Friday, May 25, 2012

Three Crisis Comms Tactics Better than Speed

PR folks and crisis communicators spend a lot of time talking about how fast companies have to be in order to survive a crisis. Getting out of the gate fast is critical to success. But fast isn't the only thing a company has to be to weather a PR storm. In fact, fast isn't even the most important thing a company needs to be in a crisis.

The Indianapolis 500 is this weekend and speed thrills, but it doesn't often win.

In the last 101 years (96 races), only 20 drivers won the pole position went on to win the race. Another quirky stat, 19 times the driver that had the pole position wasn't the fastest driver to qualify (Indy 500 rules give the pole position to the fastest driver on the first day of qualifying.) You have to be more than quick to succeed.

Getting back to crisis comms, there are three important tactics that can be more determinative of success than speed.

Consistency
In the early days of a crisis, the pace of work required of communicators is overwhelming. As the workload shrinks (and it can shrink rapidly if someone else has a crisis that's more dramatic than yours) make sure your team's production stays high. You don't have to Tweet every three minutes, but you do need to keep the people impacted by the crisis in the know. Crises have a way of circling back around for a second or third wave. Staying consistent helps you maintain a credible place in the comms environment.

Clarity
Most crises are complex events, yet people crave simple explanations for what's happening. Keep your messages as simple as possible so that your key audiences never have to struggle to figure out where your company stands on what's happening. The clarity bonus is especially important as others weigh-in on your adverse event. Conspiracy theories abound in a crisis. Conspiracies require complexity to survive. Clarity is the conspiracy killer, so keep it simple.

Honesty
This is the single most important tactic you have in a crisis. It's human nature to want bad news to turn to good in times of great stress. If it wasn't, Hugh Grant wouldn't make movies. Facts are unfavorable to your company's reputation in a crisis, but don't try and convince people that those facts are anything other than what they are. If you spend less time trying to convince them of something that's not true and more time communicating your response, you will have a greater, more lasting impact over the arc of the crisis.

I'm advocating a complete response, not just a fast response. Crisis communicators need to know what the drivers at the Brickyard know. You can be fast and still fail.

Bill Salvin


57 comments:

  1. Part of our belief at Ketchum -- one that I co-authored -- is that great crisis leaders exhibit: Credibility, Focus and Imagination.

    This meshes nicely with your post. Consistency and Clarity are functions of both Credibility and Focus. Honesty a subset of Credibility.

    Perhaps the only missing ingredient is Imagination -- to tell your story persuasively to cut through the clutter, to anticipate worst-case twists and turns, etc.

    Hope this helps. I always enjoy your posts.

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  2. As a former consumer of crisis communicator information--a journalist--I would add one more attribute to the list: Availability.

    When a crisis is of public interest or nature, there's a shotgun marriage of sorts between the PR person and the media. Clarity, consistency and honesty are paramount, even admirable. Availablity, even when information remains static ads to the cache of the relationship. Frankly, I always believed Availability went hand-in-glove with Honesty. Successful management of crisis information is found in the transparency afforded by Availability and Honesty; the result is the desired Managability that too often is the horse put before the cart of the previously two mentioned legs of this stool.

    But I like the post and admire the succinctness of the trilogy. Thanks

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  3. Timothy Sullivan (via LinkedIn)May 27, 2012 at 8:38 AM

    Bill, Great thoughts. I always really enjoy your comments. Having been through both sides of Crisis Comms as a 36 year professional military officer & PR guy I think you've nailed it...especially in the honesty /credibility part. I have always pushed that with my bosses & if they didn't follow it..it usually caught up & bit us. My only small edition would be for the team/company to have hopefully anticipated & done the "Planning/Preparation" ahead of time. When bad things do go bump in the night (and they will) our Standard Operations will be...what? Have that SOP down and have prepared internal & external comms plans ahead of time. Thanks so much for sharing & keep them coming.

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  4. Tim-thanks for reading and for taking the time to add your thoughts. Preparation and planning are so critical and often over-looked. People tend to go into a crisis and make it a pick-up game instead of having a team in place, trained and ready to go. Things definitely go bump in the night. Always late at night. Right after you've just dozed off. Thanks again.

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  5. Bob Aronson (via LinkedIn)May 27, 2012 at 8:40 AM

    Great points Bill and might I add this. Crises, real crises are difficult at best but the easiest part is the beginning when no one really knows anything. it is when details start coming out that crisis management becomes more difficult.

    When a crisis hits either you take charge of your messages or someone who doesn't care about you will. In the great majority of crises you can comment immediately even if you have nothing to report.

