Crisis Management: A White Paper
By Patty Briguglio, President, MMI Public Relations
When The Worst Happens
When Duke University Health System discovered in December 2004 that patients at Durham Regional Hospital and Duke Health Raleigh Hospital had been exposed to instruments accidentally cleaned with used hydraulic fluid rather than detergent, the system had a classic public relations (PR) crisis on its hands.
In a PR best practices approach, Duke should have told the truth, told it all and told it fast. However, this is not the approach that Duke University chose to take. Instead of reining in the runaway freight train, Duke stepped back and let the patients and the media charge ahead and tell the story themselves, and the result was not favorable to Duke.
When the worst happens, one of the first steps a company should take is to act quickly and decisively to tell their side of the story to the media. Usually this strategy ends the PR crisis much sooner than simply remaining silent, because saying nothing can often be the worst way to handle a crisis.
Duke said nothing to the media, and that error plunged them into a morass of negative publicity. When news reports began to surface of patients with post-operative problems they thought might have been caused by the tainted instruments, Duke’s reaction created the impression that the hospital was trying to conceal the facts or evade responsibility.
The Art of Crisis Management
- A leader must step forward and take ownership of the problem.
- The spokesperson should tell the truth, tell it all and tell it fast.
- The spokesperson should not take a defensive, defiant stand, but instead, offer the wronged party a sincere apology in as personal a manner as possible.
- The organization must take steps to ensure the problem never occurs again and let everyone know what these steps are and that the organization is taking them.
In letters sent in early January to patients, Duke did provide the name and number of a medical officer as a contact for patients experiencing problems. But the PR crisis was exacerbated when the hospital appeared to be dismissive of patients’ concerns, stating that a certain percentage of surgical patients experience complications, and besides, Duke’s November and December statistics were not any higher than the norm.
Citing cold statistics did not make any of the affected patients rest easier. An apology would have worked far better. A grassroots advocacy group, Sorry Works! indicates that hospitals and physicians should never withdraw behind a wall of silence, but should talk to families freely and openly. Patients want to hear an apology and an explanation of what happened. They want to be reassured that corrective action has been taken so that someone else will not be forced to go through what they did.
Patients often turn to lawyers out of anger and frustration when doctors and hospitals stop communicating with them. The widely-held belief among health professionals that admitting responsibility and apologizing will bring on malpractice suits and be used against them in court is a myth, according to Sorry Works!
What is surprising is that Duke failed to handle the hydraulic fluid incident any better after having gone through a previous PR crisis in 2003, when doctors transplanted a heart and lungs with the wrong blood type into a patient who subsequently died. The hospital also stayed silent for several days in that case.
Develop a Crisis Communication Plan Ahead of Time
The Institute for Crisis Management defines a crisis as: "a significant business disruption which stimulates extensive news media coverage. The resulting public scrutiny will affect the organization’s normal operations and also could have a political, legal, financial and governmental impact on its business."
When the integrity or reputation of your company is threatened by negative media attention, you have a PR crisis on your hands. The crisis can be brought on by an accident, an omission, a defective or contaminated product, a scandal, a natural disaster or employee misbehavior. If in the eyes of the media or general public your company does not react appropriately to the situation, your PR crisis becomes even worse.
In a time of crisis, do not put your head in the sand and do not say, “No comment.” Your company should report the bad news, even if your CEO has been accused of a crime. This proactive approach prevents your company from being put in a weakened, defensive position. Have a crisis communication plan and a designated crisis team in place before anything adverse happens.
In today’s world, that also means developing a social media crisis plan ahead of time. Consider the recent attack on Nestle's Facebook Fan page, in which Greenpeace supporters were upset over Nestle’s use of palm oil, the production of which causes rainforest destruction, greenhouse gas emissions, and loss of endangered species such as orangutans.
Greenpeace supporters altered their Facebook profile photos to anti-Nestle slogans incorporating one or more of Nestle’s logos, and they posted these images on the Nestle Facebook page. When the administrator of Nestle’s Facebook page responded in a sarcastic, hostile way, the situation spiraled out of control into a full-blown PR crisis for the Nestle brand. Social media users whose comments had been deleted by the administrator were angry and upset, and a barrage of negative comments subsequently pummeled the brand.
Your crisis team should be prepared to handle anything from a physical crisis onsite at your company to a social media crisis involving your company's brand online. The team and its tools should include the following:
- Competent spokesperson(s) who can answer calls from the media promptly (or respond to critics on a Facebook page) and have enough media and PR training to know what to expect and how to conduct themselves.
- People who can escort media professionals when they arrive on your premises. This is especially important if the crisis involves safety issues, such as a fire or a chemical spill, but remember that journalists can ask anyone anything and you must never give the appearance of trying to hide something or over-control a situation.
- Cell phone numbers and contact information for everyone on the team, because the crisis could occur in the middle of the night.
- Procedures for how and when the crisis team will meet, how they will obtain and draw up a list of the known facts regarding the negative situation, how they will approve the action plan and prepared statements, and how and when they will disseminate the information to the company employees and the media.
- A template for a news release with fill-in-the-blanks to contain, at a minimum, the standard who, what, when and where of the negative situation. This news release should be sent out within hours of the crisis.
