Crisis Capitalization

My new home state of Mississippi has really taken it on the chin this year. Parts of the Delta began flooding in February and still are underwater. To attempt to alleviate one catastrophic event, floodwaters from the Mississippi River have been released into the Gulf, creating another catastrophe. Dolphins and turtles have died, and the men and women who harvest oysters, shrimp and other delicacies from the deep have almost nothing to show for their labors because of the freshwater/floodwater contamination.

The continued release from the Bonnet Carré spillway has made the seasonal “dead zone” of oxygen-starved saltwater one for the record books, precipitating an algae bloom that now has closed many, but not all, beaches to swimming and water sports just in time for the Independence Day holidays.

There’s no sugar-coating the facts: the situation for farmers, fishers, plants and virtually all other forms of flora and fauna is decidedly bleak. Nevertheless, Mississippians on the Gulf have not thrown in the towel for the summer tourism season. In the process, they have provided an excellent lesson in “Don’t Panic PR.”

Milton Segarra, CEO of Coastal Mississippi, the regional tourism bureau, set just the right tone of concern and optimism along with a dash of “algae blooms happen all the time. We’ve got this.”

“We are a warm weather destination. We are in the Gulf of Mexico; this happens,” Segarra told WLOX-TV. His response wasn’t flippant, however. He emphasized that the closures were necessary to protect the public. The algae causes some nasty symptoms when people come in contact with it.

Now, no one wishes that the flooding, freshwater release and algae bloom had happened, but in a weird way, the challenge actually reinforced Coast Mississippi’s rebranding effort that began earlier this year.

The bureau’s previous name was Visit Mississippi Gulf Coast. “Coast is the place where the water meets the land, but coastal encompasses the beaches, the water and the land beyond,” Segarra said in the rebranding announcement.

The fact is, there is a great deal of beauty and charm in the region. And even if I can’t wade in the Gulf, the joy and peace I get from a beach sunset such as the one above is gift enough.

I hope tourists will take Segarra’s advice, keep their vacation plans unchanged, and explore beyond the beach. I’m sure they won’t be disappointed.

Pitch the rug: Manage PR crises with integrity

When you are in charge, and something bad happens, instinct can serve you well, but not always.

Instinct can equip you to put out fires, the literal and figurative blazes, quickly and efficiently. As a business owner, or head of a community organization, that instinct is like gold. It can prevent a spark from growing into a conflagration.

Where instinct can let you down, however, is in dealing with the aftermath of a crisis. Your gut tells you to circle the wagons, swear people to secrecy, and give a terse “no comment” to the press, the public, and even your stakeholders. Bad idea.

How you handle problems says more about you as a leader than how great you look riding the biggest wave of success.

Matt Valentine of Goalcast recaps four major public relations crises, and how corporate leadership responded with integrity and transparency. A few things that rise to the top:

  • They responded quickly.
  • They responded like human beings, not corporations.
  • They took a financial hit without flinching (at least publicly).
  • They answered their stakeholders’ questions sooner rather than later.

The Apple v. FBI example is unique, but there are lessons that can transfer seamlessly to your business or organization. The non-corporate tone of its response to customers is especially impressive. The document is straightforward and easy to understand, but it doesn’t bog the reader down with too much detail. It quickly goes to the heart of the issue, and states Apple’s position clearly.

If your business or organization is facing a tough time, there’s no need to tell the public everything about the crisis, but it is important that you tell them something that is truthful and makes sense. I have experience with crisis communications, and would be happy to help you with this, and other public relations issues. Contact me by email at danniewriter@gmail.com, or call (502) 432-8725.



Avoid the Boil Over


There are those in leadership positions who embrace the philosophy, “If you aren’t making someone unhappy, you’re not doing your job right.” In some cases, this may be true. I maintain that good law enforcement and military, for example, should make criminals and terrorists unhappy.

How many of us, though, are in fields that produce, or even require, clear adversaries? Overwhelmingly, we need more friends than enemies, and more supporters than detractors.

Leaders who adopt the adversarial posture likely do so because they are too lazy to communicate the “whys” of their decisions to stakeholders such as employees, customers, donors, volunteers, and the like. An additional, and more troubling, explanation is that they believe their decisions are draped in gold and free of error and therefore should never be questioned.

Recently I had this lesson brought home, literally. Late Friday afternoon I saw this message taped to the lobby door of my condo community, (sans handwritten comments):


Making preparations for the problem was a little difficult because, at this point, the hot water already had been turned off.

The management company and condo board had a few hundred people with many questions and no answers. The quote: “Some people in the world don’t even have water,” apparently came from a member of the condo board no doubt approached by a concerned resident.

Leadership Tip #1:  It is poor salesmanship to deflect your responsibility by attempting to make a stakeholder’s concern seem petty. In our community, hot water is a reasonable expectation. It is the responsibility of the management company and condo board to ensure this service.

An additional comment was penned: “Plumbers work weekends.” Excellent point.

Leadership Tip #2:  Anticipate questions; provide answers before asked. The absence of explanation on why repairs couldn’t be done Friday and Saturday creates an environment of speculation. Residents are invited to assume the worst. In this case:

  • The problem was so complex and/or discovered so late in the business day that the management company and/or plumber chose not to address it immediately because it posed a personal inconvenience.
  • Rather than taking the time to price a weekend project with the usual plumber, or locate another company for an estimate, the management company informed the condo board, or select members, that the cost was prohibitive or that finding an alternative company was “impossible.”
  • The condo board, or select members, were more concerned with maintaining a positive relationship with the management company than pressing the issue as advocates for their neighbors.

