Freedom of Action and Aspects of The Bad Thing

“Failing to plan is planning to fail, Mr. Bemis.”

I’m going to talk (type; whatever) about some different aspects of a critical incident response – or, as I’m fond of calling them, the Bad Things. The lifespan of the Bad Things during a crisis tends to have a beginning, middle and end – and, typically, there’s a relationship between them.

First Aspect: Freedom of Action – Freedom of Action is the safety barrier behind which you as a public information officer/crisis communicator – and your organization – operate on a day-to-day basis. When you fail to follow your own plan in a crisis (or fail to keep key leadership or shareholders apprised of progress), outside forces will begin to encroach on that barrier, seizing your space and dictating the new terms under which you operate. You seldom get that space back after a misfire. (Seldom.)

And once that erosion sets in, the nightmares begin and strange new fingers begin appearing in your pies:

… the media feeding frenzy escalates as speculation takes on a life of its own … unqualified experts from various disciplines (all wildly unfamiliar with the intricacies of your particular business) publicly weigh-in on “what really happened” … “This Just In!” It turns out this wasn’t a first for your company and Management quietly ignored it last time, so – that’s not good … public tone and sentiment begins to shift; last week’s “feel good” social media campaign blows up in your face – remember the adorable little-pigtailed girl and her puppy? Awww! Well, someone forgot to pay her and she’s got a YouTube channel with twice the amount of followers you do … political cartoonists are tripping over their own pens to make their bones on your back … some random teenager in San Diego hits “send” on a painfully accurate meme she thumbed together in the seven minutes between her Homeroom and English Lit. classes … the “likes” and retweets amass like a mighty wave from that famous Japanese painting (Editor’s Note: woodblock print of “The Great Wave Off Kanagawa.” Thanks, Art Nerd/Blog Art Reference Advisor @madelinead) … every two-bit Internet celebrity and trendsetter is chiming in; as a result, you’re trending – just not in the way you’d prefer … at least one late night talk show host sharpened his teeth against the tender underbelly of your problem in his opening monologue, and another three are lining up … your company name becomes a new verb for screwing up.

You went from “… all the time in the world!” to “… broken glasses … ” in a flash, Mr. Bemis. Congratulations.

Okay, let’s reel it back in.

Now, with a visible win (instead of losing your Freedom of Action through mistakes and then suffering the myriad consequences), you can earn an opportunity to influence your organization’s future media operations at the upper and lower levels, thereby reinforcing favorable behavior and plotting a potential upward trajectory: “We had a plan, we rehearsed the plan, we stuck to the plan and things went well. Let’s continue!” (Dr. Pavlov here. Day One of experiment. Ring bell, dog salivates. A promising start!) Here are a few ways to cement that win, retain your action space – and leverage for more.

Capitalize on your success while it’s oven fresh with a brief but detailed After Action Report – three things that went right, three things that went wrong and three things you’ll do better next time, even if it all went swimmingly. No names, no attribution and speak only to the process. Share this completed product with the right people. Ask the hard questions.

At what level did the crisis begin? Were the employees nearest to the event trained to recognize a crisis unfolding and empowered to act on the company’s behalf? And if not, why not? How wide was the gap between What You Planned For and What Actually Happened? How was the immediate notification to leadership handled? Did you consult your carefully constructed Public Engagement Plan? (A plan by any other name will smell as sweet – providing you use it.) Did the first speaker, post-Bad Thing, lead with a genuine empathy message – one that IN. NO. WAY. rhymed with “thoughts and prayers?” Was your company’s messaging echoed back in the public sphere? How was the media coverage – positive, neutral or other? Were there any negative side stories to influence public perception? How was your overall response time between Bad Thing and celebratory drinks?

“He who gets to the microphone first wins.” If you’re the first one to step up and tell your story – openly and honestly – anything that follows after may be largely anti-climactic, so take charge, and fast. As the first (and best) source of information about the event, your organization has the rare opportunity to diffuse the problem right out; step up and own up – just remember to stay in your lane. Tell the public what you know and what you don’t know right now. Acknowledge that you don’t have all the facts, but then tell them why. Then, tell them that when you know more, you’ll share it – and mean it. People will forgive a mistake. It’s the lies they’re not so crazy about.

“Well, my company’s policy is just to sit tight and ignore _____.” That’s certainly wonderful and I appreciate your position. Just remember, if you don’t tell your story, someone else will – and odds are you won’t like what’s being said.

Second Aspect: Apathy vs. Action It has been said that one should not take advice on a critical matter from those who won’t be around to suffer the consequences. Blame comes early where frustrated community members, customers or stakeholders are concerned, as does the loss of the home team advantage (read: brand loyalty). If your company can afford to sit out a hurricane of bad PR and not care the slightest about their reputation management, well gosh, you probably have one of those cool little flash pens stashed in the inside breast pocket of your plain black suit jacket and I will definitely not look directly into it while you put on your sungla – FLASH!

Where was I? Oh, yes:

Third Aspect: Message Consistency (Or Not) –You can give your top executives all the simulated on-camera media relations training they need to feel comfortable (hint: you totally should give it to them), but this thinking should extend equally to all your employees, especially those interacting directly with your most valuable asset – your customers. Recognizing that you’re entering a crisis is critical. Knowing that the people at the base levels of your organization will say or do the right things under pressure – because they’re empowered and encouraged to do so – is priceless.

Example: You’re standing atop the dog pile at corporate HQ with a megaphone shouting, “We’re a people company!” HQ regularly spends a good chunk of change on “feel good” campaigns designed to “create a buzz in the public sphere” and generate positive conversation. Meanwhile, your employees at the bottom of that same pile, on the ground, are telling elderly people in wheelchairs, marooned overnight in an airport due to maintenance concerns stemming from your airline, “You’re on your own to find a hotel room. Everything is booked. Good luck.” This is exactly what gets companies into hot water, especially when the majority of the world is armed with a cell phone camera and a Twitter account or a YouTube account.

Risk communications training needs to happen up – and down – in order to be effective. Your actions need to back up your words. Suppose you’re the spokesperson for the completely fictitious airline described above. Now, sometimes said company finds it’s “holding all the cards;” when people want to fly somewhere, they’ve got a limited number of options to choose from. If you’re telling the public, “We’re looking into this, we’re doing everything to make sure it doesn’t happen again,” — but then it does, again and again — what’s really wrong? Is this just lip service to your public, knowing you do hold all the cards?

How to best distance yourself from your competitors? Surely, the bottom line is long enough to bend a little on occasion. Doing the right thing shouldn’t be just lip service designed to appease board members or shareholders, or kick off a new social media program. Obviously, the aforementioned won’t happen every day – and, obviously, again, you probably don’t have the control or power to enforce or dictate policy at that level.

But, the Bad Things happen. When they do so in the public information/crisis communication realm, they tend to be terribly important, terribly public and happen terribly fast. How your organization behaves when no one is looking should mirror the way it behaves when everyone is looking. Which is always. Inasmuch as you can – herd cats toward the forces of good.

A wise man (and former Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard) once said, “Transparency of information breeds self-correcting behavior.” Going above and beyond forces the competition to step up their game; a documented win for doing the right thing not only cements your freedom of action and buys you the trust of your leadership, but it creates a brand loyalty among your customers, one that no amount of weekend retreats, groupthink sessions, drum circles or poll results can capture – and it generates the trust that your organization will do the right thing after the Bad Thing.

Now you just have to do it.

Leave a Reply