by Steve Adubato, PhD
Being an effective communicator is not a science, it’s a craft. But that doesn’t mean the communication game is a crapshoot. There are some basic dos and don’ts but the problem is, even if you do all the right things when communicating, it doesn’t guarantee you will get the desired result. This is especially true when it comes to communicating in a crisis. However, there are some professionals and communication experts who have a better batting average than most when it comes to advising clients in difficult and stressful situations. One of those experts is Karen Kessler, co-founder of Evergreen Partners, Inc., an award-winning public relations company in Warren, NJ that offers reputation management and crisis communication services for clients ranging from public officials, private corporations, public corporations, professional athletes, and other high profile individuals.
Recently I spoke with Kessler about some of the most common mistakes professionals make when communicating during a crisis, as well as some of the “best practices” that have proven effective when your back is against the wall, the heat is on, and you must communicate in a clear, concise and credible fashion under pressure. Here are some of the highlights from that conversation:
--Never say “no comment.” According to Kessler, “If you're going to say ‘no comment,’ why don't you just tattoo on your forehead—‘I'm Guilty’—because that’s how it appears to the public. NEVER say it.” Kessler is so right. It is amazing to me that so many professionals offer “no comment” as part of a public statement when they can easily say something like, “I’m not in a position to speak publicly on this matter.” Even though you are not commenting publicly, you are not using those words, “no comment”, which are two of the most damning words in the crisis communication game.
--Take time to analyze a situation before you react. Kessler says that too often when a crisis occurs, people overreact before truly taking the temperature of the situation. Says Kessler, “You may think it is really hot, but the truth is, it’s not as hot as you think.” Kessler recommends that you analyze the situation and see how much ammunition you need before moving forward.
--Social media is everywhere. When it comes to a crisis, Kessler reminds us that; “Everyone's a reporter. Everybody's a journalist. Everybody with a cell phone has a camera, everybody can tweet about it and get it out there--there are no secrets.” So true. Any professional that is delusional enough to think that an e-mail they write or something they post on Twitter or Facebook doesn’t have the potential to become part of the public discourse is making a dangerous mistake. This reality makes the crisis communication game more challenging than ever before.
--Always have a strategy. In my book, “What Were They Thinking?”, one of the biggest mistakes corporations and organizations made was not having a communication and crisis communication plan. Karen Kessler argues that more often than not, an organization will wait until a crisis occurs before putting a plan together, which she says is a definite don’t. Says Kessler, “You must have a strategy. You cannot be on the fly--and that's one of the biggest problems we see. Something happens, people react—or overreact—and communicate too quickly, and the reverberations just go and go.”
--Honesty is the best policy. When faced with a crisis, says Kessler, “I expect full disclosure from our clients. I won’t put Evergreen’s name to a story that’s not true. This is not about fairy tales--there's just too much at stake.” Telling the truth. Simple communication advice but still about the best advice you are ever going to get in a crisis, or, in your average every day business situation.