Six Questions in Search of Crisis Communications

Mike McDougall
Mike McDougall

Maybe it’s second nature for those of us in the crisis communications field: A sense that something is not quite right. I saw it coming around the corner—team members staring at the flat screen in the lobby with a look of concern that said this was more than a typical breaking news story. The world was entranced as a private plane flew down the East Coast, its occupants apparently unconscious, and headed toward a fate we all knew was coming because of limited fuel in the plane’s tanks.

But for us, it hit closer to home, as the pilot and his wife—both CEOs and prominent members of our community—had offices not far from our own.

So with CNN, Fox News and MSNBC following the saga live, the question hung in the air: Do we contact their respective companies and offer to help?

The financial incentive to dive into crisis projects is one that’s hard to pass by.

Yet in some cases, saying no—as hard as that may be— is the better path for your business, your team and your sanity. While gut instinct may prove a legitimate guide, I’ve found that asking a few simple questions can make choosing which projects to bypass a lot easier.

Is it legal? No matter how much you may want to channel that inner Perry Mason, the accused do not have the right to communications representation. So when the businessman with past convictions for white-collar crime called for assistance with yet another “problem” he was having involving questionable government contract practices, it was better to decline.

Is it ethical? Sure, an issue may be well within the bounds of the law, but will you be able to sleep soundly and be proud to call the organization your client? Look beyond your own ethics and consider your staff; taking on an assignment that causes team members to run for the sidelines is a good indication that you may want to move in another direction.

Do we have the expertise? Having worked on countless crises throughout the past two decades, in my estimation 80 percent of them share common ground; the same general issues and responses bubble to the surface. It would be easy, then, to assume that you could take on any challenge. But that remaining 20 percent—usually dictated by industry, geography or scenario—is what separates the mediocre from the magnificent, and relevant experience is the ticket to success.

Do we have the time? Go ahead and map out the number of hours that the crisis at hand will take to fully address. Now multiply it by three. In a practice where we counsel clients to be cognizant of the unknown, we sometimes suffer from thinking we have all the answers (and consequently lowballing the resources needed to bring the issue to a close).

With reliable estimates in hand, the question turns to opportunity cost. Can we allot the necessary time without compromising other assignments and without creating short-term or long-term burnout among the staff?

Are they able to pay? The email comes flying in, the phones calls are made and the quickly prepared contract is signed. But can this new client meet its financial obligations? A crisis can tax every aspect of an organization, including its cash flow. So before diving in, make sure that you have confidence that compensation is forthcoming; requiring a substantial deposit and even a personal guarantee can help you avoid future headaches.

Are we ambulance chasing? While there can be real benefit to an organization receiving astute crisis counsel while the issue is still unfolding, that has to be balanced with a perception of being too quick to capitalize on misfortune.

In offering your services, consider doing so through a mutual acquaintance who can make a timely introduction. Otherwise, a competitor may swoop in, but you’ll be better positioned in the long run.

And that errant plane? Tragically, it crashed a couple hours later off the coast of Cuba, leaving behind a shocked community, a devastated family and a trail of sensational media coverage.

We held back from reaching out that day; we couldn’t satisfy the ambulance chasing and available time questions. Sometimes, the best course of action is no action at all.


Mike McDougall is president of McDougall Communications. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter, @McDougallPR.

This article originally appeared in the November 17, 2014 issue of PR News. Read more subscriber-only content by becoming a PR News subscriber today.