    "We don't know yet what happened but we are sparing no effort to find out and we'll be back here to fill you in with details as soon as we have them. Count on us to be truthful, to investigate thoroughly and to tell you what we know when we know it. If you get information from any other source we'd like to know about it. We'll be available by phone 24/7 and w

    A statement like that can go a long way if you follow through on your promises. If there is death or injury involved then the statement has to begin with something like:

    "We are all deeply saddened by today's events and are doing everything we can for the victims and their families. We have assigned a special team of people to attend to any need the affected people might have. They are our top priority in all of this,etc etc. In the meantime...."

    The person who delivers these words should not read them...they must come from the heart. You can read all the rest of the statement but the initial words must come from someone who shows compassion and has direct eye contact with the audience.

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  6. Bob, I love your observation that the beginning of a crisis is the easy part. It is so true. You can get through 24-hours with simple responsiveness. Beyond that, you'd better have a good plan that you've practiced. Thanks for reading.

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  7. Michael Nayor (via LinkedIn)May 27, 2012 at 8:41 AM

    Speed is important in the context of (1) controlling the dialogue and (2) demonstrating you are on top of a situation. A communicator cannot be placed in the position of being reactive. If facts are not yet available just say so. Clarity, honesty and consistency are are "musts" no matter what stage of the crisis you are in.

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  8. Michael, speed is important, especially in those critical first hours when everyone is scrambling to figure out what's going on. When you say a communicator cannot be placed in the position of being reactive, I'm curious how you pull that off. You can't begin to communicate in a crisis until something's happened. Do you mean that how you respond to an adverse event should be (more or less) planned ahead of time? If that's the case then I agree with you. Also appreciate you taking the time to weigh in here.

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  9. Jerry Bryant (via LinkedIn)May 27, 2012 at 8:48 AM

    I generally refer to "Clarity" and "Honesty" as accuracy and transparency but regardless, I agree with your list. However, I don't agree that these are "more important" than speed. Speed is required to get out in front of the issue. Consistency, clarity and honesty are what allow you to be authoritative. If a story takes off without your message then you face the risk of damage already being done and are playing catch up. Even if you get stories updated to carry your statement, that might be too far after the fact. In my experience, success is a combination of all four factors.

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  10. Jerry, thanks for reading and for taking the time to weigh in. It is difficult to say one tactic is more important than another...especially when each is most important at different times of the crisis. Speed has to be the priority in the early stages as you point out. The other tactics take on greater importance as the event moves down the road. I appreciate your insights.

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  11. Bob Aronson (via LinkedIn)May 27, 2012 at 10:40 AM

    Absolutely...no plan, no company. You are right on target. Crises are never a question of if...it's when?

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  12. The challenge is to be consistent from the first message. How do you do that? It's a challenge because in the first moments or hours, not all information is available. New information will surface that can challenge or undermine the original message, and erode trust. Managing outbreak comms for WHO, we learned that we had to be clear, fast and honest about what we didn't know. That sets the tone for the relationship. Getting experts or doctors to say "I don't know" is a challenge but in planning exercises they can see the value, and the risk of giving a firm answer with incomplete information.

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  13. Adam Roscoe (via LinkedIn)May 27, 2012 at 4:55 PM

    In my experience, piling on trained*, expert resources (technical, legal, financial, hr, comms, security etc) instantly is key to getting ahead of the curve. You can always stand people down as the situation becomes clearer, but having to 'staff-up' four or ten hours into the storm is a prescription for disaster.

    *Having trained people is critically important to avoid the 'headless chicken syndrom' - or, even more dangerous - the senior guy who thinks he should be taking hold of a crisis, but who has not been trained... Act in haste, repent at leisure. Recent denials of a 'problem' in a certain bank, followed by incontrovertable proof of a really big problem destroy reputation.

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  14. Nice observation, Adam. As long as the roles for each of the experts are clear than I'm with you all the way. I've seen people pile on resources only to have the response grind to a halt because people with a seat at the table don't stay in their lane. Appreciate you reading and taking the time to give us your thoughts.

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  15. Christiana Pirasmaki, MBA (via LinkedIn)May 28, 2012 at 8:28 AM

    Minimize the losses is the aim and go out of the picture as fast as posible is crutial. Still crisis comms may not risk the do nots neither the real causes of the crisis in order to be able to reach recovery stage.

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  16. Hi Christiana-Doesn't the goal of minimizing the losses so as to get out of the picture run the risk of having the company look as though it is trying to minimize the crisis and hide? If by "minimize the losses" you mean solving the problem and taking care of those impacted, then I think you achieve your goal of moving the crisis beyond the initial headlines. Thanks for reading and for sharing your view.

