that phone call,” says Judy. “The longer it takes you to put some type of response together, that just gives the reporter more time to get a whole lot of other information that fits into the narrative that they’ve sold [to their editor].”
5.) Use social media to assess the crisis. “It’s no longer the nightly news,” says Judy. “Social media is a game-changer. The news is always 24/7 now.”
During a crisis, it’s important to have a good assessment of what’s happening on social media. Regularly checking Twitter, Facebook and blogs to take a read on what’s being said can help you determine the best method of communication. Is the crisis small enough that a Facebook post or tweet could address the issue for now, or is it serious enough that a more formal statement is required? “Regardless of the platform, it comes down to your messaging. What the message is, how you’re going to deliver that, and is it going to resonate with various stakeholders,” says Judy.
When a crisis hits, talk to your client’s legal team, develop messaging together, and figure out the best way to deliver those messages to the public. “Part of developing a communications strategy that dovetails on the legal strategy is not only figuring out the messages, but figuring out what’s the best medium to deliver those messages,” says Judy. “They’re equally as important.”