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When the Stuff Hits the Gumbo Pot

Dr. Joseph V. Trahan A New Orleans native, Dr. Joseph V. Trahan, III, has over thirty-two years of public relations/affairs experience in governmental, association, and educational and non-profit public relations. He recently presented the keynote address on crisis communication at the Digital Communications Summit.

When a man tells you, he is an Eagle Scout and 208 pounds of ugly – you listen. Especially when that Eagle Scout is Dr. Joseph V. Trahan, III, APR, Fellow PRSA, LTC-US Army-Retired and President and CEO of Trahan & Associates, who recently gave the keynote address at the PRSA St. Louis Digital Communications Summit.

Trahan’s expertise in crisis communication is hard earned, and as practitioners we can only hope we will never be in half of the situations that he has experienced. We can benefit though from the knowledge he has gained. So let us make the most of his kernels of knowledge.

Today there is a constant need for media. There is no longer the “news cycle”; it is more like a “news black hole” that is always being fed. You have 1-3 minutes to respond or someone else will fill the time. In any crisis, we face several types of media:

  • Traditional – Print, television, radio
  • Social – Outlets we don’t control, where everyone else can voice their opinion about the situation
  • Media we own – Company website, portals, intranets, social media outlets and feeds, and marketing campaigns

Each media requires that you shape the message before it shapes you. We now have more tools, more opportunities to communicate faster and create proactive strategies and even more avenues to “mess it up”.

To be prepared there are a number of basic measures we need to consider.

Crisis Planning Do’s:

  • Coordinate, communicate and cooperate during all four phases of the crisis. From the initial warning stages, the crisis itself, the chronic aftermath and then dealing with the recovery when the blame game tends to take over.
  • Regularly practice and update your plan – Be sure it includes a general statement of duties. Come up with at least 10 things that can go wrong and plan accordingly.
  • Crisis staff requires an “all hands on deck” mentality and should include the big boss, security liaison, PR/public affairs representative, media coordinator, IT staff, marketing, human resources representation, mental health counselor and perhaps a chaplain.
  • Create one and only one communication center. The center must be a real location – plan a primary and alternate. Remember to include GPS coordinates and consider accommodations and equipment needs for staff.

Crisis Communication Do’s:

  • If you don’t speak, someone else will – and the crisis will escalate – especially if you let the story dribble out.
  • The goal is maximum exposure, minimal delay because rumors move faster than facts.
  • Go ugly early, bad news does not get better with age.
  • You must have one and only one spokesperson – one voice to ensure continuity and consistency.
  • Control the Message:
    1. Security – What can you release and why?
    2. Accuracy – Do not waste energy fixing problems. Get the right information out the first time.
    3. Propriety – Have a plan that protects people and your organization.
    4. Policy – You are your organization, and your policy is law. Argue policy behind closed doors.  

Crisis Leadership Core Principles and Values:

  • Before you respond – Listen, pause, think, then talk.
  • Be accountable and demonstrate competence – Stay in your lane, if you don’t know say so, and do not speculate.
  • Never minimize the problem, and treat everyone with respect.
  • Concern – You must be genuine. They will know if you’re not because we remember 85 percent what you look like and only 15 percent what you say.
  • Most importantly keep yourself in control – if you lose it, you will see that clip for the rest of your life.

While we all anticipate a career free of turmoil, we can be prepared, and we will be ready because a wise Eagle Scout once gave us the tricks of the trade. 

This post is courtesy of Danielle Oser, APR, a constantly evolving PR practitioner who specializes in trying to keep up with technology and being one-step ahead of her students – and sometimes her kids. You can find her on Twitter @ProfDOser.

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