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We all have ’em. Some big, some small. PR firms deal with ’em. Some make whole practices around them.
It was last week I found myself on a conference call with a client, discussing a mini-crisis for them, when crisis came knocking on my own door: my 2-year-old son took a spill that was a little more than the usual. A trip to the hospital, just to be sure there was no serious injury, revealed he was just fine. Phew.
But that incident got me thinking about crises, and how we deal with them.
I have a few things I try to remember whenever a crisis comes up, whether professionally or personally:
1. When everything around you is moving quickly, slow down. I first heard this cardinal rule of crisis articulated by Rudy Giuliani on 9/11, a true crisis if there ever was one (this tape is on one of those boneheaded 9/11 conspiracy channels, but it’s raw video so it proves my point). Slowing down allows us to see all the moving parts without the associated drama. If we hope to meet and overcome a challenge, we first must clear our heads and analyze the situation for what it is.
2. Execute, don’t react. In the PR world, we’re always dealing with inquiries and actions external to our planning and strategy. When something unexpected comes along, you can count on a call from a reporter asking what your client’s response is, or whether you have a statement on the situation (You can probably also count on your client shouting, “What are we gonna do?!?” like it’s the Rapture or something). Reacting almost always puts you in a defensive posture. It takes you off message and has you dancing to someone else’s tune. The better response is articulate your own message and take the story one step further, or in a new direction. Again, Rudy Giuliani was masterful with this; in the days following 9/11, he he simultaneously expressed grief and resilience at a moment when much of the world – especially us New Yorkers – just wanted help knowing how to process what we were thinking and feeling. He drove his own agenda, and that of New York (and really, the country) in a direction that charted a new course towards optimism and recovery.
3. Recognize there are steps in the process. Crisis is always brought on by external factors, whether accidental or man made. And when something upsets our apple cart, it’s human nature to want to jump to the end frame and put it back the way it was. The reality is – just like my son’s fall and trip to the hospital – there is series of step that have to play out, in order, to right the ship: go to the hospital, talk to the doc, have the doc suggest a course of action, get the test, analyze the results, breathe the sigh of relief. Had I just run into the ER screaming “my son needs an x-ray!!” it would have added layers to the problem and delayed the diagnosis.
4. Manage the pieces as they are in motion. Once the crisis starts, you need to remain engaged, and watch things evolve and move, so you know what action to take next and when. Crises evolve over time – sometimes in a compressed way, but over time nontheless – and you have to understand each piece, in order, to make sense of it all. And just as in chess, taking your eye off the board for even one move (or one news cycle, in PR) only means you have to come back later and take more time to analyze what your next move will be. And when time is of the essence, it’s a luxury you don’t have.
5. Recognize the end game. What’s your goal? Reporters love never-ending crisis, because it means they get more ink or airtime. And their marketing departments capitalize on it, (“Breaking News: Destruction in Joplin, spnsored by…[insert product name here]) and understandably so. But your job is to end the crisis and get back to normal business. Every crisis differs in the details, but the resolution is almost always the same: a public perception that you (or your client) has done right or made good. Sometimes the win isn’t as sweet as you like. But there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, always. And you job is to find it fast and get there.
5. Express appreciation to everyone involved. This is so easily overlooked. An admired colleague of mine often says “A pitch is not about this conversation, but about the next conversation.” And she’s right. A reporter may be coming at you with tough questions right now, and your responses may not be getting the prominence you think they deserve. But saying nurturing that relationship through honest communication and thanks (within reason, of course) for including your side of the story is the best way to make sure that, the next time there’s a crisis (and there will be), your voice will be one that’s heard loud and clear.
Crisis happens.. Whether it’s a car wreck (been there), negotiating to buy a home (been there, four times) or meeting a deadline (I still have radio-anxiety dreams where the clock is ticking down and my carts spill all over the floor; can I get an Amen?), the dynamics are always the same. So take a breath and size up the room. Then strategize, execute and communicate, and you’re bound to come out on top.