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  17. Michael Nayor (via Linked In)May 28, 2012 at 12:29 PM

    A spokesperson needs to take charge of the dialogue
    and avoid merely reacting to inquiries and questions that are most often,
    unfavorably crafted . By doing this you can set the tone of the
    discussion, frame the description of the crisis, the actions
    taken to date and the updates. Additionally, you can anticipate the
    questions. This is a much better format than reacting to inquiries and
    being on the defensive.

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  18. I agree Michael. You can respond with actions taken o solve the problem whether or not you're asked about it. Set a tone of responsiveness and the crisis will dissipate faster. Thanks again for the comment.

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  19. If you don't know how to fix the crisis - sit on your hands and do not make it worse.

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  20. Paul Remy (via LinkedIn)May 29, 2012 at 4:44 AM

    Excellent point! Speed and accuracy becomes a must on crisis management

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  21. Thanks, Paul. Inaccuracy on the part of the media is not a problem for the media. It's a problem for the company. If the company is inaccurate it can often be fatal to your reputation. Appreciate the comment.

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  22. To the point of sitting on your hands if you don't know how to fix the crisis, I'm not sure I agree. Sitting on your hands seems guaranteed to make things worse. I'd rather you understand that your crisis comms efforts may fall short of perfect and accept the risk to take action. I do agree that you shouldn't make things worse. Thanks for the comment.

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  23. Todd William (via LinkedIn)May 30, 2012 at 4:16 AM

    great points @bill sometimes a rush to respond, often based on incomplete information, results in PR missteps that prolong the damage

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  24. Brian Keeter (via LinkedIn)May 31, 2012 at 8:04 AM

    In addition to the previous comments, I would add full disclosure and empathy to the mix. Accuracy is clearly a must, but anything less than full disclosure of what’s internally known as factual understandably creates skepticism and doubt, either short-term or long-term when it’s eventually revealed. It’s also critical to demonstrate genuine concern for those impacted.

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  25. Thanks for the comment, Brian. I agree that transparency and compassion are vital to the response. Skepticism comes quickly if you don't give people a full picture of what's going on. I appreciate you reading and taking the time to share your thoughts.

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  26. Genie Umali (via LinkedIn)May 31, 2012 at 10:57 AM

    In addition, it is to my opinion, psychology too, plays a vital role in any crisis. Public or private in nature, the person in charge of the crisis should not only be consistent, clear, credible and honest in what is being said and written. He should, on the other hand, also be able to display and exhibit all these in his action - in his body movements, facial expressions, voice and the like.

    The discussion was worth reading.

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  27. Genie, I'm glad you found the discussion worth your time. Thank you for reading and taking the time to comment. Non-verbal communications plays a huge part in people's perceptions of spokespeople. What we know from research on non-verbal comms is that you communicate with your whole body. If the messages are authentic, then the non-verbal communication will be natural. Gestures, especially, are connected to the words that you say. Thanks again for reading.

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  28. Gerald Baron (via LinkedIn)June 1, 2012 at 5:01 PM

    Great observations, as always Bill. I like your contrarian thinking. while I totally agree that speed is not everything, I do believe that the epitaph of too many corporate reputations is "too little, too late." often, there is such emphasis on getting it right and so many cooks stirring the "get it right" pot that when they do get it right they are too late. Speed alone doesn't win, but neither does getting it right without speed. The answer to me is in careful preparation of the initial messages in advance of an event, including all necessary approvals so you can acknowledge the event, provide initial response details, and buy some time to get the major messages right.

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  29. Gerald, thanks for reading. You've hit on a vital challenge in a response: keeping people from being "helpful." When I say helpful, I mean obstructionist. Lawyers who want to wordsmith instead of providing legal advice. HR folks who tell you about all the policies that may or may not apply. And others. Getting those approvals squared away ahead of time is key, as you point out. Communicators need rules of engagement and then they need to be trusted to carry them out. Hope all is well with you.

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  30. Ted Vollmuth (via LinkedIn)June 2, 2012 at 8:06 AM

    If you don't have the right message crafted and a plan on how to present it, speed may be your enemy. Take the time (but not too much) to come up with an honest response that is transparent and simple. Don't embellish or try to sugar coat the crisis....it is what it is. Above all show concern and a determination to resolve the crisis.

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  31. Ted, a simple and honest response is exactly what you need. One of the best leaders I ever worked with in a crisis said "Play it straight. We'll be fine." In the midst of chaos, those words helped the entire team get its work done without being overwhelmed. I appreciate your comment.

