The 5C’s Of Crisis Communications

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on February 20, 2014 – 6:02 am

A crisis strikes your company. News helicopters are flying overhead, reporters with camera crews are showing up at your headquarters, and journalists from all over the world begin calling your communications department. 

That scenario might seem dramatic—and admittedly, most corporate crises aren’t quite that sensational—but it happens. When a plane crashes, a factory has a major explosion, or a university has a school shooting, all of those things happen, and more. 

It’s common for executives to deliver a press conference in those situations—and how well they come across during their early press conferences and media interviews is critical to establishing a strong public perception. 

The 5C’s of crisis communications detail the five critical traits all executives and spokespersons must convey during their press conferences and interviews.   

Press Conference Microphones

 

1. Competence

Early in a crisis—before the facts are known and when company officials are as blindsided as everyone else by the news—it’s easy for an executive to appear flustered, unsure, and tentative. As an example, watch this example of the flustered chairman of a rail company responding to a derailment that killed more than 40 people in Quebec.

The public can’t see how well you perform handling the details of the crisis itself. They can’t watch you delegate roles, see your private meetings, or hear your phone calls. So fairly or not, they will judge your competence based on how well you perform during your time in the media spotlight. Handle a tough press conference with dexterity? You’re deemed competent. Look uneasy before cameras? You’re not.

Lac-Mgantic Press Conference

 

2. Credibility

There’s one question that drives the public’s perception of an executive or spokesperson more than any other: “Does he or she get it?” Anything that undercuts an executive’s credibility threatens their public image for the rest of the crisis, and possibly forever. In some cases, the best way to gain credibility is to concede, rather than defend, an obvious point.

When BP’s former CEO Tony Hayward declared during the worst oil spill in U.S. history that “the amount of volume of oil…we are putting into [the Gulf of Mexico] is tiny in relation to the total water volume,” the public concluded that he didn’t get it. He should have conceded that it was an environmental disaster and stopped there.

Tony Hayward

 

3. Commitment

To set the right tone, executives and spokespersons generally need to express (in words or actions) a deep commitment to communicating with any affected stakeholders, the media, and the general public. Doing so ensures that reporters use you as the primary source and helps communicate your commitment to solving the problem (or at least mitigating its effects).

When Carnival Cruises had a PR challenge in February 2013 after an on board fire knocked out water and power, the company’s CEO got credit for showing up when the ship docked and going on board to  apologize to passengers personally. But the company’s commitment to communicating to the passengers themselves was less effective; many complained that the crew didn’t keep them fully informed about the situation.

Carnival Triumph

 

4. Caring

Little makes the public turn on an executive or public figure in crisis more than someone who’s cavalier toward any victims. As an example, when Lance Armstrong admitted to Oprah Winfrey that he had used performance-enhancing drugs, he took the opportunity to “jokingly” label a former teammate’s wife—who Armstrong had falsely called a liar for years—a “crazy bitch.”

Few executives label victims that way, but they might communicate their indifference through self-focus. If an executive talks about the way he or she has suffered more than the way the actual victims suffered (see Tony Hayward’s “I’d like my life back,”) they will be held in low regard or become outright pariahs.

CYCLING-ARMSTRONG/

 

5. Capability

Finally, the public must perceive that the executive is capable of solving the problem. BP’s Tony Hayward failed that test. So did Susan G. Komen Foundation CEO Nancy Brinker. So did Paula Deen. So did Lululemon founder Chip Wilson.

But Jet Blue’s David Neeleman got it exactly right. When Jet Blue faced a media crisis after canceling hundreds of flights and leaving passengers stuck on grounded planes without food or water for many hours in 2007, CEO David Neeleman responded by releasing a  “Passenger Bill of Rights.” That Bill of Rights offered passengers increasing levels of compensation based on the length of their flight delays.

This interview from The Today Show demonstrated his competence, credibility, commitment, caring, and capability.

