“Facts don’t care about your feelings” is a popular meme attributed to Ben Shapiro, the American writer, political commentator, and self-described member of the Intellectual Dark Web: an emerging cadre of new media public intellectuals. For some, he is a fearless speaker of truth. For others, he’s a regressive provocateur. It depends on one’s sensibilities.
And that’s the starting point for this blog. When Ben lays out an argument he often says that he genuinely doesn’t care how others may feel about it. I think it’s fair to say that (in the public sphere at least) he elevates rational thought above all else: an idea that seems alien to many people.
In the workplace too, there are people like Ben. There are people who are the polar opposite of Ben. And there are people who sit somewhere in between. But an indisputable truth is that, in any enterprise, it’s people who drive outcomes. And people are motivated in different ways: some more by facts and some more by feelings. So it’s self-evident that adopting a more agile approach to people-motivating skills can deliver better outcomes.
Most people want to be heard and understood. As a leader at the sharp-end of delivering results in a complex organisation, it can be tough to find the time to dialogue effectively. Or often enough. Especially with people who are not like you. I get that. But however busy you are, it’s worth creating some extra time for some other people (and you know already which people I’m talking about in your sphere).
Here are a few dots that I’ve connected over the course of my life, and my career as an executive coach and adult educator; some of them may be helpful to you.
1. Seek first to understand, then to be understood1
This is a concept that has echoed throughout the ages of mankind. The central idea being that most people talk too much, and don’t listen enough.
2. Take some time to let the tale unfold
If you give a person 30 minutes of uninterrupted time to speak, you will learn a lot about them. Listen actively, don’t judge, ask clarifying questions, but let them speak. Eventually you will hear something along the lines of: “…which doesn’t seem right to me”. That’s a breakthrough moment which will reveal something intimate, and very important.
3. Tell me more about that
Stick with curiosity in that moment. Your own thoughts and feelings about the things that don’t seem right are irrelevant. Did anybody ask you to agree yet?! You’ll recognise this moment when you notice the words “Yes, but” about to come out of your mouth. Swallow those words! Simply say: “Tell me more about that.” And continue to listen actively.
4. Simplify, Clarify
When it’s an appropriate time to speak, here’s a good way to begin: “If I understand you correctly, what is important to you is X, Y, Z. Am I right?”. And if you are not right, do like it says on the shampoo bottle: rinse and repeat.
5. Read your vital signs
At this point you will have broadly heard one of three things: a) “that’s not fair”, b) “that’s not accurate”, c) “that’s not actionable”. This is a potential danger zone; a moment when your own interpretation of the ‘stuff’ could cause you to feel triggered. Pay attention to your ‘gut’. That Fight or Flight or Freeze feeling is invaluable data. High performance people know how to bring that data into dialogue.
6. May I share?
People with strong dialogue skills will take this moment to ask permission to share. Describe the ways in which your own thoughts and feelings diverge from those that you have heard and understood from the other person. But this isn’t an opportunity to dismiss what you have heard, or to use your ‘senior power’ (if you have any). You are merely asking for the same listening courtesy to be extended to you.
7. Where are we now?
By this time you should each have a better understanding of what makes the other one ‘tick’, and where your differences lie. Spend some time to clearly articulate the ‘gaps’ that exist between your respective thoughts/feelings, without judging or criticising them. Treat them as a phenomenon; your individual realities are not the same. It can be helpful to imagine this bundle of differences as a fish on the table between you. It’s not you, it’s not him/her. It’s a fish that you have co-created.
8. What are WE going to do about this?
We don’t often get to choose our clients or colleagues, and differences are bound to arise. But if you have gotten this far it’s fair to assume that you care about your relationship with this person, and vice versa. But you need to clean and gut that fish2, or it will begin to stink and decompose!
Occasionally I have heard people say: “This isn’t personal, it’s purely business.” And that’s actually a very well-intentioned thought. But it ignores a reality that, for some people, business is entirely about the personal. A subtle, but powerful alternative could begin something like this: “I really value my relationship with you. How can we move forward in a way that preserves that, and still achieves a good business outcome?”