The lack of anything more than a brief note tacked up a few places in the building (residents were not given printed notices individually) communicates an absence of concern, even basic respect, for stakeholders.

Leadership Tip #3:  Always attempt face-to-face/voice-to-voice communications first. The condo board exists as liaison between residents and the management company. As the most basic of responsibilities, board members should be expected to contact residents on matters such as a sudden loss of utilities. In this case, a meeting in the common area of each building should have been scheduled immediately for anyone who happened to be home at the time. The meeting should have been communicated via door-to-door visits/notices.

Leadership Tip #4:  Make a compelling case for your actions and in the process you recruit your stakeholders to assist you in communicating the news. The absence of information and personal communication sends the message to stakeholders that the actions (or inaction) of leadership cannot stand up to scrutiny. Again, in this case, speculation of the specter of personal inconvenience raises its ugly head: The plumber didn’t want to work on the weekend; the management company didn’t want to find an alternate company; the board didn’t want to authorize the expense, inform residents, or jeopardize a positive relationship with the management company.

In this case, the management company and condo board hold nearly all the cards. Residents pay a monthly fee to cover shared services and cede a portion of their responsibilities as homeowners regarding said services. The condo board is a volunteer, and mostly thankless, position. Any resident, myself included, has an opportunity to run for election.

Residents do hold a few cards, though. The company and board loses credibility, respect, trust, and possibly, the cooperation of their primary stakeholder. In the long run, mishandling this incident makes it more difficult for them to do their jobs, and creates an adversary where one was not required.

Does your small business or non-profit need some help communicating with stakeholders? If so, please give me a call. I’d love to help.


What to do when your message falls short

Dartboards with three darts missed off

Johnny Carson, longtime host of The Tonight Show, was the master of self deprecation. When a joke bombed, he didn’t steamroll on to another, he’d linger in the awkward silence, as if paying penance. (See 3:17-4:00 in this Christmas monologue.)

Audiences enjoyed his discomfort and loved him all the more for being humble and human.

No one enjoys feeling foolish, but acknowledging that a message has missed its mark is preferable to simply repeating it over and over with no changes.

Consider the case of presidential candidate Marco Rubio in this montage posted by Time following one of the debates last month. It’s possible Rubio’s initial message landed for some people, but I think the constant and unchanging repetition short circuited any benefit it may have had given the senator in his bid for the White House.

For those of us outside the national spotlight, it’s still possible to feel the heat:

  • Maybe that holiday tie-in wasn’t such a great idea for a newspaper ad or social media promotion. (Check out this great article from Sarah Burke on Spokal about newsjacking.)
  • Although accurate, the news story mentioning your business or non-profit fell short in some way.
  • The speech you gave to the civic organization yielded yawns instead of support. (It happens.)

How should you respond?

Own up to your errors. If you’ve lost your temper or simply said or published something thoughtless, own up to it. Although context is important, try to apologize without re-stating the offensive or erroneous information. Consider asking a professional for assistance. Don’t compound the error or controversy with a sloppy response.

Hold others accountable for their mistakes. If the news story contained errors, contact the reporter and ask for a retraction/clarification. Keep in mind that it will be more difficult to convince them that they have left out important information, but depending on the circumstances, it could be worth your time to meet with the editor. Letters to the Editor and polite, concise posts on the newspaper/station social media accounts can be effective to tell the rest of the story. If the issue is too complex to be brief, write a blog post and link to it from a comment on the media outlet’s social networks. A scripted and well delivered video on YouTube could be very effective, too. Again, get professional assistance if this is a controversial issue. Don’t play the victim or get defensive, just share the facts you know are needed to give the public a clear picture of the situation in question.

And the yawns? Invest time in practice and research. Speeches, purpose/position statements, interviews and Q&A sessions will go much more smoothly with preparation. Despite what we have seen on the campaign trail recently, this isn’t about stocking up on quips and insults to try to make your competition look bad, or to get payback for a wrong. Get facts from respected sources, including your own people, on why your business, non-profit or position on an issue is best.

For speeches, nail down a length from the venue organizer. In general, for Q&A sessions, set a goal for 15-second responses for most questions. Even shorter is better but avoid one-word answers by anticipating the follow-up question, “why.” Keep in mind that after a minute, eyes will begin to glaze over and ears will begin to tune out. Use a stopwatch as you practice. You’ll be surprised how much info you can share in just a few seconds.

Humor often works but avoid sarcasm, which can be misunderstood, and negativity. Often it is best to let your supporters come to your defense rather than attempt a biting comeback on the fly. Remember your goals for delivering the speech, granting the interview, publishing the post, running the ad. Here are some good, common sense tips from Mind Tools on “thinking on your feet,” that can help when you are feeling the pressure.

The Greek proverb, “know thyself,” is profound beyond an individual’s confidence in his or her identity. It is a great reminder in marketing and communications to stay focused on your stated mission. This goes beyond a slogan or even a mission statement. It requires as much thought, research and preparation as refining your product or service or expanding the reach of your non-profit’s good work.

Remember this exercise from Small Business Promotion, I posted a while back? If your message is missing its mark this is a great way to go back to the drawing board.

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