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  32. Tripp Frohlichstein (via LinkedIn)June 2, 2012 at 8:07 AM

    Perhaps the best response to a crisis is "all of the above" and more. It is about how you respond in terms of tactics but it is also about how you respond in terms of actions. You can be fast, consistent, clear and honest, but if you take the wrong actions in response to a crisis, it can still be disastrous. This also works the other way. Take the right actions and then failing to communicate them can also result in big problems. So it really is all one big package... with the idea that every crisis is going to be different requiring a different mix of words and deeds.

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  33. Tripp, thanks for taking the time to weigh in. You make a critical point... that operations have to work and your communications have to work. If either is falling short, the response will be ineffective. It really is all one big package. Thanks for reading.

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  34. Jude Mordi (via LinkedIn)June 3, 2012 at 7:58 AM

    Thanks Bill for this topic. First I believe there should be empathy and that willingness to resolve the issue. Then a project type approach with all relevant stakeholders being in the total picture and contributing positively. Project type approach means being proactive there should have been a clear cut structure and activity chart in place as a template for crisis management in the organisation. Here all press releases and authorisations would have been clearly detailed. This document should be accessible to all members and clearly comprehended and understood by all.

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  35. Jude, thanks for the comment. Empathy is absolutely required in a crisis. Something negative has happened to someone and every action should be taken to resolve the problem. As for a project approach, I agree with that, too. You have to tackle the challenges one-by-one over the long course of the crisis, even after the media has departed.

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  37. Maysoon Zayed (via LinkedIn)June 4, 2012 at 8:38 AM

    I would like to add that providing stakeholders with a sense of transparency, accountability as well as empathy, are all equally as important as to how fast the organization reacts to the crisis.

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  38. Maysoon, I appreciate your comment. There are many things you have to do correctly in order for a response to be effective. transparency, accountability, as you mentioned, are right near the top of the list.

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  39. Kathleen Bourchier (via LinkedIn)June 4, 2012 at 8:39 AM

    Accuracy.

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  40. Thanks for the comment, Kathleen. Accuracy is always a priority. How do you deal with that when information changes or when the first reports from the field turn out to be inaccurate? I'd be interested in your thoughts.

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  41. Jay Robb (via LinkedIn)June 4, 2012 at 9:10 AM

    It helps if you go into a crisis with a healthy balance in your organization's trust and forgiveness account. Very hard to dig yourself out when there's a negative balance. Tend to be immediately cast as the villain & guilty party. If other stakeholders don't come to your defense, you've got bigger problems than the crisis at hand. Agree that speed is key. Could you imagine the Tylenol scandal today? The first death was reported on Sept. 30, 1982. J&J didn't announce its recall until Oct. 7.

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  42. Great observation, Jay. Thanks for reading and commenting. It's always best to get to know key stakeholders in advance of a problem. To the extent that's possible, communicators and companies should have a healthy, positive balance in the trust account. The worst time to meet your neighbor is during a crisis.

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  43. Chris Westinghouse (via LinkedIn)June 4, 2012 at 9:28 PM

    This has been a valuable discussion and I see much that I fully endorse, including the three points in the original blog. The fundamental purpose of all corporate communications / PR (including crisis communication) is to create awareness, understanding, respect (and a little bit of affection, if you can achieve it) between an organisation and its publics. If you keep this in mind it's not too difficult to manage just about any crisis - you do whatever is necessary to protect the quality of the relationships that you've been servicing during the non-crisis periods. Honesty, integrity, transparency, even confession of error, are all things that will protect the longterm relationship, even if they expose you to short-term pain. It's a lot like marriage - the same things that destroy marriages are the things that undermine and destroy our relationships with our publics. I think of crises as intense periods of focus that represent opportunities to strengthen reputation in the long run that would otherwise not have emerged - they are windows, gifts even, of unique opportunity. If you manage them badly, though, they kill you. If you manage them well and with integrity, your publics will probably end up liking you even more - even if they'll only admit it next week. The only unpredictable players are the intermediaries that will force their way between you and your publics, and by this I refer to the media. They are the wildcards. You may be fortunate to have a crowds of savvy, responsible, probing and exercised press all over you - or you may find yourself hounded by young, inexperienced, "I wanna make a name for myself" deviants with short attention spans. Which of course leads us to consider complex issues relating to channels etc., which I guess we don't want to get into right now - save to say that speed tends to become a more pressing issue in the social media aspects of crisis action (and response).