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The Ten Worst Video Media Disasters Of 2012

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on December 13, 2012 – 6:02 am

2012 was an election year, so it’s no surprise that politicians consistently committed the types of gaffes that took their campaigns far off message.

This year, we heard about the “47 percent,” “tacos,” and “chains.” But it wasn’t just politicians in trouble–an executive, a football coach, and three broadcast personalities also made the list.

Without further ado, here are the ten worst video media disasters of 2012!

Honorable Mention: Kathie Lee Gifford: How’s Your Dead Wife?

In May, Today Show host Kathie Lee Gifford committed an embarrassing gaffe when she asked comic Martin Short how his wife was doing. The problem? Mr. Short’s wife, Nancy, died two years ago. It’s not that she made a mistake. It’s that her question, asked in that typically “insider” show business way, suggested a much more intimate friendship with the Shorts than she clearly had.

 

10. Joe Biden: “Republicans Will Put You Back in Chains.”

When speaking in August, Vice President Joe Biden used an unfortunate choice of words that instantly triggered accusations of racism. He told the crowd, in which many African Americans were present:

“Romney wants to let the–he said in the first hundred days, he’s going to let the big banks once again write their own rules, unchain Wall Street. They’re going to put you all back in chains.”

Biden denied that his comments had any racial context, but all politicians should have learned to avoid such rhetorical traps from Ross Perot’s infamous 1992 “you people” remark.

 

9. One Mayor’s Pledge to Eat Tacos

When four police officers in East Haven, Connecticut were indicted on charges of beating Hispanic residents, a reporter asked the town’s mayor, Joseph Maturo, “What are you doing for the Latino community today?”

Mr. Maturo’s shocking response—“I might have tacos when I go home”—led to him being blasted by members of the community, the governor, and the media. The rest of the interview wasn’t much better. This may only rank ninth on the year-end list, but it’s my personal favorite of the year.

 

8. Democratic Consultant: Ann Romney “Never Worked”

Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen caused a stir during a CNN interview in April when she said that Ann Romney “has never worked a day in her life.” Many women were offended at Ms. Rosen’s assertion, especially given that Ms. Romney was a stay-at-home mother who raised five boys.

Rosen’s comment, which helped Republicans neutralize the “war on women,” quickly drew condemnation from within her own party. Within days, President & Mrs. Obama, Vice President Biden, White House Spokesman Jay Carney, and Campaign Communications Director David Axelrod all condemned her remark. 

 

7. Football Coach Offers Cash for Injuring Opponent

In a remarkably violent and vulgar audio tape released in April, former New Orleans Saints Defensive Coordinator Gregg Williams was caught offering players money to injure members of the opposing team before a 2012 divisional playoff game against the San Francisco 49ers. About one player, he said:

“We’ve got to do everything in the world to make sure we kill Frank Gore’s head…we want his head sideways.” About another player, he said, “we fuckin’ take out that outside ACL.”

Mr. Williams’ disgusting rant earned him an indefinite suspension from the NFL. May he never spend another moment on a professional, college, high school, or youth football field.

 

6. Clint Eastwood Hijacks Mitt Romney’s Big Night

On the final night of the Republican National Convention, Mitt Romney accepted his party’s nomination to become the Republican presidential candidate. He proceeded to deliver a fine speech. Unfortunately, actor Clint Eastwood–who took the stage minutes before him–stole many of the headlines Romney had earned.

Eastwood took the stage accompanied by a bar stool. For 11 painful minutes, Eastwood addressed the bar stool as if it was President Obama. It was off message, bizarre, and embarrassing–and the news media spent precious minutes discussing Eastwood afterward instead of Romney.

 

5. Rush Limbaugh Calls Student a “Slut”

Bombastic right-wing radio host Rush Limbaugh isn’t known for mincing words – but his vicious attack on Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke was extreme even by his own loose standards. 