If you put the above steps into practice, I guarantee that you will take much of the heat or awkwardness out of your difficult conversations. You may easily, naturally, create a better dialogue towards a better outcome. And if you need some practice with the techniques, or are interested in a workshop for your team, get in touch with Dramatic Difference. Our dynamic theatre-led learning style has helped many clients to build high performance teams through effective dialogue.
Delivering bad news is tough in any business. Whether it’s having to tell your vendors that you can no longer retain their services or informing an employee that he is being made redundant, or shutting down a project, often the “messenger” tasked with delivering the final blow would go to great lengths to delay or avoid the situation due to fear of confrontation, turning a bad situation into an even worse one.
Let’s face it – nobody wants to hear bad news. Disappointment, frustration and even anger come to mind. It’s certainly no mean feat when it comes to reconciling and managing orders from upper management with the interests of employees, vendors and clients.
So how can we avoid shooting the messenger? We share some tips on how you can deliver bad news (someone’s got to do it!) with grace and tact.
Make sure that you’re familiar with every piece of information before speaking to your target recipient (employee, colleague, client). More specifically, you need to understand the reasons why, who are the parties involved, and any other considerations in the lead up to the final decision. Don’t hesitate to ask for more information before delivering the bad news.
Time and Place
When you deliver bad news, be sure to do it in a private setting and at a time when he can hear the bad news. If it’s not urgent, don’t approach the person at a stressful time in the middle of a project. Be mindful of the setting, and switch off your phone and email alerts – avoid interruptions at all cost to put the person at ease.
Create a Buffer
Before communicating any bad news, always start with a buffer to reduce the shock or pain. An effective buffer helps the recipient to keep reading or listening, and essentially provides a smooth transition to the bad news proper.
- State the best news first
- Compliment the recipient
- Thank the recipient for his past contributions
- Listen to what the recipient has to say (shared viewpoint)
- State key facts of the case
- Express empathy (show concern)
People are more receptive to listening and accepting bad news when it’s delivered thoughtfully, sincerely and confidently. Body language is key. Make sure your body language conveys the right message in the right way and is in line with what you’re saying. Some examples of non-verbal cues include avoiding eye contact and fidgeting. These are sure to send the wrong signals. Also, do not sugarcoat and beat around the bush. Be direct and tactful, and most of all be kind.
No Time for Jokes
When bad news is being delivered, be considerate of the recipient’s feelings. Do not joke around as this may come across as being rude and insincere. While you may want to lighten the mood and reduce the impact of the news, always be respectful and sensitive.
Explain the Why’s
Research shows that people are more willing to accept bad news if they believe the decision-making process was reasonable. Therefore, provide them with ample reasons as to why the bad news is necessary and give them details about the decision-making process.
Show you Care
After delivering the news and explaining all the necessary information, give the individual some space to absorb the information and be ready to listen to his concerns. Ask him how he’s feeling. Do your best to be understanding and answer any questions as best as possible.
When closing, do it in a way that promotes goodwill and helps the individual or team move forward. You should provide your support and let them know you’re there for them. Instead of focusing on the “can’ts”, focus on the “cans”. Go a step further and suggest a compromise or alternative option based on what the individual wanted in the first place.
Posted by Chloe Tan, CorpMedia
Artificial Intelligence. It’s all around us.
Think Amazon suggestions, Spotify picking your next song, Google search answers, Netflix recommendations and the list goes on. From speech-powered personal assistants like Siri to voice compression algorithms and autonomous cars equipped with predictive abilities, Artificial Intelligence (AI) has come a long way.
AI refers to the simulation of human intelligence processes executed by machines. Indeed, its prevalence in our daily routines has made a significant difference in the world we live in today. Communications has also been greatly disrupted by the breakthrough of AI, slowly but surely.
Is AI taking over the world? To a certain extent, this might be true. While not everyone’s been enthusiastic about its rise, advances in AI have led to fundamental changes in the workplace. Leaders are rethinking how their businesses can be run with the help of AI’s powerful tools that can be applied to everything, from compliance to data collection, and streamlining processes to increase the overall level of efficiency.
