Be the Face They Trust
When the Crisis Hits
by Kare Anderson
Perhaps bad things won't happen if you don't think about them. Most leaders,
like most humans in their personal lives, avoid planning for disasters. Because
it's usually a thankless task, we often don't take action until after a crisis
has hit us - or has hit someone we know, or who is like us or in an industry
or profession like ours.
Yet, now more than ever, every organization needs a plan. Responding quickly,
fully, and truthfully is the only way you can keep the faith of the publics
you serve, inside and outside your organization. Witness the fast-breaking
and continuing stories as wide-ranging as Odwalla Foods, with their quick,
consistent response to news that some of their apple juice was contaminated;
former President Clinton's various responses to the continuously unfolding
news of his actions in response to the Starr investigations; Microsoft's changing
public and legal stances in the face of federal investigations.
Your organization's advance preparation for several kinds of crisis is all
the more crucial today.
Why? Because technology enables news to travel farther, faster, and in more
Almost immediately these days, people can learn the "truth" -- in several,
often conflicting versions -- faster, from more places and perspectives, compare
their views, and see how those views stack up with those of "the general public."
Like a tennis game on fast-forward, the ball of "information" and opinions
bounces back and forth at warp speed.
Some organizations might still be trying to choose a spokesperson while
the ball has already made several trips both ways, right over their heads,
and they aren't yet participating in the game about their issue.
And human nature remains the same in one way: bad news always travels faster
than good news.
What can you do to protect your or your organization's reputation in the
face of a future crisis -- inaccurate, incomplete, or biased government or
otherwise official or media announcement; or an attack from someone, especially
a credible, well-liked, powerful or well-known figure?
If You Throw Mud, You Get Dirty
Several years ago, the actress Meryl Streep appeared in a woman's television
show interview, holding her young child in her arms. She made a tender picture
and -- not surprisingly -- was eloquent, sincere, but inaccurate as she spoke
of her concerns about the danger she believed the waxy coating on apples represented
to the health of her child. Within hours, a chorus of (male) representatives
from various growers, marketing boards, and processors were pictured on TV,
frowning and speaking in harsh tones as they castigated Streep for her "ignorance"
and "irresponsible action."
This continued for some weeks, trailing behind the critics like an attention-grabbing
piece of toilet paper sticking to the heel of a shoe, contributing to the
growth of the controversy. Several nutritionists, characterized by some consumer
activists as being "bought off by the industry," spoke earnestly, obscurely,
at great length, and with some ambiguity. Not surprisingly, their quotes were
always fully or accurately covered. Finally, two months later, a government
report concluded that the waxy coating does not harm young children, something
the apple industry already had the facts about but not the approach to being
As a former reporter, I must agree that "the media" is a mighty and not
always even-handed animal. Coverage of the report was much less prominent
than coverage of the growers' initial attacks on Streep.
When the U.S. media announced contamination of certain strawberries, David
Reid of the California Strawberry Board immediately briefed the media on how
the source of the strawberries was being tracked and when information could
be expected. He was open and not defensive with the media about not knowing
the source at that time. When he spoke to reporters, his voice was low and
not rushed. He was brief and to the point, and his expression remained genial
Open to Public View
Reid had an "open" face -- that is, his eyebrows were slightly raised, and
his cheeks and mouth were slightly softened, free of tightness. Why? Because
he had practiced before this crisis -- because he knew that someday there
probably would be one. And he practiced before each interview.
Sounds artificial? Consider what is at stake for you and for your company.
Perceptions color reality. If you look angry, resentful, and evasive, even
when you are telling the truth, people usually trust their eyes first. Make
your appearance congruent with your words, and make your message vivid, truthful,
compelling, and succinct.
No, I Do Not Beat My Wife!
If Reid was asked a negative, emotion-charged question, he did not use the
same characterization in responding. He re-framed the question to be more
neutral and then responded to it. His goal was to make his characterization
of the situation more vividly memorable than anyone else's, so his would be
the question most frequently used in subsequent discussions and media coverage.