Ms. Fluke testified before a Democratic House panel that Georgetown–a Jesuit university–should be required to provide contraceptive care as part of its health insurance plan. Mr. Limbaugh responded by asking if she was a “slut” or “prostitute” who is “having so much sex, it’s amazing she can still walk.”

He didn’t seem to understand that the cost of a woman’s contraceptive care doesn’t correlate directly to the amount of sex she’s having; nor did he factor in the many health reasons women use contraception. But his advertisers understood, and they fled his show in record numbers.

 

4. Susan G. Komen Founder Blows Crisis Response

Susan G. Komen founder Nancy Brinker appeared on MSNBC after her organization cut off funding to Planned Parenthood, allegedly because Planned Parenthood provides abortion services. The resulting crisis was a disaster for Komen that threatened to destroy in a matter of days the favorable reputation it had built over decades. 

Ms. Brinker bombed the interview, during which she claimed that “the responses we’re getting are favorable,” seemingly oblivious to the firestorm around her. She edgily blamed her critics for not “bothering” to read more about their decision and failed to express any reassurance to her supporters who felt betrayed by the decision.

The group’s fundraising took a major hit, with fewer women participating in Komen’s annual races. In Washington, DC, 40,000 women raced in 2011; only 26,000 did in 2012. Similar drops were reported in several other U.S. cities.

Visit NBCNews.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

 

3. The First Debate and the Other Barack Obama Gaffes

From “The private sector is doing fine” to “If you have a business, you didn’t build that,” President Obama offered his opponents plenty of fodder for negative attack ads.

But it was Mr. Obama’s shockingly lackluster performance in the first presidential debate that may have been the biggest surprise, leading to an immediate decline in his poll numbers and a collective freak out by his Democratic supporters, who wondered how badly he really wanted a second term.

During the debate, Mr. Obama responded to Mitt Romney’s attacks without any discernible passion, instead making meandering points full of “uhhhs.” The video below is an edited compilation of some of Mr. Obama’s more than 200 “uhhhs.” It’s emblematic of how hesitant and unfocused he was throughout the debate.

 

2. The “47 Percent” and the Other Mitt Romney Gaffes

Whether saying “I like being able to fire people,” criticizing London about its Olympics preparation during a trip to the U.K., or boasting about his wife’s two Cadillacs, Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney couldn’t get out of his own way all year. But it was his comment about the “47 percent” that may have sealed his fate:

“There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it….My job is not to worry about those people.”

The video was a disaster for Mr. Romney’s campaign, taking them far off their desired messages just two months before Election Day.

 

1. Todd Akin’s “Legitimate Rape”

Missouri’s Republican Senate candidate, Todd Akin, caused an uproar when he used the phrase “legitimate rape” during an August television interview.

But it was what he said immediately afterward that was both scientifically false and terrifyingly ignorant. Speaking about the possibility of a woman getting pregnant after being raped, he said:

“From what I understand from doctors, that’s really rare. If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”

Akin’s comment served as a perfect example for Democrats pushing the theme of a Republican “war on women.” Republicans, aware of the damage Akin’s comment would have on the rest of the party, quickly begged him to quit the race. He refused. And Democratic incumbent Clare McCaskill beat him by a whopping 15 points in a race that favored the Republican challenger in many early polls. 

Although Akin wasn’t alone in these types of comments–Indiana’s Richard Mourdock and Joe Walsh swam in similar waters–his was the most high-profile.

Don’t commit your own media disaster! Learn how to remain on message by reading my new book, The Media Training Bible: 101 Things You Absolutely, Positively Need to Know Before Your Next Interview. Click here to learn more.

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Susan G. Komen’s Bad Week In Crisis Communications

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on February 3, 2012 – 12:49 pm

As you’ve surely heard by now, the Susan G. Komen Foundation ensnared itself in a major corporate crisis this week after its decision to discontinue grants to Planned Parenthood, a women’s health provider that provides abortion services.

The Foundation (kind of) reversed its decision this morning after suffering overwhelmingly negative coverage – but it even got its reversal wrong.