However, AI should not be perceived as a Machiavellian robot scheming to end mankind. In fact, it can be the positive force behind the innovative transformations in our lives. In the world of public relations (PR), for example, AI has enabled brands to better interact and build deeper relations with key audiences. It would be a prodigious blunder to think that PR is on the brink of disappearing!
With AI, brands are able to leverage data sets to predict the reactions of the public more accurately and follow up with more targeted actions.
So, let’s pause for a cause and focus on the powerful combination of AI and PR working in synergy to better engage with your customers and grow your brand(s).
Consumer insights lead to improved astuteness
Good news for businesses – more information on consumers than ever before! With the most relevant and specific information on hand, brands can stay current with customers and quickly create personalised content to suit their specific interests and/or needs.
Through data collection across various channels, AI can successfully gather engagement metrics and conversion statistics. With data gathering tools, marketers can segment consumer metrics based on various factors like demographics and purchasing power.
Prior to AI, chunks of information without any organisation, otherwise known as big data, were used in businesses. It was difficult and extremely time-consuming to sieve through the information. With the help of AI, the deluge of data can now be digested into bite-sized information, enabling PR professionals to gain a better understanding of their audience’s core attributes through patterns and trends drawn from the data. The resulting encompassing patterns help professionals to discern customer preferences across a more intricate marketing strategy.
Tailored content options
AI is also redefining the customer experience by locking in consumers’ needs and wants, and improving their overall shopping experience. Have you ever noticed the content you see on your Facebook feed and news recommendations are all aligned with your interests? E-commerce platforms like Alibaba and Zalora also offer shopping that is highly personalised. Algorithms process articles by heavily scrutinising the locations of readers, what they engage in on social media as well as any other publicly obtainable information. Since the objective of AI is to find out what consumers are looking for and how they want their information to be reflected, it’s no surprise that AI is the mastermind behind all your tailored content options.
Still, professionals ought to be aware of not overstepping boundaries in the course of leveraging data to offer customised options. Customer privacy should not be compromised at the expense of creating more personalised experiences as doing so may backfire and result in consumers feeling as if their privacy is being invaded!
Higher consumer engagement with data-driven communication
Before AI came into existence, humans carried out mundane tasks like distribution of press releases and the creation of automated media lists. AI is now assisting with these duties, making it easier for businesses to reach out to target consumers directly. This can also help brands engage with the relevant target groups more efficiently than their competitors.
Given the rapid speed at which AI processes data, the accuracy of messaging is also increasing proportionally. This, in turn, helps PR professionals to ensure the delivery of strong and direct brand messaging to clients.
Advancements in AI technologies also contribute to determining predictive decisions of consumers based on the patterns detected. To better cater to the needs of the consumers, AI provides suggestions within a brand for the consumers. Since every consumer reacts differently to brand content and advertising, AI can help to tweak platform performance based on interactions with consumers and their purchases to improve each consumer’s shopping experience, using the data provided by social media interactions.
With the daily addition of content to the Internet – from blog posts to social media updates and netizen comments – AI plays an important role in comprehending the potential consequences of any crisis and acting as a pundit by giving professional guidance.
Predicting a crisis is difficult. Given a quick examination of social posts, AI can overcome this challenge. With ample caution, social media posts that have been pre-scheduled can be prevented from being posted automatically, and PR professionals can quickly “go into crisis management mode” and craft more suitable posts.
In the PR sphere, crisis management is, without a doubt, one of the biggest challenges. That being said, accurate information and communication-intensive efforts aid in identifying paramount events and topics – all of which cannot be achieved without AI.
With AI dominating the world we live in, there is always the fear that machines would replace humans one day. But let’s focus on the positive aspects of AI. Improved efficiency. Greater creativity. Optimized target consumers.
Posted by Shermaine Sim, CorpMedia
“You can’t have a business without having clients and unfortunately, where there are clients, there are also ‘difficult’ clients.”