Eight Ways to Face a Crisis Before it Happens
- Picture the Situation and Put in the Practice Before You Need
You can't anticipate every possible disaster, but you can presume the most
likely possibilities, at least in broad-brushstroke scenarios: accident,
verbal attack, negative study or report, and so on. Identify the kinds of
worst-case scenarios your company might face and prepare for them with the
help of outside experts who can provide candid feedback on your potential
scenarios, available facts, spokespersons to use, and responses to make.
What could happen? What fact-finding and decision-making process and public
position would your organization take? Who inside your organization would
be involved in approving that position? If your organization were in some
way to blame or at fault, what mechanism or process do you have in place
to ensure that your organization would maintain a standard of integrity
How could you set a process in place immediately for rectifying the situation,
as compared to denying, avoiding, covering up, or even lying?
- Get Your Facts or the Facts Will Get You.
How would the key decision-makers be placed in communication with each other
quickly so they could be informed and make a joint decision? What is their
advance standard of how fast they would commit to making a decision? Would
all of them be involved in the decisions related to financial commitments
involved in decision-making? If not, who would be?
Who inside and outside your organization would have the most reliable information
most quickly, and how would you reach them most swiftly, should the situation
Who outside your organization should be contacted first to be informed of
the organization's stance and action?
Who inside your organization would inform whom, and how, and how fast?
Who are your most powerful allies and critics, in general and on this kind
Who could counter each critic?
Who, outside your organization, would be most likely to comment on the crisis
first (which reporters, other food experts, consumer activists, government
officials, and so on)?
What approach would each of these people take (positive, neutral, or negative)
toward your company's situation and subsequent position?
How knowledgeable and credible would they be? Who are your credible current
and potential outside advocates in these situations?
How can you deepen their knowledge, support, and able advocacy of your organization,
in advance of such situations?
- Be Vividly Specific and Compelling.
In general, what is the most vividly specific and accurate characterization
of your company you would give in any discussion? Is it of interest and
understandable to those outside the food industry?
To see how difficult it is to be vividly specific and credible, peruse the
advertisements in your nearest publication as compared to the headlines.
It is hard to be a) interesting, b) accurate, and c) timely when you have
an interest at stake (your organization's reputation) and a committee (your
colleagues in the organization) to decide on the final message for an ad.
Think of the increased difficulty of being all three if you were facing
the heat of a crisis.
When writing or speaking to gain attention and credibility, consider the
best third-party source of information and the briefest way to characterize
their findings. Whenever you can, quote an impartial expert from that source.
Better yet, have that person practiced and prepared to respond, and you
be the echo.
Most adults, especially the more educated they are and the higher on the
corporate totem pole, tend to talk in lengthy abstractions, full of terms
of art and qualifiers before they get to the point or respond to a question.
Turn your comments and answers upside down and begin speaking in the "pyramid
style" of good newspaper writing -- all of the most important facts in your
first sentence, with each subsequent sentence an elaboration, offering layers
of supporting detail. Use specific examples, contrasts, details to make
your quote more quotable than an opponent's.
Speak English "like it tastes good." Use the sensory, situational adjectives
of full color, not the grayness of dry abstractions and wordy generalizations.
Verbal Snapshots Penetrate the Mind and Linger
Speak in word pictures. Whoever most vividly characterizes a situation usually
determines how others see it in their mind's eye, think about it, discuss
it with others, and eventually decide about it.
Those much-maligned "sound bites" are not bad of themselves. They prove
you can get to the point quickly -- and you know what the point is. They
reflect a respect for the listener. They set people up to be interested
in hearing more. They provide anchors by which people can remember your
supporting points. They are "verbal snapshots" that penetrate the mind and
the gut in an instant and then linger like a vivid after-image.
- Be Brief to Build Rapport
Your brevity brings you other benefits. You are less likely to be misquoted.
The interviewer stays engaged and feels more comfortable, because he feels
in control as he guides the questions. You have more opportunities to complete
your comments naturally with your short aside -- the positive characterization
you have created of your company, received feedback on, and practiced shortly
after reading this article.
