The following transcript excerpt is Part 1 of an interview conducted by Chuck Gose of ICology with Paul Barton, ABC, on crisis communication.
CHUCK: So, you’ve had this vast experience in a lot of different industries. What is it – and obviously you’ve had a lot of experience in different channels and technologies – but what is it about crisis communication that interests you so much?
PAUL: I think crisis communication follows the same basic principles as any good employee communication. The difference is that everything gets amplified by a hundred times, and so it’s just a really great opportunity to demonstrate your value to an organization. So when your company needs you the most is when you need to be at your best. Nobody wants a crisis to happen, but when it does it’s just great to see a really well-oiled machine respond to it.
CHUCK: Well that’s a great call to action for communicators – what you said, “when your company needs you most, that’s when you need to be at your best.” That’s a great call to action for communicators at any level of their career because you never know when a crisis might happen, and then when you might be called upon to answer to that. As I mentioned earlier, crises do come in many shapes and flavors, and they can happen to businesses of any size, whether it’s Fortune 100 or a local small business. And especially with social media, I think we’re sort of into defining the word “crisis” maybe a little bit differently where we’ve mentioned some of the examples before of the drought, and Volkswagen, and data hacks being crises, but then some people now sort of see an inappropriate tweet potentially as a crisis. So, Paul, how do you define a crisis?
PAUL: People can get wrapped up in “is it a crisis” or “is it an incident?” To me it’s anything that causes a significant disruption to an organization or anything that can damage its brand reputation.
CHUCK: Okay. And then, do you see social media – is it more of a temporary crisis vs. long-term because people tend to sort of forget it, or do you see it to be just as important as others?
PAUL: Well, I’d say absolutely it’s as important as others, and it amplifies the time that a crisis can spin out of control, and be much faster than it used to be, and it’s an audience that needs to be responded to in a way that we haven’t had to do in the past. And a lot of crisis plans were developed really before social media took off, and so a lot of crisis plans don’t really account for that and have procedures and things in place. Folks aren’t planning and building relationships with those audiences in the way they should for a crisis. Many plans are still focused on traditional media.
CHUCK: And I would imagine that that probably exists too because there’s probably a lot of corporate leaders who maybe aren’t doubting as much. They probably recognize the old value of the press release and, you know, the press announcements, and press conferences. But you’re right. From the social media standpoint, probably time for those crisis plans to be dusted off and make sure they recognize that new digital world, or present digital world, I should say.
PAUL: Social media’s incredibly active over the weekend. So you can leave Friday night thinking everything’s under control, and have something spin into a viral nightmare just over the weekend.
CHUCK: That’s exactly right. So as I’ve sort of gone through my internal communication background, I’ve sort of picked up on three phases to a crisis – just like what people sort of described as different stages of grief. So to these three phases: the ending, which is sort of like the start, I guess, a neutral zone, and then the new beginning. So what I’m going to do is sort of walk through each of these and what role an internal communicator might play in that. So in the ending, there’s that first phase, this is sort of letting go. This is sort of the – when that crisis first happens. So what does, sort of, a communicator need to do right when either they find out about the crisis, or that crisis takes place, immediately?
PAUL: Yeah, it’s similar to the principles you would apply to a change leadership or a change management plan. Typically in that plan, you’d have to create a sense of urgency. Obviously in a crisis that sense of urgency is already there. But I think the communicator’s role is helping frame and define exactly what that urgency is for employees in particular, as to what it is the company is facing, and get that framed properly.
CHUCK: And then the neutral zone, the way I see, this is sort of that in-between time. This is sort of when everybody’s not relaxed in what they’re doing, but the news has gotten out to employees, to the public, people have digested it, and so now the crisis isn’t over, but it’s sort of dialed back a little bit again. So what’s a communicator play in this neutral zone world?
PAUL: If you’re looking at it from a change communication perspective – that’d be the phase where you would look at creating a vision and let people know where it is you’re going. It’s a slightly different twist but very similar to that. I think in a crisis that you need to paint the picture where you’re headed, what it is you’re doing to fix this. I take an approach I call the 3 Hs, where I have folks first approach things from their heart, and allow employees to know how much the emotional side is important before you dive into solutions. An axiom is that people need to know you care before they care what you know. I think that’s equally true for employees just as it is for external audiences. And then from there I move into what I call the heroism phase where you’re really talking about doing the right thing. And it’s key for internal audiences as well to know what it is the company is doing to do the right thing. And then end with messages of hope of how we’re going to get there together and how we all need to work together.
CHUCK: And then there’s now the new beginning, which I guess sounds sort of very Star Wars-ish maybe, but, this is sort of that moving forward. So, in a crisis, everybody knows about it, people have understood what they need to do, now the changes happen, there could be new policies, new procedures, new leadership maybe even after a crisis. What role does a communicator play in this new beginning?
PAUL: Yeah, I think you need just as you would in a change management project, because, again, this is a big change occurring in how people are working. You want to focus on what your short-term wins are to let people know there are some victories and give them encouragement to keep going. I think it’s really key that you don’t let up communications, that you look for those evergreen long-term sorts of things to let people know what change needs to take place and keep reinforcing that change. And then you need to start incorporating it into the culture. I like to think of it in simple terms of – first there is an awareness stage that’s kind of in our eyes, and we begin to think in assimilated so it’s in our minds, and then we become to really adopt it, which is in our hearts, and finally it ends up, if we do it long enough, becomes a habit, and it’s in our work.