You can please some of the people some of the time but not all of the people all of the time. Every business that provides a service, will no doubt, encounter a few disgruntled personalities along the way. As public relations professionals, we’ve all had that experience. Some clients are a breeze to work with. Others can be extremely difficult – the kind that makes you cringe every time their number lights up on your mobile. You know, the ones who drain your energy, criticize and complain incessantly about something you’ve worked on diligently (and see real value in), or an overly needy client who calls at least twice a day to find out why they aren’t in that society magazine yet!
PR is difficult at times. You’re in the middle of everyone, the diplomat between the client and the marketing spiel and between the journalist and the story. So suddenly having to deal with someone being nasty or unreasonable is just one thing that you don’t need. But how do you handle it, when the client is paying the bill?
Dealing with difficult people is essential to our success. When dealing with difficult people, specifically a client, it might seem that keeping peace and our sanity is a tough, if not impossible, task. So how do you find the right balance?
Bottom Line: You bend over backwards when appropriate but you also learn to put your foot down when needed. Even though you may be holding the phone on one end, biting your tongue and stabbing that notepad with your pen, you can turn this around! Here are some helpful tips on how to deal with difficult clients.
Be Open, Be Clear
When dealing with a client, it is better to be clear about expectations at the start of the new business relationship. This is your opportunity to share what type of reporting, results and communication your new client can expect from you. Have an honest conversation about the amount of communication that is most comfortable to your clients and what your agency can provide. However, even clients who appear pleasant, understanding and accepting in the beginning, can become challenging once the contract is signed. It is important to know that while you should aim to be a valued partner, not all requests are feasible. Don’t be afraid to tell your client no – but with good reason. Explain why their request is not realistic or possible. You cannot please everyone all of the time and that’s a fact.
Worth the Trouble
Some clients will send a rude email – out of the blue! Or you may get a harsh tone on your voice mail on a weekend. Then it’s time to ask yourself this question, “Is it me?” If not, it’s worth your while to check in on your client. Ask probing questions to find out what is really bothering him. It could be that he’s going through something that is affecting his personal life, or it could be a trickle down “telling off” from his boss that has nothing to do with you or your work. Be kind, lend your ears and see if there’s anything you can do to help. Sometimes it does have everything to do with you. If this is the case, have an honest conversation with your client, and with yourself. Perhaps, you need to assess and amplify your own efforts.
You are the Expert
For clients that call for constant updates or to give you their own PR ideas (ridiculous as they may seem), remember you are the expert, hired to do the job. Don’t be arrogant – you can either take the ideas into consideration (if worth exploring), or politely give your views as to why they cannot be executed, for e.g. it would end up in the editors’ trash. Explain why you were hired in the first place – because of your specific expertise. Perhaps, this is also a good time to share more information and updates on what you’ve been doing to assure your clients that you’re on top of things and have their best interests at heart. More importantly, assure them that you know what you’re doing.
Be Proactive and Supportive
It’s quite common for some of my clients to reach out to me for advice on matters not related to the work we’re doing. Don’t turn away. If you can help with some input to a web design or business question, become an ally and take the time to problem-solve with them. Or refer them to someone who’s in a better position to help. By offering a solution and assisting with other tasks, you show that you care about their business. This not only builds rapport but also trust and this goes a long way in building a good, long-lasting relationship with your client.
Time to Let Go!
Unfortunately, the client is not always right. If your client is consistently being difficult and your personalities just don’t mesh, then it may be time to take the “D” out and let difficult clients go. While it’s important to do whatever it takes to keep a client within reason, you, as the expert in your field, get to define what is or isn’t working. If your client is making your team miserable, taking up a lot of time better spent working on clients who do respect your work, it might be time to set you both free.
Whatever you decide, always be professional and polite. Be as honest as you can without getting too personal.
For the most part, PR pros love their clients and probably spend more time with them than they do their family. A PR agency should act as an extension of the client’s team. Your interactions with your client should build on one another – after all, you’re ultimately interested in a long-term relationship with your clients, and that is what you should strive for.
