The ‘Bad-Facts’ Crisis: Smart Yet Aggressive Communication and Values

[Editor’s Note: Do PR crisis pros think or act differently when entering a situation that they know contains, for want of a better term, bad facts?

For example, maybe there are victims or deaths before the crisis pro is called.

Perhaps there are victims in another sense, such as in the NFL’s situation with Deshaun Watson, where 24 women initially made claims against him.

Or, take the Equifax situation, where the company admitted it sent 300,000 customers faulty credit scores. It’s the second major PR crisis for Equifax.

Our dialoguers are Abigail Greenheck, group SVP, Beehive Strategic Communications, and Daniel Rene, managing director, kglobal. Their remarks were lightly edited.]

Crisis Insider: Is there anything you do differently when you’re handling a PR crisis with bad facts attached to it from the outset?

Abigail Greenheck, group SVP, Beehive Strategic Communications

Abigail Greenheck: First, the thing is to be ready for the type of crisis that’s common in your industry. In the case of a credit reporting company, you can make easy assumptions about what types of crises might happen. Data breaches, for example, and incorrect scoring.

So, if you’re able to, make sure that a crisis plan is in place that would be best-case scenario in a situation where you come in facing bad facts.

But, let’s assume that plan is sorely outdated or doesn’t exist. Making sure that you have all the facts is probably the place I would try to start.

And in the absence of facts, it’s OK to hit pause and develop a holding statement that perhaps doesn’t get into the details until you’re able to actually figure out exactly what those facts are.

CI: And verify sources?

Greenheck: Yes. So, starting with the facts, and then also reflecting on the organization’s purpose, mission and values. That’s always a good grounding place to start with any organization.

You say, ‘OK, let’s look at who you are as an organization.’ Because that ultimately should help guide the tone in which you respond to any sort of crisis.

Those values should guide you through to make sure that you’re speaking authentically to who you are as an organization. Not who you are in that moment in time and in that space of crisis.

CI: So, it sounds like you approach a bad-facts PR crisis more or less the way you approach any crisis?

Greenheck: Yes.

CI: Dan, same question.

Daniel Rene, managing director, kglobal

Daniel Rene: Abigail is spot on, especially with the prepared statements. That’s key.

But the other thing is that oftentimes the people who are asked to speak, who are at the top of the organization, have an overwhelming desire to be defensive. And in this [bad-facts] scenario, you have something to be defensive about.

So, they’ll try to justify poor behavior or try to explain away some of the things they’ve done badly. And we say all the time, ‘If you’re explaining, you’re losing.’

It’s a situation where sometimes the cure can be worse than the original problem.

So, we want to make sure that when we come into these situations we look at how we can address things to our greatest benefit. And part of that is by making sure that we’re not defensive.

CI: For example?

Rene: So, maybe instead of talking about lives lost, we talk about lives saved.

It’s a balance. People want to know how a tragedy happened, and you have to supply that. But you want to try to do a bit more than offer ‘thoughts and prayers’ to victims’ families. You want to actually help.

You do that based on the value system that Abigail talked about. That can help give people affinity for the company. They’ll think about it in a good light instead of a negative one that is brought up in crisis.

So, we can look forward and talk about the things that are being done to solve problems. And talk about that, instead of talking about the problem itself as much as you possibly can.

CI: When you’re in a bad-facts crisis, does fact-gathering move quicker since the facts are there and you might not need to dig as much?

Greenheck: I typically go by the rule of 24 hours. You immediately come out with a holding statement that explains that you are collecting facts.

And then, within that first 24 hours, you need to get your arms around the situation and the facts to the best of your ability.

And then just make sure that you don’t get ahead of yourself and make any assumptions or statements that you’ll have to walk back 24, 48 or 72 hours later.

Rene: I couldn’t agree with you more, Abigail. Look what happened with the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas.

Having to walk back statements is such a tragic moment. It just rips those wounds open over and over and over again.

In a crisis, people thirst for information, but crisis also creates structure.

So, we have to make sure that anything that we say is going to be accurate and can be backed up.

The worst thing that we can do is go out there and make promises or set expectations, that then have to be walked back. So, I am a big fan of under-promise and overachieve.

When you start to address the crisis and fix the problem, the communication around that will never be fast enough for many in the audience.

You have to go out and talk about concrete steps being taken to solve the problem and not necessarily set an expectation of something greater than what you can deliver.

CI: Both of you have been in the business for a while. Do you find that the media’s and the public’s patience is shorter than it was when you started? As you know, media don’t need much more than a mobile phone to broadcast from a crisis scene.

Greenheck: I don’t think that our recommendations change based on media demands.

We have to be very clear with media. You let them know that as soon as we have something to share, we will.

And at least give them some reassurance that you understand their urgency. And make some point of connection with them, as opposed to simply ignoring their phone call.

But at the same time ensure that in no circumstance are you providing false information or premature information.

Rene: Therein lies the challenge, too, because so often people who aren’t necessarily skilled communicators, sometimes the CEO or others, in a desire to try to save the company, or please media, will answer questions and get ahead of themselves.

We counsel folks that communication is an offensive weapon. You’re not there to answer questions just because they’re being asked.

In crisis situations, we’re not there to answer questions; we are there to provide information.

CI: Can you dig into that a bit?

Rene: So, let’s say we’re talking to reporters [in a bad-facts crisis]. Let’s say a power plant is on fire. And they might be asking a ton of questions about who’s gonna get fired over this, why did this happen, that sort of thing.

It’s incumbent upon communicators to make sure we’re also offering vital information.

You know, folks see flames rising up behind the power plant. They want to know if the area is safe or not. So, we need to be talking about the safety elements.

We need to meet audiences where they are. And that means not necessarily just answering questions, but instead delivering the message in that positive, proactive way.

Greenheck: I definitely agree that our role is to provide information.

You don’t want to be putting people in a Q&A situation where it’s going to be a negative for everybody pretty quickly.

That comes back to the timeliness of making sure that you can get out in front of the story as quickly as possible, with as much accuracy as possible.  Because, in the absence of information comes misinformation.

Things can get out of control pretty quickly if you can’t get ahead of it.

Rene: You’re exactly right. In the absence of information, your worst fears will fill in the blanks.

CI: What’s the most important thing about going into a crisis with bad facts? Dan, is it dealing with executives?  Convincing them that you’re a PR pro, not a magician, this is a bad situation and don’t get defensive?

Rene: It depends on the client. Some clients just want to hunker down and not say anything. Others want to over-communicate.

The hardest part is really making sure that we understand what the audience’s concerns are and what the company can do to solve the problem.

The hardest part isn’t necessarily the communication.

So, in the case of a forest fire, we can talk about all of the things that the fire department and the forest service is doing to put out the fire.

But, we still need to get vital information and make sure that what we are talking about is true.

Sometimes, you know, [information in a crisis] isn’t instantly available. We have to go back and do some homework.

CI: What’s the hardest thing about working on one of these bad-facts PR crises ?

Greenheck: I think what we always try to do is go in and counsel our clients on how to lead with empathy in these types of situations. And make sure, as Dan noted, not to get defensive.

Instead, look at it from a human perspective and understand what the various audiences are experiencing and feeling. As much as we can help them, lead with empathy, the better off we’ll be at the end.