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  44. Chris, thanks for taking the time to read the post and comments and for joining the fray. You're right, a crisis can be an opportunity to prove or to make your reputation. Integrity will rule the day, even through the short-term pain. Play it straight and take care of those impacted and that will carry the day. If you get some luck along the way, use it. If you commit an unforced error, fix it. I really appreciate your thoughtful comment.

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  45. Roberto "Bob" Nelson (via LinkedIn)June 4, 2012 at 9:36 PM

    Mr. Bill,

    Yet again, a nice read that makes lots of sense. In my opinion, timeliness and honesy have to be the key drivers out of the gate. If you cannot get these two to synch up, you are in trouble bubba. To accomplish this I remain a true believer in the in-person stakeholder relationship building model. With the SM scene becoming more and more preavalent in a crisis situation and the lack of funding for travel budgets, if you lose the credebility battle because you have been absent in the communities where you operate or do business, you are again in trouble. We are humans and need to interact with one another and see the white in each other's eyes. Relationships built on open and honest commuincations create supporters of your message when the crap hits the fan.

    Back to work...

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  46. Bob, it was great to see your name here. I appreciate the comment and I hope all is well. Face-to-Face communications is as powerful as ever. Even in the social media world, real-word relationships (as opposed to virtual ones) can really help when things are going south. As you rightly point out, we humans have to engage in the human interaction of communication to truly connect with folks. If you look at companies that have survived crises, it's because they have done the work to know their neighbors and take care of them on a bad day. Hope to see you soon, my friend.

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  47. Tine Grarup (via LinkedIn)June 24, 2012 at 10:12 AM

    An interesting discussion with some very good points. To add to what have already been mentioned I believe that speed is important especially when protecting stakeholders from harm, which should be the first priority in a crisis. This involves addressing the ethical responsibility of helping stakeholders to cope with both the physical and psychological concerns, before focus is turned to reputation management. This will only benefit the reputational rebuild in the long run.

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  48. Thanks for the comment, Tine. You are absolutely right that a focus on protecting stakeholders from harm will benefit your reputation. Actions always speak louder than words, especially in a crisis.

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  49. Ted Vollmuth (via LinkedIn)June 24, 2012 at 10:13 AM

    Speed without a good crisis plan can send your message into a free fall. Get the message out in a timely way, but make sure it is solid and on target to cool down the crisis.

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  50. Ted, great point. As long as the message is focused on actions to solve the problem, you have a good chance of cooling things down. The actions have to be concrete and more about protecting people than the company's reputation. I appreciate you reading and taking the time to weigh in.

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  51. Speed is critical at the very early stages so as to know the nature if the crisis an how people have been affected, all these for a timely response so as to reduce the impact of the disaster on the affected. I strongly agree when you say each of the tactics are important at different stages and there is none more important than another. Thanks for sharing this piece it was a great read.

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  52. Martin Riecken (via LinkedIn)July 25, 2012 at 7:16 AM

    While many messages are "standard protocol" in a crisis situation, it is also important to get an idea about WHAT the company/organization wants to communicate and what strategy it wants to pursue. Do we deny, justify, apologize, or simply acknowledge? Remember that the first message sets the tone for all future communication measures

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  53. Thanks, Martin. I appreciate the post. I agree that the company should have an idea about what it wants to communicate. That "what" needs to be directly tied to "what" the company wants to do operationally to solve the problem. Crises have two sides: the comms side and the operations side. Both have to be working well for a successful response.

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  54. Mark Clark (via LinkedIn)July 25, 2012 at 7:23 AM

    'Pity, Praise, Promise' always works for me..without going into too much detail about the incident itself..Pity the customer/individuals; Praise the hard working team putting it right; promise to have a root and branch investigation to discover the cause...at least its a well used strategy to buy some hours...

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  55. Mark, thanks for sharing your mantra. I've used empathy, actions, people to try and get me to roughly the same place you suggest. I appreciate you reading.

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  56. Shawn Bastin (via LinkedIn)July 25, 2012 at 7:25 AM

    I'd like to emphasize that these points would apply to both internal and external communications. As someone that serves on a forward deployment recovery team, we have to quickly gather information and pass it up the line as fast as possible to ensure the most appropriate response. If we follow these points internally, external communications should have a better answer to fend off the rumors in the never ending news cycle.

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  57. Shawn, thanks for taking the time to read and post. I appreciate it. You're right that the points apply to internal and external communications. The difference is shrinking between what is said outside and what is said inside. That's especially true during a crisis. The more everyone hears and reads the same message the more effective the communications aspect of the response will be.

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