The Predictable Part of a Crisis

It’s an oversimplification to say that reporters love the negative. It’s more accurate to say that the media demonstrate a “bias toward drama.” And drama, alas, is usually bad.

Crises, those dramatic negative stories, capture the lion’s share of the media’s dwindling resources. The low hanging fruit of the news biz, these stories are usually easy to cover and popular with viewers and readers.

So it’s imperative to be ready for crisis, but what kind of crisis? Employee malfeasance? Workplace violence? Tainted product? Social media firestorm? When it comes to crisis communications planning, those details may actually matter less than you think.

First and foremost, a reporter covering a crisis simply wants information. In the hazy, chaotic atmosphere that envelops breaking news, reporters want to get the facts, which they can relay as quickly as possible to their audiences (and in the social media era, journalists increasingly seem to emphasize speed over accuracy. But that’s another column…).

To be even more specific, most reporter questions will usually fall under one of three categories, no matter the nature or severity of the issue. Memorize these categories, and prepare for the questions that may fall under them, and you will survive virtually any crisis.

1) What happened?

It doesn’t take a journalism degree to come up with this, the most obvious and important question. Even if the reporter has been informed by somebody else (first responders, regulators, employees) he or she will present this question as a way of weighing your version of the facts with others. Of course, the answer will evolve as the crisis unfolds, so this question is likely to come up more than once.

2) What was the cause?

How exactly did this happen? What went wrong? Whose fault was it? Once the series of events has been established, you can expect reporters to zero in on the cause. Of course, in the immediate aftermath, it may be impossible to know. Never be pressured into speculating if the facts haven’t been established.

3) What are you doing to prevent this from happening again?

Are you going to fire somebody? Change your employment screening policies? Discontinue the product line in question? The easiest way for a journalist to wrap up a story on a crisis is to report the resolution. The trouble is, such decisions aren’t usually made until long after the crisis has passed. Often, it is perfectly sufficient simply to assure the reporter that these matters are taken very seriously, the investigation is ongoing, and any changes that need to be made will be implemented just as soon as they are identified.

Ironically, the hours immediately following a crisis are often the easiest to handle from a PR perspective. There’s simply so much we don’t yet know, and most reporters understand that, even if their persistent, detail oriented questions suggest otherwise.

But as time passes, media expectations grow. Once the dust settles, a secondary messaging strategy will be in order. This one must include updated information, more details and confident reassurance that everything is under control.