When a reputational crisis hits, everything comes at your organization at once. Social media, the mainstream media, the alternative media, local and national news outlets. Things will move more quickly than you can imagine.
You’re in the race.
In this episode of the Managing Uncertainty Podcast, Bryghtpath Principal & CEO Bryan Strawser and Senior Consultant Jennifer Otremba talk through reputational crisis situations and bring their years of experience in dealing with fast-moving challenges. Topics discussed include crisis communications, social media, “fake news”, interacting with the media, and “spin”.
Bryan Strawser: Somebody screwed up big time. We’ve had to terminate one of our senior executives for personal misconduct in the workplace, and they’ve been let go. So, today was their last day.
Jen Otremba: Quietly.
Bryan Strawser: Very quietly. There was an internal announcement that they have decided to leave the company for personal reasons, and we thanked them for their service, and against our advice, the company has chosen not to disclose this individual’s departure, and as a privately held company, there’s no reporting requirement. That’s cool.
Jen Otremba: And the rumors start flowing.
Bryan Strawser: And the rumors have started to flow. That was this morning, and now it’s 8:05, and we’ve been called by the senior vice president of communications at this same company, and they just got a call from a producer at 60 Minutes, who has the story.
Jen Otremba: We thought we were in the clear.
Bryan Strawser: Thought we were in the clear. They don’t know what 60 Minutes knows. They just know that they’re calling. Therefore, they must know about the personal misconduct that was committed by this individual. So now we’re in the race. We’re behind.
Jen Otremba: We are way behind.
Bryan Strawser: Way behind, but now the race has started.
Jen Otremba: We’re back at the start line.
Bryan Strawser: What we’re talking about here is really reputation management, and dealing the media from a communications standpoint, and as we talk about … I think the thing that we hear a lot as a consulting firm is that, “Look, I want to control the spin. I want to control the story. I want to control social media.”
Jen Otremba: Control the media. Yep.
Bryan Strawser: I don’t remember who said it, but there was the famous quote that you shouldn’t pick a fight with somebody who buys ink by the barrel. We do this all the … Digitally now, of course, but it’s true, and I think the notion that you control the media is just utterly ridiculous. You can’t. They’re going to write and say on the radio and appear on television, and say the things that they want to say.
Jen Otremba: Employees are going to post things on social media.
Bryan Strawser: Employees are more definitely going to quote things.
Jen Otremba: They’re going to be completely made up stories.
Bryan Strawser: There were will be some great fake news out there, I’m sure. Real fake news in this case.
But while you can’t control the media, you can interact with the media, and you can influence the story in a lot of different ways, and I think we always … When we’re talking about communicating in the midst of a crisis, we always talk about the idea of a holding statement. You’re using a statement, because what do you mean this time? No, the full extent of what’s going on.
But we talk about this a lot with like active shooter, and natural disasters, like earthquakes and tornadoes, where there’s minimal notice, minimal warning, and then something really bad has happened, and you don’t know the content, all the details, but you got the call from the media, and now you’re on the phone, and you can’t dodge the call when you’re on the phone, so what do you say?
Jen Otremba: On one side, you’re trying to figure out what’s going on, what are the details? On the other side, you have all these questions in your other ear constantly, so you have to get in the race.
Bryan Strawser: You have to be in the race. We start with the holding statement, and the holding statement can be, in an active shooter situation, for example, I think our default holding statement we teach people is along the lines of, “Earlier today, at our Memphis, Tennessee location …”
Jen Otremba: Or wherever.
Bryan Strawser: Or wherever, “Shoots were fired, resulting in a law enforcement response to our manufacturing facility. At this point in time, we are working with the Memphis Police Department on the situation and towards a resolution, and all of our efforts are geared towards insuring the safety, and security, and well-being of our employees and the visitors to this facility, and we’ll know more and be able to share more in about 30 minutes.”
That’s an effective holding statement. I think the joke I always said was if your mom heard that on TV from you, she’d be proud of you, and you’ve set the stage that you have some things, you’ve got some themes across in your communication, and now you’re waiting to learn more, and you’re going to come back in 30 minutes and you’ll be able to share something.
Jen Otremba: Yeah. And you’re keeping the focus where it needs to be.
Bryan Strawser: Which is on your team.
