Paradoxically, the one rule I find people ignore most frequently when facing their own crisis is the most important one: observe the “golden hour.”
The concept: approximately 60% of trauma patients survive if they get treatment – the right treatment – within the first hour – the golden hour. I don't really need to spell out the crisis corollary, do I? To have a chance at survival, you must take action in the first hour.
And yet, most companies and institutions blow right through that golden hour and beyond. They spend it in meetings, calling legal, and trying to figure out what has happened. We hear: “We can't say anything yet; but we don't really know what happened yet; legal hasn't given the OK and we don't want to cause more problems.” Wrong, wrong, and wrong.
I learned about the golden hour when I had a lead role in developing public safety communications protocols for a regional catastrophic planning effort instituted after Hurricane Katrina demonstrated the need for broader planning in advance of major events. I mention this example because it's a little clearer in a disaster response scenario, but the rules are exactly the same for a corporate or institutional crisis.
First and most importantly, get information out within the golden hour. Communicate what you know, and only what you know, reassure people and commit to regular time-horizoned (say hourly) updates. Example: “An explosion has occurred in downtown Boston. First responders are on scene. The general public outside the area is asked to avoid downtown until further notice. We are unsure of the extent of injuries, the cause, or evacuations at this point. We will update at xx:xx.”
This kind of update is put out when you don't know much, but need to offer the public an official statement. It is important to time horizon it so the media and general public know when to check back in. And equally critical, make sure that Twitter and other social media outlets don't retweet and circulate outdated information.
The corollaries for your own crisis?
- Don't wait – get out what you know. And no more. I worked with a terrific zoo in Boston a few years ago. During the assignment, a Kevin James movie was being filmed at the zoo. When the zoo's PR person called me, I couldn't hear her over the news helicopters whirring above. Someone had fallen into part of the movie set and was injured. No one knew yet what had really happened, how, or why. I jumped into a taxi and started drafting a statement. By the time I got to the zoo, there was a media scrum outside. Inside they were trying to figure out what to do and what to say. While they reviewed the draft statement, I went outside to tell the media that someone would be out in 10 minutes, and in the meantime I answered a couple questions on background. It was a remarkable lesson – the media, operating on rumor, thought a visitor fell into the actual lion's den. My report that no, it actually was a fall on the movie set absolutely put a pin in that balloon and half the reporters left. A local tabloid told me the story just went from the full front page to probably a very brief mention. The moral: Don't sit on information.
- You may be light on information, but focus on getting the right tone. Crisis situations are often the time where a company's values need to be on display. For example, you know that there has been a terrible accident at one of your operating locations and there are injuries, but you don't know much more. And, as always, the lawyers are worried about liability. You put the statement out and reinforce the fact that the company's primary focus is on taking care of the injured and their families. A tip: draft the statement like the person involved is a member of your own family. The moral: speak sincerely and the compassion will come through.
Even though you might not have all the facts or consensus on how to respond, remember the “golden hour rule:” you only have an hour to save the patient. Remember that media is already covering the story while you are busy discussing it internally. Don't spend that first hour holed up in senior management meetings. Say something. Be prepared. Follow these rules and the patient just might survive.
Justine Griffin is SVP and head of the crisis communications and reputation management practice at Rasky Baerlein Strategic Communications.