- A ready-made contact log to be filled in with the names of journalists and persons affected by or involved with the PR crisis.
Often it is best to designate one individual as the primary spokesperson to represent your company and interact with the media throughout the PR crisis. This person should tell the truth and should never speculate. To help this spokesperson, the crisis team must provide a list of all the known facts and provide it fast.
If the spokesperson does not know the facts, he or she should say something to the effect of: "We are still gathering the facts, but we will hold a news conference at (place and time).” If no place and time have been determined yet, the spokesperson should obtain the name and number of the journalist and call him back with the information just as soon as possible.
How To Handle the Media Onslaught
If you have a communications or public relations department, let them take the lead in handling the crisis. Insist that journalists contact your communications or public relations department first, for the simple reason that it gives you time to find out vital information such as:
- Who the journalist is
- Which media outlet the journalist works for
- Why the journalist is seeking your input
If your company does not have a communications or PR department or an outside PR agency, make sure you ask the journalist those questions yourself before proceeding. No responsible, professional journalist will refuse to answer such basic questions.
Know ahead of time what you want to say and have a written document of “Talking Points” in front of you. This is your opportunity to communicate a positive message about your company and how it is handling an admittedly negative situation.
The typical interviewee simply waits for the journalist to ask the questions and hopes for the best. But the journalist has no interest in delivering your message for you, unprompted. Instead, ask yourself who will read, hear or see the story, and what message you want to convey to them. Then take control of the interview.
Make no mistake about it: the media has an insatiable hunger for stories with negative or disastrous implications. How you handle yourself during the interview or in front of the cameras will make all the difference in the world. Keep your sense of humor, do not let anyone goad you into an angry response and stay humble. The media carries a bigger stick than you do.
It is not enough to know what you want to say; you must also practice how you want to say it. If you give journalists the choice, they will almost always go for the snappy quote or “sound byte” over the carefully chosen, detailed explanation every time. Distilling your points down to their bare essence takes some practice, but unless you want the journalist to do it for you, you will have to be succinct.
Use a hook to grab the interest of the journalist and subsequently the public, something easy to remember. Sometimes this is called a “tagline,” which is a pithy play on words or a saying that describes the situation in a nutshell and resonates strongly with your audience. The public tends to remember what they hear first out of your mouth and what they hear last. Let your concern show. For example, Duke’s message regarding the hydraulic fluid fiasco could have been something as simple as, “We made a mistake, but we will stop at nothing to make it right.”
The rules of the “elevator pitch” come into play here. Imagine that your time with the journalist equates with the time you might spend riding an elevator. If you only have from one to three minutes to pitch your side of the story, what exactly will you say? This is your key message. Consider supplementing your words with images and other media tools. A picture or a video can trump words.
Rehearse your key message and ask someone in your company to throw “tough” questions at you to prepare yourself for what you may face from the media. Otherwise, during the actual interview, you might get caught up in the moment and say something you may regret.
Stay On Message
Do not repeat your sound byte more than twice, because you do not want to alienate your listeners. Know when to stop talking. Media interviews are not conversations. Say what you mean to say and then stop talking.
Do not volunteer unnecessary information and do not talk “off the record.” There is no such thing as off the record. It is all the explanations, qualifications and “by the ways” that often get a spokesperson into trouble. In politics, this is called “staying on message.” The spokesperson who stays on message is far less likely to be drawn into trouble.
Do not try to finesse your way out of answering questions you would rather not answer. If there are areas you will not discuss, tell the journalist immediately what they are and why. Never say: “No comment.” Instead say, “I cannot talk about that because there is a lawsuit pending, but here is what I can tell you.”
Know The Media’s Boundaries
Be ethical in your dealings with journalists. For example, you should never send a gift to a journalist, offer him special treatment in any way or try to obtain an advance copy of the story. The media is in the business of reporting events as they actually happen, and this is to everyone’s advantage. Never stand in the way.
Journalism ethics do include the principle of "limitation of harm," which means that ethical journalists should treat sources, subjects and colleagues as human beings deserving of respect.
Knowing the Society of Professional Journalists’ code of ethics will help you in a crisis PR situation where the media must balance the public’s right-to-know with the limits of taste and decency. This code is reprinted below for your convenience.
Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics
The Society of Professional Journalists' code of ethics state that journalists should:
- Show compassion for those who may be affected adversely by news coverage. Use special sensitivity when dealing with children and inexperienced sources or subjects.
- Be sensitive when seeking or using interviews or photographs of those affected by tragedy or grief.
- Recognize that gathering and reporting information may cause harm or discomfort. Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance.
- Recognize that private people have a greater right to control information about themselves than do public officials and others who seek power, influence or attention. Only an overriding public need can justify intrusion into anyone’s privacy.
- Show good taste. Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity.
- Be cautious about identifying juvenile suspects or victims of sex crimes.
- Be judicious about naming criminal suspects before the formal filing of charges.
- Balance a criminal suspect’s fair trial rights with the public’s right to be informed.
This white paper is not intended as legal advice and does not constitute legal advice. Although the paper may include some discussion of legal rights and responsibilities, the paper is intended as an informational guide only.