- Make Unlikely Allies Before You Need Them
If you haven't yet done so, conduct a Stakeholder Analysis in which you
and your associates in top management identify all of the key influencers
who can alter people's perceptions of your organization. These influencers
might include labor leaders, stock analysts, reporters (industry, business,
women, consumer, and other beats), civic and community leaders, vendors,
customers, politicians, and activist groups.
Then match each key influencer with a "key contact" in your organization
-- ideally one who already has a relationship with that person that the
influencer can maintain and nourish by providing genuine support for that
person's interests and for those they share, unrelated to your company.
A strong key contact system is your company's best crisis insurance and
a long-term investment few companies have.
Further, find friends and allies inside and outside your industry who can
be knowledgeable alternative voices to yours. Inside the industry, look
for credible experts or opinion leaders with a constituency that is overlapping
or apart from yours. Outside the industry, look for people who are respected
and who have some connection with your organization or the people you serve.
Consider the "Rule of Three" for reinforcing the reality and the perception
of broad, diverse support -- whenever two people who represent interests
apparently much different than yours, and who might not even look like you,
speak out similarly to you on an issue, the credibility and newsworthiness
of your stand is multiplied.
- Be Plainly Clear.
Patterns literally distract. To be heard and respected, avoid wearing any
kind of patterns, especially on the upper half of your body -- patterns
break up the attention span of anyone looking at you so they do not listen
as long nor remember as much. Other patterns of distraction are ambient
or distinct background noise or voices and motion, yours or that of other
Attempt to speak in a place of visual and sound calmness. People do not
have "earlids" to screen out noise and can get distracted. If others are
moving around you, listeners are less attentive.
If you walk or gesture quickly, you do not look assured or truthful. The
more you move your body or your arms, the less people will be able to listen
and find you credible. Avoid "hand dances." Gestures that are high, fast,
and frequent, especially above the waist, rob you of credibility.
Use lower, slower, and few motions to illustrate a point. As with using
a lower, slower, warm voice, your gestures should follow the "less is more"
- Look to Their Positive Intent, Especially When They Appear to Have
One of the surest and most deserved ways to build credibility and respect
is to display grace under pressure. Another person's vigorous, personal
attack against you, while uncomfortable in the short term, is actually quite
Genuinely praise some specific action of the person who has criticized you.
Because most attacks from critics are not a complete surprise, you usually
do have some time in advance to anticipate that they might attack again.
Be specific, direct, and truthful. Find some part of the attacker's current
or past statements, actions, or motivation with which you can truthfully
agree. In most cases, if you can't do this, you are too entrenched in a
narrow perspective against them and thus more vulnerable to counterattacks.
For example, if the apple industry experts had a) first praised Streep for
her obviously sincere concern for children's health and the "possibility"
that the waxy coating on apples could be injurious to them and then b) moved
on to welcome the attention her comments brought to the matter (not "issue")
so they could c) explain the value of the coating, the public reaction might
have been different.
This idea is akin to product positioning -- position your positive comments
in direct and vivid contrast to the attack. Two statements are thus placed
like two products, side-by-side for close comparison.
- Be the First to Say You're Wrong When You Are
Say you are sorry. Say it soon. Prove you mean it. Say it in person, if
at all possible. Say it first to the person or persons most damaged, no
matter how much you'd rather avoid that uncomfortable situation.
Otherwise, the situation will metaphorically stick to your feet like tar
paper, forever pulling people's attention toward it and away from any subsequent
good actions you take. You've made the taint potentially indelible, the
The Potential Future Statesmen, a Hero Out of Ashes
More than any other kind of situation, there can be no ambiguity about the
steps you must take if you want your organization to have future effectiveness.
For those rare instances when you or your organization is in the wrong or
has caused damage to others, the sooner and more heartfelt your apology, the
more sincerely and positively you will be perceived and the more quickly the
forgiveness can begin, especially if your apology is directly coupled with
your explicit and adequate plan to rectify the matter.
Emmy-winning former NBC and Wall Street Journal reporter, Kare Anderson
is CEO of Say it Better Center, co-founder of women's social network, SavvyHer
and author of SmartPartnering, LikeABILITY, Resolving Conflict
Sooner and other books. Visit www.SayitBetter.com.
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