Posted by Irene Gomez, Corporate Media
Imagine that you were just named to a CEO position at a top corporation. This has to be one of the most thrilling adventures of your life. But after only a few weeks on the job, you learn that the company has been hiding information for over a decade about a product defect that cost the lives of 13 people, and you will need to recall millions of units from consumers. Mary Barra, CEO of GM, doesn’t have to imagine the situation; she is living it. Most of the people who end up in top jobs have never had any training for or experience in dealing with communicating in a crisis on the big stage. I thought it might be useful to put together a playbook that every leader should have ready for when it hits the fan.
First, you need to realize that defining and solving the problem is critical, but equally important is how you handle the situation. John F. Kennedy famously stated in a 1959 speech that the word crisis in Chinese is comprised of two brush strokes. One represents the word “danger” the other “opportunity.” While experts have since noted that the linguistic point isn’t quite right, the bigger idea is still valid.
Ms. Barra seems to understand this because in her letter to employees on March 4th, she stated: “Our company’s reputation won’t be determined by the recall itself, but how we address the problem going forward.”
So far, however, she doesn’t seem to be heeding her own advice. While news reports say she ordered an apology, it’s not clear whom she was ordering to apologize. The first rule of crisis communication is to admit your mistakes publicly. While this may drive your lawyers crazy, it will build tremendous goodwill in the court of public opinion.
In addition, she has remained silent and refused to do any interviews. My second rule is to communicate early and often: tell it all and tell it fast. At the very least, in the weeks ahead, she will have to answer questions from government officials. The day after her letter to employees, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration ordered the company to answer over a 100 questions about events leading up to the recall. In my own research on crisis communication I have found that the leader’s voice is one of the most critical components in developing a strategy for communicating during a crisis.
Besides hearing from the leader, however, the media wants to tell a good story with victims, villains, and visuals. Despite Ms. Barra’s wishes to keep information private, the New York Times was able to write a front page business section article using its inside sources. I like to tell my students and clients that communication is like a communicable disease. As a result, my third rule is that you need to be able to tell your side of the story most efficiently and most eloquently through the media or someone else will do it for you.
Communicating early and often, however, is easier said than done. Usually you have to communicate before all of the facts are in. As a result, companies need to communicate values, such as concern for their customers’ safety, and to show a commitment to coming to the aid of people affected by the crisis, even if you do not have all of the details yet. Barra did address this in her letter to employees when she said: “First and foremost, everything we are doing is guided by one unwavering principle: do what is best for our customer. Customer safety and satisfaction are at the heart of every decision we make.”
The problem companies face in a crisis, however, is that often the evidence doesn’t seem to back up the rhetoric. Why didn’t senior executives like Ms. Barra know about the problem given that it had surfaced over a decade ago if the customer comes first at GM? And is the bureaucracy so debilitating that no senior executive in the company heard anything about the defect in question for over a decade? This leads to my fourth rule, which is that you need to explain why things will be different in the future. What everyone will want to know is how she is going to help GM fix the actual defect on the 1.6 million cars, but more importantly, how she is going to change a bureaucracy that can hide that problem for over a decade.
Finally, while I admire Ms. Barra’s commitment to handling the problem herself, this may prevent her from following my fifth and final rule for executives who find themselves in this predicament, which is that you need to keep the business running. We can expect weeks of challenges from lawyers representing those who died as a result of GM’s negligence, from congressmen hoping to score points in an election year by beating up on the company the US government once owned, from the media which will lose patience with her silence, and from employees, who must be wondering if the company can weather yet another storm. What we have heard from sources the media has spoken with is that Barra named several key executives to oversee the recall. Who is going to make sure that the company remains vibrant and doesn’t get sucked into the crisis full time? At one company I worked with a few years ago, the CEO focused on managing the crisis while the COO and president focused how to make the business more successful after the storm had passed.
Assuming Ms. Barra and GM do weather the storm, they would do well to remember the words of President Kennedy’s rival in the 1960 election, President Nixon. In his famous Checkers speech of 1952, Nixon said, “The easiest period in a crisis situation is actually the battle itself. The most difficult is the period of indecision—whether to fight or run away. And the most dangerous period is the aftermath. It is then, with all his resources spent and his guard down, that an individual must watch out.”
