Talking crisis strategy when dealing with business journalists
Monty Hagler is president and chief executive officer of RLF Communications in Greensboro, N.C. Hagler has worked on both the agency and the corporate side of communications for Trone, Capstrat and First Union, now Wells Fargo.
In an email interview with Talking Biz News, Hagler discusses forming a strategy for dealing with a crisis as well as long-term communications planning. What follows is an edited transcript.
Talking Biz News: What are some of the factors you consider when advising a client on how to respond to a crisis?
Monty Hagler: The first objective is to determine the nature of the issue and the audiences that it impacts. Crises come in many forms, including reputational, organizational, natural disaster or external, which is beyond an organization’s control. We advise clients to assemble a cross-functional team of senior executives, quickly review and discuss the information that is available, determine what additional information needs to be gleaned and prioritize the audiences that need to be brought up to speed. The key is to move quickly and communicate proactively when possible, without creating more problems or areas for question.
TBN: What is the most important consideration when putting together a strategic plan?
MH: A strategic plan must always work backwards from the desired end result. We frequently ask clients to define what success looks like in a year, in three years, in five years. If clients can articulate a clear vision for what success in any given arena will look like (and we frequently participate in this exercise to help get everyone on the same page), then a strategic communications plan will flow from the vision. It’s also an important exercise for determining the resources that should go into accomplishing objectives.
TBN: What’s the first step in releasing or responding to bad news?
MH: The first step is to make sure you truly understand what the bad news is and what caused it. Organizations frequently respond to bad news when they only have part of the story, and that makes the situation more complicated. It’s also important to understand exactly how the news is going to impact the organization and where communication efforts need to take top priority.
TBN: Are there times when not telling your side of the story is advantageous?
MH: Absolutely. We frequently see situations where clients will not be able to influence or mitigate the first wave of negative stories on an issue. This can be for a variety of reasons, but generally because the news media has formulated a point of view and is focused on telling the story from that perspective.
Our advice is to provide a brief statement addressing the issue, let the story come out and then assess if the story will continue to gain traction if we do not provide more fuel for the media fire. In many cases, the issue dies after one news cycle. In that case, the organization can then focus on communicating directly with key audiences that need to know the full picture, but without generating additional negative stories.
TBN: What’s your advice for those interested in working in crisis communications?
MH: Read, read, read. Get a subscription to The Wall Street Journal (I have a digital subscription but still prefer to read the print edition that’s waiting for me every morning in the office) and follow how companies are handling a vast array of issues. Read the article to identify all of the different stakeholders that are involved and visualize how you would handle communications if you were in charge. The key is to follow that crisis and its impact on the company through to the end — not just when it is a front-page story.