Given the enormous amount of attention on the Penn State scandal, this proud alumna will refrain from contributing to the already overcrowded conversation. However, there are some essential crisis management lessons to be learned here. None of us are immune to the unexpected. Yet it’s often what we do know about that we fail to prepare for. As a former reporter who covered my fair share of highly publicized scandals, the first two questions I always asked are the same questions you would ask: When did you know about it? What did you do about it?
People will forgive a screw up, but they won’t forgive a cover up. And no matter how many times that lesson is screamed from the rooftops, even the most seasoned spokespeople continue to underestimate the emotional reaction of their audiences. The single most effective way to control the chaos is to be as open as possible by telling people as much as you can as often as you can. In the absence of information, rumor and innuendo will fill the gap like quicksand and you will struggle trying to claw your way out.
- Tell the Truth and Tell It Fast: The media will report the story with or without you. If you’re not talking, someone else is. Remember Tiger Woods? He didn’t talk for three months, but plenty of women did. By not speaking quickly, he fueled resentment, speculation and kept the story alive. Even if you don’t know what happened, tell people what you’re doing to find out.
- Prioritize People: Stories are about victims or perceived victims. Without them, the story often goes away. Your comments should be directed to those affected. When former BP CEO Tony Hayward told reporters “I’d like my life back,” public sentiment turned against him. He made it about him. If he had spoken about the thousands affected, he would have been perceived differently.
- Clean the Closet: If there is even a shred of truth to what’s being reported, come clean. Locking away the dust balls you don’t want discovered will eventually be exposed painting you as deceitful and untrustworthy. Transparency should be your mantra.
- Social Media is Not Your Friend: In today’s technology-driven world, what might have gone unreported can now make you and your company an overnight sensation on the Internet. Look what happened to California campus police Lt. John Pike. He’s the guy who pepper-sprayed students at a non-violent Occupy protest. Caught on video, then posted to YouTube, it went viral and thanks to Photoshop, Pike’s likeness was manipulated into a pepper-spraying maniac who is seen going after babies, football players and even religious figures. It’s more critical than ever to pay attention to what’s being said about your business to determine if you want to add to the conversation by asking customers to share concerns and ask questions. If you ask however, make sure you answer.
- Speak Comfortable Words: You may be used to speaking to financial analysts or perhaps to a judge in a court of law, but those words don’t apply. People want to know how you feel. If you’re outraged, say so. If you’re horrified, say that, too. In difficult situations, people sometimes forget to show concern. While you don’t want to purposely fall to pieces when you speak, real words from real people make messages more believable.
- “I Don’t Know:” It’s okay not to know what you don’t know. So add these three little words back into your vocabulary: “I don’t know.” Your credibility may get a boost.
- Be Available: When Mike Wallace of “60 Minutes” was once asked what he would do if he were at a company that got a call from his news show, he said “If I were running a company that got a call from ’60 Minutes,’ I’d say come in. Ask me anything you want.” While you can’t give journalists, employees or anyone else unescorted access to the executive suite, Wallace’s message is dead on. If you get a phone call, return it. If you’re asked a question, answer it. If you’re not available, provide someone who can help the reporter meet his deadline. If you receive an e-mail, respond. If the truth hurts, tell it anyway.
The fear of not communicating should be greater than the fear of communicating.