Jen Otremba: Right. The team and their families.
Bryan Strawser: What this does raise is that in any company, we’ve talked a lot about incidents becoming crisis situations, and this is a great example of one that’s just reputational, where you need a rapid response process that is tied or is built into your crisis management process, so that when something happens, you know about it, and you can respond to that in a fast, efficient manner. You can get the right people on the phone through your crisis management process, and you can get the right approvals for communication to deal with something.
If you got Steve Croft from 60 minutes calling, you’re able to escalate that quickly and come up with a response that you’re going to have, because if you say nothing, then that will be the story. The story will be what they already know, and you should just assume they know everything.
Jen Otremba: And in the absence of anything, they’re going to make up a story. They’re going to make a story in the absence of you saying anything.
Bryan Strawser: They’re going to make a compelling narrative.
Jen Otremba: They are.
Bryan Strawser: And part of the narrative is that you refused to comment.
Jen Otremba: Yes. It’s going to be much more entertaining than what you could come up with.
Bryan Strawser: So you have an opportunity not to control the situation, but you do have an opportunity apply some factual spin to the situation by telling your narrative the way you want it, and it’s interesting to see you can do this by working with the media and cooperating with the story in hopes it will turn out well. You can, also, take an approach that we just saw used in politics, where while instead of waiting to do the interview and telling your story, you can just dump your narrative out and tell it. That’s an interesting approach, because it changes the story from what they were going to make it to what you’ve dropped out as, “Well, here’s what’s going on.”
That’s a risky strategy, but in the right environment, that can work by going right out and telling your story.
Jen Otremba: Yep. And being honest, and doing it quickly.
Bryan Strawser: Yeah. Lying to the media is bad.
Jen Otremba: Lying to anyone is bad. Your mom will not be proud of you.
Bryan Strawser: Your mom will not be proud of you.
Jen Otremba: You can’t do that.
Bryan Strawser: You don’t want to be dishonest. You need to be very straightforward, and very factual, and very honest about things. The example that I think we’ve used previously on the being dishonest with the media story is that during the data breach at Target, Target had told a story about how the data breach had occurred, but they wouldn’t release any documentation, and then almost two years later, information security reporter Brian Krebs, who writes the Krebs on Security blog, somebody gave him the after action report, the internal after action report from Target on what had happened, and Brian wrote a whole article about, “Hey, the most interesting part of the whole thing to me isn’t how they did it. It’s that the factual narrative of what occurred lined up exactly with what Target said two years prior.” If Target had lied and the document got out two years later, that would have been a front page story, and, fortunately, it was none of that. It was nothing, because they were honest in their response, as we would expect them to be.
Jen Otremba: So never underestimate I think the complexity of what could come out. You’ve got social media. You’ve got employees that are posting things. You’ve got the media itself running stories. Don’t underestimate that complexity, and so like we’ve been saying the whole time, if you keep it simple, stick with just the facts, you can keep up with and be a part of that narrative.
Bryan Strawser: There’s definitely a speed aspect to dealing with that complexity, that this process of rapid response and crisis management through a crisis management team in your senior executives, it’s got to be a smooth process, where you’ve thought this, how you can bring those facts forward, craft the narrative that you want, get that narrative approved, and then the right spokesperson providing that to the media, and it will depend a bit on your company’s culture, but often we want to see a senior executive who is making that statement, and not necessarily the communications team being the one that’s putting the statement out, because it’s coming from your CEO or another appropriate senior leader in that situation.
Jen Otremba: Right. So the media, the people, the consumers of the media, they’re going to want to hear it from leadership.
Bryan Strawser: Right. Right. Coming from communications is going to sound like spin.
Jen Otremba: Yep. They’re not going to believe what they’re hearing.
Bryan Strawser: Right.
Jen Otremba: They’re going to make up another story. So, topics that we’ve discussed here, so the leadership aspect of it, sticking with the speed, not underestimating the complications that you may see, being truthful, and in general, keeping in the race, staying in the race.
Bryan Strawser: And I’d reinforce that remaining silent is usually not at all the right thing to do. There will be some situations where being quiet is the right play, but really, you want that opportunity to get out in the race and start to contribute and influence the story, or tell the story on your own without relying upon media to be the channel.
But we wish you well as you work through that situation.