One would be hard-pressed to locate a business executive who could honestly remember a time when the media environment was as complex as it is today. Not only is there an ever-growing number of new online platforms that emerge every day for executives to deal with, but the media itself can't seem to find its footing in the topsy-turvy milieu.
"The traditional news cycle is gone forever," says David Albritton, vice president of ITT Defense Communications at ITT Defense Electronics & Services. "There is more competition than ever before with 24-hour global access to real-time news that doesn't come from traditional print and broadcast media. [This] fosters that battle to be first instead of worrying about being right."
This certainly puts media executives in a bind, but it also creates a seemingly impossible challenge for communications professionals, who must reckon with these external forces to protect their organizations' reputations, brands and bottom lines in the current crisis-prone business climate.
"It's a wild, wild west of 24/7/365 information flow that is unregulated and uncontrolled," Albritton says. "There are few, if any, barriers for posting anything, anywhere at any time. It's a matter of minutes before your issue is in cyberspace. This makes total situational awareness about your topic almost impossible."
This doesn't paint a very optimistic picture for those communicators responsible for crisis management, but there are steps they can take to help mitigate disasters, regardless of the point at which they are brought in to assess the damage.
Understand your company's place in the context of the media environment. "The pace of news waits for no one, regardless of how big your title is," Albritton says. "Without a timely response, the media information gap will still be filled. Can your company culture handle the resulting storm?"
Perhaps before answering Albritton's question, you should establish whether the communications function is empowered to act in all situations; if it's not, from whom must communications executives get the green light to take action?
That person or department should be briefed early and often about how critical it is for communications executives to be in the know at all times, whether the company is in crisis mode or not. They shouldn't have to play catch-up when things begin to unravel, because the media machine will already be two steps ahead, and what's being reported probably won't be pretty.
Take the necessary planning steps. Before a crisis hits and the media offensive begins, there is a standard process that communications execs can follow to be ready when the ax falls.
According to Christine Nyirjesy Bragale, managing director of Weber Merritt Public Affairs, there are a few crisis plan elements that consistently serve communications executives well--principles for response, contact information, checklists and prepared statements.
Then, she says, the six steps to always keep in mind when developing crisis plans are as follows:
1. Analyze vulnerability.
2. Identify key issues.
3. Develop scenarios.
4. Structure messages.
5. Determine the sequence of a response.
6. Install, test and update.
In terms of analyzing your organization's vulnerability and identifying potential issues, Bragale recommends developing a risk map, in which different issues can be placed in one of four quadrants based on probability of occurrence and the severity of the reputational impact upon occurrence (see Risk Map). Based on the quadrant, issues can be managed, monitored, detected and controlled accordingly.
When a crisis hits and media outreach is necessary, know what works--and what doesn't. "Give the media all the facts as you know them to be true," Bragale says. "Don't go beyond your expertise, speculate or speak off the record."
She offers these additional tips for managing media attention during a crisis:
Prepare solid pitches.
Use personal profiles to tell your story.
Offer expert perspective.
Remember the company's bottom line.
Act quickly, not impulsively. As Albritton noted, failing to address an issue with the media will not make it disappear.
"The public judge and jury make their own conclusions due to your absence," he says.
However, according to Dan Solomon, CEO of Virilion, it's also critical to pause long enough to shape a strategic response that can withstand media critiques.
"No response is sometimes a viable and important option," he says. But remember: Not responding immediately because you are assessing the situation is not the same as saying "no comment." While you are establishing your strategy for dealing with the media, also take time to identify the best spokesperson and venue.
"Decide who is the proper authoritative voice for the response," Solomon says. "Then select the media channel to make a response and make sure your response is heard."
Regardless of your industry, the current business and media environments present innumerable risks to any organization. Getting involved in the fallout that comes with a crisis isn't an option, but it can be an opportunity to demonstrate your skills and make your brand stronger in the end.
"There is always risk," Albritton says, "but that's the cost of doing business." PRN