Newsletter > March 2002 > "HANDLING THE PRESS IN A CRISIS"
HANDLING THE PRESS IN A CRISIS
The writer is experienced in public relations and media relations matters. Lawyers who write for Fraternal Law have worked with him on the public relations side of fraternity emergencies throughout the United States.
Every fraternity and sorority should have – MUST HAVE – a crisis response plan that can be enacted with lightening speed if something goes wrong. The plan should have elements that go beyond just pure handling of the press. And it doesn’t do any good to keep the plan in a desk drawer at the national office. It has to be circulated and understood by officers and key people in each and every chapter. Since officers change, the plan has to be redistributed every year. Your plan for how your organization handles PR in a crisis ought to be as much a part of each officer’s orientation materials as all its other guidelines and rules are.
Here’s A Sad Reality
There’s a saying in the TV news business – “If it bleeds, it leads.” A nightly news program that starts off each show with a crime story will always score higher ratings than the station that leads with important school board issues. On TV, in print and on radio, bad news gets more attention than good. Here’s something else, something most news people – reporters, editors, publishers – won’t say on the record. They don’t want it generally known that they LOVE bad news. Don’t misunderstand me – no newsperson I know enjoys seeing people hurt or property damaged. But, when things go bad, they love to report on it.
[Your plan for how your organization handles PR in a crisis ought to be as much a part of each officer’s orientation materials as all its other guidelines and rules are.]
To make matters worse, the technology delivering the news is astonishingly fast and virtually non-stop. Cable TV, satellites, computers, the internet, cell phones and faxes (faxes seem kind of quaint now, at the bottom of the list) all combine to keep good and bad news flowing 24 hours a day. We now live in an instant media atmosphere.
Robin Cohn, in her fine book, “The PR Crisis Bible,” says that the internet has become the patron saint of the disgruntled. The internet is now a major source for information that can turn into a crisis. Often, nasty stuff on the internet either beats the general media to the punch, or it helps them add wallop to the punch. Cohn reminds her readers that the Clinton-Lewinsky story became public with Matt Drudge on the internet, and then the general media got on board. Sources that may not want to have their fingerprints on a story can now hide by getting out their angers and their stories on the web.
Keep in mind that the media don’t need permission to pursue a story. Forget the old movie notion that reporters arc cruising the streets and the local hangouts looking for a scoop. Reporters arc mostly overworked inside people, who respond to the phones that almost never stop ringing. In many news rooms they wear headsets so they can more easily type while they do their phone interviews.
But once they’ve got something, they all know how to move fast. Reporters can be on you, investigating a problem, before you even know there is a problem. So you have to be ready to respond quickly if something goes wrong.
Covering The Basics, Fast
You might think, “How can we respond fast in a crisis when we need time to gather facts?” It can be done. You draft a statement that tries to answer two basic questions, and you infuse your answers with concern.
The two basic questions you must answer are:
- What happened?
- What are you doing about it?
Let’s say you’re suddenly caught up in a severe crisis there’s been a nasty injury, a death perhaps, or a scandal involving a lot of money or alcohol or sex. Let’s say the word is out, reporters want answers, and you haven’t had time to gather any facts. You can still respond.
The answer to the first question – what happened? – gets a simple, straightforward answer. That is, you confirm what you know to have occurred and you do not try to interpret the why and how of it. You only confirm the injury or the death or the scandal, and you say nothing past that.
The answer to the second question – what are you doing about it? – gets an equally simple, straightforward answer. You say that you are gathering the facts, and once you know exactly what-happened, you will have more to say.
You demonstrate your concern, by saying that whatever happened is a tragedy, and making statements before you have the facts would only compound the tragedy.
That’s it. A statement along those lines can be made fast. It proves you’re not hiding from the press. It buys you time. It shows you’re taking action, that is, you’re getting to the bottom of what happened. And it demonstrates that you are concerned enough that you don’t intend to say anything before you have the facts. Reporters will pepper you with questions, but you stick with your two answers and you keep showing concern. You thank them, and then you leave to do the work you’ve promised to do.
