SAN FRANCISCO–If you face a crisis today and will have to wing it when it comes to responding, you’ve just set yourself up for a second—and perhaps even bigger—crisis, according to one person.
Anthony Huey, who runs the Florida-based firm Reputation Management and who previously worked as a news reporter, focused on three things:
- Helping organizations work with the news media in the positive times
- Helping organizations with the news media in the bad times, to help you “survive that day of Armageddon”
- Helping executives more effectively communicate
“If you wing it during a negative situation, bad things are going to happen,” Huey said in remarks to the NASCUS State System Summit. “My mantra is perception is truth, perception is reality. What the people perceive is what the people believe.”
Two Key Concepts
Huey told his audience there are two key concepts to keep in mind, the first of which is that most people recall little of that which is communicated to them.
“When you have a conversation with another person, when you run a meeting or are on the phone, when you leave that meeting or hang up that phone, those people you were talking to will only retain 20% to 30% of what you said,” he said. “What is the 20% of what you want them to remember? Are you thinking strategically about your content?”
Huey cited the well-known “Marketing Rule of Seven,” which posits that an audience must be exposed to a message at least seven times before it is implanted in their brain.
“So what are you trying to implant? Lots of people just spew whatever comes to their mind rather than thinking what is it you want this person to remember,” he said. “So, in internal communications or working with the media, what is it you want them to remember?”
The second concept, said Huey, is that “while you are talking, at any given time 50% of your audience is not paying attention. Fifty percent of your audience is engaged in a deep personal thought. You need to learn how to become an interesting communicator and learn how to snap the people back. How you communicate through your body language and other ways affects how the people in your communities perceives you.”
The Other Word for Crisis
The one word that sums up “crisis” is “threat,” said Huey. And while there is no way to deal with an Armageddon crisis ahead of time, the best time to deal with a “simmering” crisis is “now,” he said.
Huey said crises are very much about reputation management. Reputation management means three things, he said:
- Protecting reputation before a crisis
- Protecting reputation in the middle of a crisis
- Mitigating the damage that follows
“Those organizations that do a good job on the first two have a far easier, less costly job in mitigating the damage afterward,” said Huey.
What To Do Before a Crisis
Huey told his audience this is his biggest takeaway: “You must have in place a written crisis-communication plan. (In a show of hands, just three people in the room said they have such a plan.) You need to have a plan in place that tells you who is going to communicate, to whom, when and how. Who is your spokesperson? Have they been through some training? There are about 12 audiences to talk to before the media. Do you know your staff and employees are your biggest source of leaks? You need to be telling your employees the same things you are telling the media. That’s how rumors and mistruths get out there.”
What Not To Do
Big, thick documents for dealing with crises are what Huey called “waste-of-time” plans. The best plans are about 20 pages in length, he said.
“The very first page is an organization chart made up of roles that need to be played—not people,” he said. “The number-one role is the crisis communications team leader; this is someone in the organization with the authority to make decisions. The second person is someone who is in charge or writing all external communications. The third box on the chart is someone who is in charge of all internal communications. The fourth person is really an operational liaison; that person changes depending on the type of crisis (such as data breach vs. a natural disaster).
“The rest of the plan, each box, has a FEW pages of granular level action items that that person needs to fulfill,” said Huey.
Other Steps to Take
Make sure to update the plan.
- “Brainstorm weird.” “You’ve already brainstormed normal (disasters.) But ‘brainstorm weird’ means preparing for something weird that might happen, such as an arrest of an employee for something bizarre. That plan can’t be specific as there’s no way to prepare; but it’s best to have in place step-by-step protocols that no matter what happens, you are able to communicate in the same way.”
- Prepare as much as you can in advance. “The more you can get prepared now, the more it’s going to save you in a crisis.” Huey said there are three C’s of crisis communications: Control, Cooperation, Care (the last item is most important, he said).
- Calling it the second biggest takeaway, Huey said, “You’ve got to do live fire drills with your plans. Table-top exercises are almost a complete waste of time. You have to have people go into another room to write a press release. Some people have a Ph.D. in communications but can’t write under stress. You have to have someone else do a (practice) live interview. You will find out who can handle the stress. One thing I’ve found is it’s the minutiae that will kill you in a crisis. By going through the real-life motions you will find where your deficiencies are. The other mistake people make in these drills is you are told the entire situation. But that’s not how it works in reality. Reality is the slow drip of information that comes in over time and you as an organization needs to figure out how you’re going to deal with it.”
- If you have a crisis, there are two words you can never, ever utter to a member of the media: “No comment.” “Sixty-five percent of the American people think you’re lying or hiding,” said Huey.
- Never go off-the-record.