This article by Paul A. Argenti first appeared in Harvard Business Review (March, 2014).
A well thought out and executed PR campaign is critical to successfully launching a product or business. Do it well and a PR program can help create awareness, drive initial sales and create lasting excitement. Do it wrong and you waste a whole lot of money, and risk damaging a product’s reputation for success.
Case in Point: Abercrombie & Fitch made the mistake of insulting their market when they attacked Jersey Shore’s “The Situation.” What’s even worse – they wanted the star of the hit reality series to stop wearing their clothes! Really! If you’ve ever walked past an A&F store, then there is no mistaking as to who shops there – cool cats and party girls, aka the MTV generation. While A&F thought they were being clever by insulting the beloved TV star, it turned out to be a huge PR disaster. A&F’s stock fell 15% as a result of the PR stunt, proving that biting off the hands that feed you is not very smart.
We all know that publicity is what a company receives when something notable happens. When the event is good, the publicity usually attracts new clients and gives the company something to brag about. On the other hand, there’s also the dreaded negative publicity. Unlike the positive feeling brought about by good publicity, negative publicity can leave the company and the public feeling badly.
Most of the time, bad publicity is unintentional. A company does something they think is positive and end up getting a bad reaction. Other times, the negative publicity comes from a competitor who makes an effort to create bad news about you or your business. When that happens, don’t fret. Take a deep breath. Know that like everything else in our lives, there are ways to turn the negativity around.
Create a response strategy
Turn a bad customer review into something positive by creating a response strategy. Whenever possible, reach out to the customer first, address the issue, and work towards an amicable solution. A bad review is a great opportunity to internalize important customer feedback and develop your business.
Tackle negative press head-on
Stay on top! Look out for trends in the bad press, so that you’re always prepared should (touch wood!), something bad happen to you or your business. Where possible, address the bad press and share your sincere attempts to remedy the issue. We all make mistakes – so own up and take responsibility. It’s what you do after the mistake that matters. Businesses that project an image of integrity and honesty are usually businesses consumers want to support.
Respond quickly but thoughtfully
When things go wrong, a day is too long. Be aware of the phenomenal speed at which information spreads, especially via social networking sites, and take quick action to counter bad publicity. For example, if there’s a glitch in the software you’re launching, don’t wait for user complaints to spread virally. Instead use online forums to alert them and explain what you are doing to address the problem. It shows customers, suppliers and other stakeholders that you are taking your responsibilities seriously and it also helps to defuse a situation before it gets too out of hand.
Don’t be afraid to counteract inaccuracies. For example, if you are aware of a Twitter campaign against you, tweet your version of the story. Contact editors if incorrect information has been published, and use your own website and social media presence to dispel misconceptions.
Easier said than done, you might say. But as PR practitioners, we know that it is essential to keep a level head in the face of a firestorm. In case of a bad online review, sometimes we need to take a step back and remind ourselves that we can’t please everyone all of the time. Take the opportunity instead to fix something that may be wrong with the business.
Launch a positive campaign
Bad PR doesn’t have to stick in everyone’s minds; it can be replaced by positive thoughts of an organization. Take action and go on a positive press campaign. Issue a press release about the good things your company is doing, for example, supporting a charitable cause. Go a step further – get your happy customers to go online and write reviews and before you know it, people will start thinking positively about your company again.
While it may seem impossible to get over negative publicity, there are ways to turn things around and manage the situation. The first step is not to panic. Figure out the source of the negativity and see if you can diffuse the situation. If it’s serious enough, you may need to consult with your legal team. Once you’ve started to quell the flames, it’s time to rebuild your image and get the public to forget. Eventually, a new scandal or interesting story will emerge that makes your bad publicity old news. Once that happens, focus on moving forward and preventing negative publicity in the future.
Posted by Irene Gomez, CIO, Corporate Media
Just like a marriage proposal, sometimes, we get overexcited about the news and just want to shout it out to the world – well, to anyone within earshot anyway. We just can’t contain ourselves. This also holds true for news connected to our business. Some of us start to envision dollar signs and products flying off the shelves almost immediately!