CHUCK: And just like I think the 3 Hs, I think those are a good kind of suggest for people to take away as a reminder. In a talk that I saw you give once, you provided a really helpful equation for communicators to balance out communication, because I think often we can, because in a crisis there is a lot of negative in that. The equation you gave was 3P=1N. So talk to the listeners about the history of this equation – what it means, and why 3P=1N, why that’s important.
PAUL: It stands for “3 positives equals one negative.” Essentially you need three positive messages to help counterbalance every one negative messages. It’s a little nugget I picked up from a guy named Vincent Covello who runs a place called the Center of Risk Management, and I’ve adopted a lot of his thinking, and kind of turned it into more of a communicator’s way of approaching it. But, how do you derive positives? I do it by asking three basic questions. The first one is, “what action is taking place?” It’s always better to talk about what you are doing than what you’re not doing. An action can come in a lot of forms. Maybe sometimes the best you can do is that “we’re stabilizing the situation,” you know, that might be the best you can do. But anything you can talk about that are describing the action that you’re taking place to recover from the crisis, you’re good. And then I would ask, “What is the good news?” And that’s often difficult to find in a crisis, but there’s usually something there. It could be, “seven people went to the hospital, three of them were treated and released, the other four expected to make a full recovery.” That might be the best that you can come up with, but look for the good news. And then the third question I ask “who are the heroes?” With an external audience it’s quite often here also the first responders and you want to tell their stories of how they prevented a crisis from becoming even bigger. But there are often employees who are part of that ability to respond as a hero as well, and you want to tell their stories – who reacted quickly and did the right thing that helped prevent a crisis from growing even bigger.
CHUCK: And for those communicators who have been through, sort of many different crises, communication plans, and events that have happened, you always learn something new about the past crisis that you carry in into the next one whenever that time comes. But for those that haven’t yet, there are a lot of channels that communicators have at their disposal, but what are some of the channels that maybe they haven’t thought of that they need to have before a crisis? Even if they never use it other times? But what are some of those key channels or tactics that a communicator needs to have in their tool belt before a crisis hits?
PAUL: Well, clearly somebody in the company needs to create a notification system to make sure that the crisis teams will, as the general employee audience knows what’s going on. And sometimes that’s run through the safety department, but if not, communicators are kind of responsible for creating such a system. There’s really sophisticated systems out there now that you can purchase, but the poor man’s version is really probably a text message. And there are ways of creating email distribution lists that actually can send text messages to all the various different phone carriers that a phone might be on. So that’s pretty key. I also really advocate that people create templates. We have a lot of templates quite often for press releases to get those fired out immediately in the event that a crisis that’s somewhat predictable. In the airline business, of course, there’s going to be a template for a crash, they can fill in the blanks and get that fired out quickly. But sometimes companies forget to create that same type of template for their own employees because they want to know the information quickly as well.
CHUCK: I have a friend of mine is a communicator. They recently had a fire at their facility, and they pulled out the crisis plan, and it worked perfectly. They had the senior leadership know, the communication flow went to the managers, but then they left it up to the managers to communicate to the frontline employees, and they realized the managers had no way of doing that. So we talk about the value of communication audits – no, this is a chance for a communicator to step in and say, “Okay, if this happens,” and just ask a question, “Do we even have the right data? Do we have the right information? Do we have the right tools available to simply notify employees that are both there onsite as well as those that are offsite?” Because they have the issue of employees that know if they were onsite or if they’re allowed to leave or permitted to leave, those employees that were supposed to come to work, they didn’t know if they should or not. So management knew, and leadership knew, and communicators knew, but communicators can add business value.
PAUL: I advocate a policy, I call it the Five Ps. That stands for “predict,” which is for predicting the most likely scenarios that can happen to them, “prepare” for those, the last three are “practice practice practice.” And I run into this a lot with my clients. There are folks who have communication plans, they think they’re pretty good, they may have been updated them occasionally, but they don’t practice them. And when you practice you really need to carry out your plan as far as you can. So if there’s a phone number on there that you’re supposed to call, you can’t just check ‘em off the list, you need to actually call the number. Make sure that the number’s correct. Make sure that the person on the other end of that is the right person – that you know the name, that it hasn’t changed, and jobs, and make sure that you can actually send the things out to the people you need to send them to.
CHUCK: Well, it’s just like what we have on – was it the emergency broadcast system? We hear that weird sound come across your TV. And they say, you know, “This is a test, this is only a test,” and they say “If this had been an emergence, this is how we would use it.” So one of the great ways for communicators to practice their crisis plans is to let people know it’s a test, test it, and then let them know that it is just a test, but if it hadn’t been a test, “this is how we would’ve used this tool to keep you informed.” I think that’s a great way for people to take something they’ve already experienced and apply it in their internal comms world.
PAUL: I think you should drill at least twice a year. And one drill should be an announced drill, where the purpose is just to make sure everyone knows their roles and responsibilities, knows what to do, where to go, that everything’s up to date. Then the second drill is really more of the one about speed. Can we really contact people when we need to after hours, on a weekend, or whatever? But just like all communications, the part that often is the weakness is our evaluation, and that’s really what “drill baby drill” is all about, is evaluating where you’re at. And certainly if you had a real crisis you’d do the same thing and have a little checklist and do an evaluation of how effective your communication is. It’s a great opportunity to learn and get better.
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Listen to the Full Interview
Crisis communication: Top 5 mistakes to avoid (IABC Communication World article)
Why Employee Communication is key during a Crisis (Paul Barton’s Interview with StaffConnect)
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