Ask tough questions before answering them

From time to time communities are dealt a crisis of national or even global significance that leaves many questions in its wake and inevitably creates a ripple effect that draws an array of associated parties into the spotlight.

From time to time communities are dealt a crisis of national or even global significance that leaves many questions in its wake and inevitably creates a ripple effect that draws an array of associated parties into the spotlight. The Deepwater Horizon oil spill dominated headlines for months and led to exhaustive inquiries that are still going on today. Wall Street institutions seem to generate a scandal a day ranging from rigging the Libor interest rate to turning a blind eye to the money laundering activities of terrorist groups. Such incidents have bruised the reputations of storied institutions, regulators, board members, CEOs and average employees. 

The most recent example is also one of the most difficult to comprehend. The country witnessed in horror as 12 people lost their lives and dozens more were seriously injured in a senseless shooting at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado. This terrible incident has the entire country feeling a sense of grief for the victims and the Aurora community as a whole.

As human beings, PR professionals share the same personal reaction but as communications counselors, our brains also immediately begin to process the potential implications for our clients.

Our first instincts are to protect. That is our job after all. So it is natural to move into defensive mode and begin to develop plans, statements and positions that insulate our client from the negative event that occurred. But in crisis situations, regardless of the magnitude, we must balance the desire to move quickly and “protect” with the need to act with diligence and get all the facts before making recommendations or taking actions. 

To say that a company's crisis response messages must be backed up by concrete facts sounds like a complete no brainer, but the reality is that PR professionals frequently do not have intimate knowledge of their clients' internal policies and history. When coupled with the instinct to protect (and the need for speed in every crisis situation) it can become a lethal combination, leading to the development of plans and action that represent the ideal, rather than the real. This result of “draft first and ask questions later” can lead to dangerous inaccuracies or half-truths. Well-intentioned clients may approve a statement saying that the company adheres to the highest standards of safety (or what have you), but how does the client demonstrate this in its day to day operations?

To get to the nitty-gritty facts that client counselors may not typically encounter, we must pause and ask detailed questions. What is the actual policy on X? How many employees do we have devoted to Y? How did employees at the scene of the crisis conduct themselves and was it in line with the company's stated policy? What is our track record in this particular area?  Say your client is in the unfortunate position of being accused of discrimination against female employees. Gathering all of the background information on the company's HR policies and initiatives that may be in place to benefit female employees and, very importantly, learning about any past incidents of the same nature, will be critical to informing the content of a public statement. This due diligence process will also influence decisions regarding actions that should be taken to address the situation going forward, whether the accusation was true or otherwise.

In a perfect world management teams would integrate public relations as a strategic function of company operations, helping to prevent situations where the organization's mission and principles do not line up with its policies and actions. As we continue to nudge our clients in that direction, we must remind ourselves of the importance of knowing what we do not know. If we don't ask the right questions, we run the risk of providing guidance that is off base or disconnected from the reality of the situation, which could result in the least desirable outcome of all – doing more harm than good. 

Michael Fox joined ICR in 2002 as President of the firm's Corporate Communications Group, providing corporate and financial PR, executive presentation training and crisis communications. He also co-heads ICR's crisis and transaction group, providing communications support for M&A, shareholder activism/proxy contest, go-privates, bankruptcy and other critical corporate events.

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