However, there is something to be said about restraint when it comes to sharing news with your public. Sometimes, clients wait too long to respond to crisis situations or take advantage of stories in the news they could use to help tell their own story. Waiting too long can mean a missed opportunity or, in some cases, a damaged reputation. Then, there’s the flip side: speaking before you’re ready. This can be dangerous.
Case in point: remember the headlines that appeared immediately after the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision on President Barack Obama’s health care law? The Associated Press, in a hurry to be the first to carry the news, citing several media organizations, reported incorrectly that the law’s central provision had been struck down. As a result, President Obama initially thought that the mandate had been struck down. According to MSNBC, “For about 40 seconds, the President believed that his landmark, legacy defining legislative accomplishment had been gutted.”
In the end, the Associated Press reported that one outlet did issue an apology, admitting that it had not waited to report on the full and complete opinion regarding the mandate. As PR professionals, we are the first responders that journalists often turn to for sources and sound bytes and it is our job to assist in a timely manner. More importantly, in today’s fast-paced media landscape, we must always be sure to present factual and accurate information to best serve our clients and the public.
Your news item could be something as amazing as getting an endorsement from the Queen, but it doesn’t change the fact that you have to know when the best time is to share something such breaking news.
Right Time, Right Place
There are many obvious reasons as to when the right time is to break your news, one being that you are contractually bound to stay zipped until you get the green light to move. Or you find yourself at the risk of a lawsuit. Think, for example, about a merger between two companies – talking about it before the plans are officially finalized may just impact the deal in a negative way and add to uncertainty in the market. Any media plans, including campaigns to be rolled out will also suffer.
But that’s not the only reason to keep quiet about big news. Everything has a right time and place, and it takes careful planning and consideration to announce it. If done poorly, your big news could fall on deaf ears, and you’ll have to work twice as hard to spread the news or worse still, undo the damage.
Do your research and figure out the best time to use social media and when to send emails out. People read emails or browse through Facebook at specific peak times, and if you don’t catch your target audience at the right time, they are likely to miss your news entirely.
Be aware of what’s going on around you and in the news before you release that all important news. If you wake up to a huge earthquake that’s just struck the region, for sure, all the media channels would devote their time and space to report on the catastrophe for days to come. So be sensitive. Perhaps this is not the best time to issue that press release or make an announcement. The last thing anyone wants to think about in such circumstance is some company telling them to get excited about their latest acquisition.
How much research do you do before sending out a message?
The game of PR and social media isn’t one for slow minded or slow acting individuals. A 24-7 news cycle and the pace of the digital marketplace make it essential to perform quickly. It is important to stop, take a breath and survey the landscape before you send out that hastily written press release or tweet.
And, before you respond to viral situations or crisis circumstances, always allow yourself and your team a window of time to plan before launching your response. Make sure you know all the facts before you issue a public comment. Comments made on Facebook, Twitter and other social media make it very easy to say things that shouldn’t be said in public. So, beware.
Sooner or later, every company will be faced with a crisis that has the potential to damage its reputation. Sometimes this crisis can be contained in-house; more often than not, and especially in today’s 24/7 media world, news of the problem leaks rapidly to the media, which has the power to destroy the most carefully nurtured company image almost overnight.
For the many businesses that work with hazardous materials or processes that can be dangerous to the environment and people, the risks of an accident that leads to a crisis can be proportionately greater than, for example, service businesses. Yet even here there is potential for risk, as companies may need to deal with redundancies, malicious employees with a grudge to bear or the acquisitive attentions of predatory competitors.
Despite the plethora of books on the subject, the crisis management process is simple and can be encapsulated by two simple sentences: be prepared and don’t panic.
Although both these pieces of advice sound like basic common sense, it is often the lack of an objective perception of the situation that can turn a manageable crisis into a full-blown drama.
A badly handled communication crisis can have such severe effects that in extreme circumstances corporations have had to re-invent themselves and re-brand to avert a reputation freefall. In an odd way behemoths like car and oil companies (think of the adverse publicity given to BP following the Gulf of Mexico oil spills, for example) are the least adept at dealing with crisis effectively.