On Tuesday, Komen appeared to have been caught flat-footed when news broke of their decision to defund Planned Parenthood. Their inability to respond swiftly is particularly surprising given that they made their decision back in December. But in a New York Times story, Komen board member John Raffaelli offered some insight into what went wrong:

“Avoiding this kind of controversy was the very reason Komen chose a quiet ending to its relationship with Planned Parenthood.”

 

A “quiet” ending? Seriously, Komen? You couldn’t have anticipated that ending your relationship with Planned Parenthood, an organization that evokes incredibly strong emotions (both pro and con), might generate some controversy?

Komen’s decision to bury their heads in the sand instead of breaking the news themselves is one of the biggest acts of reputational recklessness I’ve seen. In fact, Komen’s initial crisis communications response violated all seven of the seven truths of a crisis.

Komen shouldn’t have waited for Planned Parenthood to break the news. They should have broken it themselves and helped to shape the media narrative. My strong suspicion is that their announcement still would have created a major controversy – but it wouldn’t have been this bad.

They could have pointed out, for example, that Komen gave Planned Parenthood just $700,000 of the $93 million it gave out in grants last year. They could have touted the vital work that their other $92.3 million dollars did last year. They could have expressed their deep commitment to continuing to help women who have benefitted from Planned Parenthood’s services and offered them some ideas about how to receive the care they so vitally need.

TODAY’S REVERSAL

This morning, Komen released a statement reversing its initial decision. It’s a step in the right direction, but the statement itself violates at least three rules of crisis communications.

First, their statement is ambiguous. It reads:

“We will continue to fund existing grants, including those of Planned Parenthood, and preserve their eligibility to apply for future grants.”

 

What does that mean? Komen seems to be preserving its right to cut off Planned Parenthood’s funding again next year. That’s a non-committal statement, at best, and looks like a temporary salve.

Second, Komen CEO Nancy G. Brinker (sister of the late Susan G. Komen) wrote:

“We believe it is time for everyone involved to pause, slow down and reflect on how grants can most effectively and directly be administered without controversies that hurt the cause of women.”

 

Sorry, Ms. Brinker, but you’re hardly in a position to lecture your supporters right now. Instead of telling your supporters that they should “slow down,” you should only express your own commitment to getting this right.

Third, her awkward phrasing makes it look like Komen just wants to make this episode go away:

“We urge everyone who has participated in this conversation across the country over the last few days to help us move past this issue.”

 

Your supporters don’t want to “move past” this issue, Ms. Brinker. They want to be heard, reassured, communicated with, and respected.

CONCLUSION

Conservative groups are already denouncing the Komen Foundation’s decision to fund Planned Parenthood. Komen’s statement said that they “do not want our mission marred or affected by politics,” but it’s far too late for that. Their decision to defund Planned Parenthood made that impossible.

The Komen Foundation will now be seen by large swaths of the American public as either anti-abortion or pro-choice. For most of its history, Komen didn’t have to choose sides in that debate. But because of Komen’s lousy management decisions, the American people will now make that decision for them.

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  • About Mr. Media Training

    The Mr. Media Training Blog offers daily tips to help readers become better media spokespersons and public speakers. It also examines how well (or poorly) public figures are communicating through the media.

    Brad Phillips is the Founder and Managing Editor of the Mr. Media Training Blog. He is the president of Phillips Media Relations, a media and presentation training firm with offices in NYC and DC.

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    Before founding Phillips Media Relations in 2004, Brad worked as a journalist with ABC's Nightline with Ted Koppel and CNN's Reliable Sources and The Capital Gang.

    Brad tweets at @MrMediaTraining.

    Christina Mozaffari is the Senior Writer for the Mr. Media Training Blog. She is the Washington, D.C. vice president for Phillips Media Relations.

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    Before joining Phillips Media Relations in 2011, Christina worked as a journalist with NBC News, where she produced stories for MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews, NBC Nightly News, and The Today Show.

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