The Truth, the Whole Truth, and Nothing But…

When crisis strikes, leaders of organizations – whether they are corporate executives, nonprofit managers, or elected officials – tend to have one of two reactions when it comes to the flow of information:

  • We should draft a short, factual statement and then stick to our guns, providing no further information; or
  • We need to provide full transparency to the media, answering all questions and providing details about the incident.

Neither of these strategies is effective for reputation management. When such an incident arises, the value that an organization’s communications professional brings is being able to find the balance between these two extremes to manage the crisis while maintaining as much control as possible on the flow of information. The question is, how do we do it?

ImageCredit: Reuters

Say Something

One of the traditional clashes that can occur between an organization’s legal and media departments is over what should be shared in times of crisis. The lawyers are focused on protecting the organization from any legal action; the press office is fielding media calls and is anxious to get something out to satisfy interest. But even after a statement has been developed, it’s important for communications professionals to examine whether that is enough. Reputational damage happens much faster than any decision about legal action. Refusing to provide substantial information can cause very real harm that can take years to rebuild, if full repair is even possible. 

This doesn’t mean that an organization should rush to put their top executive on cable news. Far from it. But communications professionals can take the opportunity to think creatively about other ways to engage reporters, including:

  • Conducting off the record briefings with reporters;
  • Developing a Fact v. Fiction or Q&A document that helps reporters better understand the issue;
  • Facilitating opportunities for the media to speak with stakeholders who can validate the press statement and/or speak to the organization’s integrity;
  • Creating a post to place on social media networks; or
  • Publishing an op-ed in a publication that is well-read by the organization’s stakeholders.

Do you have an example where an organization was tight lipped and it worked against its best interests? Or to its advantage? Provide your analysis in the comments section below.

Say Everything

Particularly when a situation is personal, it can be difficult to convince an organizational leader that restraint can be their best asset. Many victims to reputational attacks respond with a desire to bombard the media with information that may prove their innocence. For corporate executives, an attack on a brand can translate into lost profits. This can often trigger a recommendation for an information overflow to calm interest. In these scenarios, the most important thing a communications professional can do is to hit the pause button. What is in the best interest of the organization? What information are reporters actually asking for? What is the most relevant information to use in response? While transparency and accountability are important, they can also leave an organization vulnerable to further attacks. It is possible to over-expose your organization as an overcompensating reaction to whatever it is dealing with. As the public calls for more information, think critically about what the pitfalls of that information may be. How can you be responsive and honest to stakeholders without digging a deeper hole?

Have you seen a scenario where an organization allowed the public deep access to details surrounding a crisis and it backfired? Or led to its success? Provide your analysis in the comments section below.

Say the Right Thing

When dealing with a crisis situation, rely on a strategy that is responsive, transparent and efficient:

  • Responsive: Answer reporter’s inquiries, even if the response is something as benign as “We will have no comment” or “I’ll let you know as soon as we have something.” This builds a dynamic of respect. Reporters are going on air whether you respond or not, but often times responding can buy you precious time and curry some favor with journalists.
  • Transparent: A commitment to transparency means that the organization will work to answer inquiries and provide information in as open a way as possible. It does not mean answering every single question. Answer the question you want, not the question you get. Frame the discussion, don’t let the context get taken away from you. Clearly define the terms of your answer.
  • Efficient: For most organizations, the goal during a crisis is to get out of the news. That means providing short and direct responses that aim to nullify the story, not perpetuate it. Take caution before introducing story lines that have not been raised. Throwing missiles at another organization or individual can extend the life of the story. Play through the next chapter of the episode before hitting send.

Melissa Schwartz is the Vice President for Strategy and External Affairs at The Bromwich Group, a strategic consulting firm in Washington, D.C. She was among the first students to enter and earn her M.A. in Political Communication from the Johns Hopkins AAP program. Ms. Schwartz has more than a decade of strategic and crisis communications experience in government, the private sector, and at nonprofit organizations. You can contact her at melissa.schwartz@bromwichgroup.com or follow her on Twitter at @MSchwartz3.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “The Truth, the Whole Truth, and Nothing But…

  1. Susan Allen

    Great blog, Melissa. Your questions made me think of a lot of high profile communication crises. BP is a classic case and I noticed that the corporation bought ad time to support U.S. athletes at the winter Olympics. I rolled my eyes. Do you think this tactic will repair BP’s reputation?

  2. Melissa Schwartz

    Thanks for your comment Susan. Full disclosure: I managed crisis communications for the oil spill at the Department of the Interior as part of the Obama Administration’s team. That said, I think that BP has done the best with what they have – it’s certainly time for them to highlight the considerable efforts that have been made to the Gulf community and ecosystems in the Gulf of Mexico. However, as recently as today there was a study that highlighted the after effects of the spill: http://www.nola.com/environment/index.ssf/2014/02/bp_deepwater_horizon_spill_oil.html. If they are smart, they will take on each news item like this that drips out, take responsibility, and take the opportunity to emphasize the work they have and continue to do.

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