Crisis management strategy relies on a two-pronged approach embracing internal as well as external communications. You cannot have a well thought out plan without giving proper attention to both of these aspects.
It is easy to understand why internal communication is as important as external in ensuring that consistent messages are communicated. Most of your workforce will have access to social media channels. Even if your company blocks these channels internally, people have smartphones that are totally independent of your internal filters. Without a proper communication plan, information will be transferred externally before you can reach for the forgotten ‘Crisis Communications Plan’ that you may have produced a few years before and squirreled away in one of your company’s computer drives.
Don’t allow your crisis plan to lay forgotten – review it frequently and be ready to implement it in an instant.
Crisis situations often have the habit of occurring outside normal hours. It is therefore essential that you have a procedure in place for dealing with such situations, either by allocating senior staff to an on-call press rota, or by ensuring that there is someone to take calls and route enquiries to the appropriate spokespersons. Poor access to information outside normal working hours can scupper even the best laid plans.
The cardinal sin of crisis management
Your internal crisis communication plan must rely on well-informed individuals whose duty is to ensure that absolutely everyone in your company is kept up to speed on the crisis and given key facts about the situation. If facts are not provided, it is human nature to speculate and there is nothing more damaging to a crisis situation than having to deal with speculation – the cardinal sin of all mismanaged communication campaigns.
Your ability to prevent speculation is based on the speed with which you can respond to the crisis. If you have rehearsed (be prepared!) and cleared your decks, you can engage with both your internal and external audiences quickly and efficiently, aiming always to be one step ahead.
Train and rehearse
External communications are somewhat easier to handle, particularly if you have a plan or rely on a specialist service. Despite this, the world of PR crisis management is littered with examples of bad practice. It is a fact that often fundamental errors in crisis communications can be caused by Senior Managers not having had experience of dealing with the media. It is therefore vital that you either train your Senior Executive in this area of communications, or (particularly if don’t have resources) rely on appointed experts and spokespeople.
Whether you have an internal or external spokesperson it is absolutely vital to be totally honest and transparent with them, providing as much accurate data as possible. Never forget that speculation can often destroy a well thought out plan.
Be in control
Dealing with the press can be a daunting experience even for the most street-wise operators. During a crisis you will not have the luxury to rely on the well thought out press release. When the media knocks at your doors they expect answers. Anodyne statements like ‘no comment’ are of no use. Indeed, by using such tactics you are implicitly telling the press to go elsewhere to find information about you.
So, the key point is to be in control. There may be stages during a crisis when the press becomes hostile, particularly when conducting interviews. Your spokesperson’s aim should be to think about the audience at all times. After all, a journalist is only there to convey a message to an audience. You need to consider each audience and tailor your message accordingly. Never forget that behind the term ‘audience’ there are individuals like you, so your message needs to be humane and approachable, not distant and mechanical.
Journalists have an array of subtle tricks to encourage a naive spokesperson to speculate. Use of the conditional (“Would you say…”) is a favourite tactic, followed by silence. Yes, silence. In such a situation it would be easy to try and elaborate on the message, to fill the gap; almost certainly this will lead to the unplanned release of information that is counter-productive.
When faced by silence, focus on reinstating the points you have just made.
Some journalists are adept at making a spokesperson feel comfortable and relaxed. The inexperienced speaker may be lulled into a highly dangerous trap from where there is no return. In extreme cases you will be faced by other tactics such as the ‘Yes and No’ game (that is, you are asked to reply with either an affirmative or a negative). In these instances your duty is to politely bounce this back. You may have to repeat yourself, but this is fine, provided you do so calmly and engagingly. Interruptions are another favourite. In this instance, just keep calm and in control (but avoid looking smug).
The arsenal of journalistic tactics is almost endless, which is why without preparation or the support of a specialist you will easily fall foul of these basic tenets, creating a worse situation than the one you wanted to avert.
So, don’t underestimate a crisis, don’t be complacent, but be prepared and you will be fine. Omit these basic rules at your peril.
Posted by guest, Maurizio Fantato, member of EVOKE PR Network.