Having the mental readiness and decision-making ability is essential, but knowing when to act is vital. Effective responses begin with understanding the patterns, i.e., what works, what doesn’t and why.
The key is to reinforce trust while preserving the integrity of the organization. To do this, public affairs professionals need to identify and advise leaders on what can be disclosed without unnecessarily acknowledging blame, guilt or liability.
What To Do
Be the First-Mover
Whenever there is a public issue, there is always a first-mover – an individual or organization that communicates first. Typically, whoever is the first to define three things will be the one who controls an event's interpretation:
- The nature of the issue.
- The responsible organization's motives.
- The responsible organization's actions.
If the impacted organization effectively addresses all three of these, this will likely show stakeholders a level of care.
Manage the Issue
Being the first mover is not just about speed; it's about effective and prompt communication. Setting response priorities can mitigate damage to your reputation. Ignoring or attempting to shortcut these priorities can do permanent damage. You should attempt to gain control of the narrative and acknowledge the issue(s) in a timely manner.
Stop the Production of Victims
- Identify problems and set response priorities.
- Deal with underlying issues first.
- Resolve the problem by addressing key issues.
Failure to stop producing victims makes your response, no matter how competent, look weak, timid and incompetent while undermining the organization's reputation (Lukaszewski, 2012).
Manage the Victim Dimension
Think of every major disaster story of the last 50 years: the Space Shuttle Challenger, Hurricane Katrina, the Titanic. The biggest, most lasting stories involve the victims (Lukaszewski, 2012).
- Focus on the victims' needs to help them move through the state of victimization.
- Do not attempt to silence victims.
- Concentrate on empathy. Be a good human - people are hurting.
Communicate Internally Immediately
Inform, educate and script your unit promptly using brief but frequent short statements. This communication should run up and down the chain to include briefing your commanders.
Notify Those Affected Indirectly
Your external stakeholders are those who have a problem that this issue created. Friends, families, relatives, neighbors, regulators, governments, allied organizations and interest groups should hear from your organization as soon as possible.
Manage the Self-appointed Media
Be aware that social media and smartphone journalists have the tools and power to activate their agendas and distribute a biased perspective quickly. Have a plan to address the back-seat drivers of information.
Find the Right Words
- State awareness through fact-based messaging that an incident or issue has occurred.
- If there are victims or people impacted by an issue, there should be an expression of empathy or sympathy.
- Reaffirm the organization's core values concerning the issue.
- Provide a summary of the actions related to the issue response.;
- Set future expectations that demonstrate an organization's commitment to caring.
Do Respond at the Right Time
Digital communication makes it much harder to grab the first-mover advantage. Others may start talking before you're ready. That is why it's essential to understand the concept of the "Golden Hour."
The 'Golden Hour' doesn't refer to a specific number of minutes, but rather to the observation that incremental delays in showing that an organization cares can lead to greater-than-incremental harm.Garcia, 2017
The longer it takes an organization to show care, the harder it becomes to maintain trust and organize a sufficiently persuasive response. The communication gap drives people to reach conclusions about a situation, make judgments and act on what they hear rather than facts. It is much harder to restore trust than it would have been to preserve it.
If an organization can effectively show that it cares within the first 45 minutes of an event, there is a likelihood that the loss of trust will be minimal without long-term harm. If you miss the 45-minute window, it is still possible to take control of the narrative, but it is more challenging as time passes.
Develop some pre-approved command messages and keep them on standby.
Typically four questions can be asked when developing a strategy for making important decisions at the right time (Garcia, 2017):
- Will the key stakeholders expect a response now?
- Will stakeholders see silence as an affirmation of guilt or indifference?
- Are there other people talking about the organization now and shaping the perception among stakeholders? Is there a reason to expect that people will soon be talking about the issue?
- If the organization waits to communicate, will it lose the ability to determine the issue's outcome?
If the answer to all four questions is no, there is an opportunity to monitor and prepare. Public affairs professionals can devote more time to planning, drafting responses and getting ready to engage. However, when any one of the questions becomes a yes, the response will have to be accelerated to maintain effectiveness within the "Golden Hour."
Saying nothing or waiting it out is not an option. A of response will become the story. Silence does not protect the organization from future risks, and it opens the door for others to control the narrative. If the silence continues when there is an expectation of caring, public opinion can turn against the organization.
What To Avoid
Public affairs professionals are responsible for providing trusted advice and counsel to leaders, especially during difficult times. That includes advising leaders to avoid the ten most common counterproductive behaviors (Garcia, 2017).
Don't ignore the signs of a potential problem.
Don't stall out when you see a problem escalating.
Don't attempt to save face by assigning ownership to a specific portion of the organization. The whole organization rises and falls as one unit.
Don't lie—the lie becomes the story.
Don't skirt the truth or attempt to misdirect away from the issue.
Don't relinquish control by letting the story dribble out.
Don't allow blame to pull the focus from what the organization is doing to solve the problem.
Don't over-confess or bring up issues that aren't relevant.
Don't panic and freeze. Public affairs professionals should always be one of the calmest voices in the room.
Don't overtly or subtly blame people for bringing problems to leadership's attention.
You have a responsibility to be effective stewards of reputation, trust and confidence in the organization and its leaders. It is easy to forget the aspects of mental readiness when an issue manifests, but that is when they are needed the most. Keep your skills sharp through practice, repetition and exercise.
Garcia, H. F. (2017). The agony of decision: Mental readiness and leadership in a crisis (Vol. 1). Logos Institute for Crisis Management and Executive Leadership Press.
Lukaszewski, J. E. (2012). Managing the victim dimension of large-scale disasters. Leadership and Management in Engineering, 210-221.