A fast response like that won’t turn bad news into good, but it will speed up recovery, and you will look better than you ever will without such a response.
Getting It Wrong – The Anthrax Response
It’s worth looking at a very recent example of someone not covering the basics.
According to a report in the “New York Times,” a Doctor Larry Bush of Atlantis, Florida, correctly diagnosed that Robert Stevens, the employee of the supermarket tabloid in Boca Raton, had inhalation anthrax. Bush is an infectious disease expert. He said that once he knew what Stevens had, he knew immediately what it meant. Dr. Bush told local health officials, he told the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and he told the FBI about his suspicions.
Doctor Bush, according to the “New York Times,” was thunderstruck when he saw Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson tell reporters that Stevens’ anthrax was an isolated case, that anthrax happens naturally, and that there was no evidence of terrorism. It got worse, Thompson went on to hint that Mr. Stevens may have become infected by drinking water from a stream, when experts had already been on TV saying that such a means of anthrax transmission had never been documented.
Clearly, Secretary Thompson didn’t want to create national panic, but his statements left the public confused and left the Secretary looking out of touch.
He should have said something like, “We have discovered a case of anthrax, and we are very concerned about it. I don’t have all the details, but we are investigating and we are including the possibility of bioterrorism in our investigation.”
A short, clear response like that, while still confirming frightening news, is vastly more reassuring than the remarks that were made. And once those first fuzzy statements were floated to the press, everything after that was reactive rather than proactive.
Elements of a PR Crisis Plan
There is an array of activities that must surround even the simplest first, fast response. Those activities are covered in your PR plan.
You will never, ever get two public relations professionals to agree on the exact elements of a crisis PR plan. The very word “crisis” should be a tipoff that no one plan can possibly anticipate or fit all crises. Even so, some planning is way better than none.
You should have one crucial part of your plan memorized by now. Respond fast. Confirm only the facts. Say what you’re doing to solve the problem. And show concern. By the way, virtually everyone in the PR business will agree with those steps. The disagreements start when you begin to plan out all the other stuff that needs to be done.
Here’s my very short crisis PR laundry list. If you do just these things, you’re way ahead of the game.
- List who is notified in the event of a crisis. That person is your fraternity or sorority gatekeeper. The gatekeeper coordinates everything – hands out assignments, evaluates media requests, and decides who speaks, what is said and when. Everyone should know, both on the local and national levels, who that gatekeeper is. While there is certain to be collaboration and consultation in a crisis, the gatekeeper will serve as the team
- Even if you’re dealing with a low-magnitude crisis, get your attorney involved. Your plan should identify that attorney or that law firm.
- The plan should instruct your local chapter people what to do if the police need to be called in. It should also instruct them who to contact within the school where the affected chapter is. I’ll come back to that school
- Figure out who your best spokespeople are. No one talks to the press except the spokesperson assigned by the Review that list of spokespeople annually.
- The plan should list the two basic questions that must be answered fast what happened and what are you doing about it? – and write in a reminder to express your concern.
- Contact each and every university where you have chapters and ask what they expect from you and what they will do for you and with you in the event of a crisis. Put that in your I guarantee that every university will have its own crisis plan, and I’ll bet that very few will have thought to communicate it to the Greeks on its campuses
- The plan should have written into it a section that says what your organization stands for, what you bring to your members, to your schools and to the world in general. Even in a crisis, there are opportunities to get a positive message out. But unless that message is in the plan, it’s likely the opportunity will be missed, or the message will be garbled.
- A really good plan tries to anticipate what can go wrong, understanding there’s no way to plan for every crisis
- Require a follow-up case study. It should be a simple narrative of what happened, how you handled it, what you think you did right, what you think you did wrong, and what the outcome was. You’ll learn from the exercise.
Basically, a crisis PR plan is common sense written down. Decide who will be in charge. Decide who can do the talking. Write out a statement that says what you’re all about and try to work that in, if possible. Be sure you coordinate with your attorney, the university and, if necessary, with law enforcement. Distribute the plan. Be honest. Be fair. Don’t talk too much.