PR Briefing: How do you communicate in a crisis?

We knew that New Hampshire would be all over the news leading up to the presidential primaries, but nobody could have predicted that a significant, worldwide story would focus on Leeland Eisenberg, a Somersworth man holding hostages – and claiming to have a bomb strapped to his body – in Hillary Clinton’s campaign office in Rochester.

During this crisis, Senator Clinton handled herself beautifully in front of the media and the millions of citizens who were curious to see how she’d react to the difficult situation.

She immediately cancelled her scheduled appearances, instead spending the day speaking with the hostages’ families, Governor Lynch and key law enforcement personnel. She flew to New Hampshire and gave moving, heartfelt statements about her concern for the hostages’ safety and gave thanks to the law enforcement officials involved.

She kept calm under pressure, spoke with sincerity and provided a snapshot of how she can handle a crisis situation. In other words, she mastered the art of crisis communications.

As more details of this bizarre story unraveled, additional layers were added to the crisis. The man’s family said he took hostages out of frustration after a Seacoast hospital and his physician allegedly denied him prescription drugs because he lacked health insurance. Once that information became known, the hospital and physician in question faced their own crises, as they tried to explain why they were accused of turning away a patient in need.

Mr. Eisenberg said he is a man suffering from mental illness, so mental-health organizations and professionals faced increased scrutiny about why this situation hadn’t been prevented.

Since Eisenberg was taking a stand on health-care reform, he chose to execute his “stunt” at a high-profile politician’s campaign office, where he would maximize visibility for his message.

Be prepared

A crisis could include something as terrifying as a hostage situation or as humiliating as a politician propositioning an undercover police officer in an airport men’s room. It could be a recall of tainted beef or toys containing lead paint. Perhaps one of your employees is accused of a crime or one of your medical staff members administers the wrong prescription.

Regardless of the scenario, the incident has the potential to damage your company’s reputation. And the media is calling you for comment.

Now what do you do?

Every company should develop a crisis communication plan that outlines basic protocol that employees follow in the event of a crisis. Additionally, of course, the plan should be developed before you face a crisis, when you have time to carefully consider the details, like who will serve as your company’s crisis communications spokesperson.

The plan must be thorough enough to provide guidance during a challenging time, yet generic enough to be applicable for a variety of possible scenarios.

I’ve handled crisis communications for a variety of organizations, and have found a few principles to be true, regardless of the type of business or the nature of the crisis.

1. Be honest. Don’t face your staff, your customers or the television cameras and say that your products didn’t contain lead paint when numerous tests showed they did. If you lie, you’ll lose all credibility, and will enrage your customer base – like the upset parents who had to pry your company’s tainted toys away from their screaming toddlers.

2. Be apologetic and sincere. Explain what you’re doing to remedy the situation. Talk about the mechanisms that you’ve put in place to make sure this situation will never happen again.

3. Have a consistent spokesperson deliver consistent messages. During a crisis, your key audiences are likely curious, upset, fearful and/or suspicious. Their perspective of you and your company has the potential of being changed dramatically because of this incident. Make sure the change is in a positive direction!

It will be much more reassuring to the public if you have one visible spokesperson delivering the same messages during every interview. If you have a spokesperson – or spokespeople – delivering conflicting messages, it gives the impression that your company is disorganized, insincere, or worse – hiding something.

4. Stay calm. Yes, you’re being scrutinized. Your investors, board of directors and other VIPs are furious about the situation, and, perhaps, this is the most pressure you’ve faced in your career. But it’s important to appear calm, demonstrating to the media – and the public – that the situation is under control.

5. Know when you need help. Sometimes a scandal is so big, and has the potential to do so much damage to your company, that you’ll want to involve professionals. Depending on the nature of the crisis, this could be a number of advisers, but will definitely include a PR professional. This person (or team) will manage the crisis from a communications standpoint, providing strategic counsel, delivering your key messages and helping to improve public perception of your company.

Remember that someone else will be in the “hot seat” tomorrow. The media – and the public – will be caught up in another scandal soon, so stay calm and you’ll get through your crisis intact.

Laurie J. Storey-Manseau, who owns StoreyManseau LLC, a Concord-based, full-service marketing firm, can be reached at 603-229-0278 or Laurie@StoreyManseau.com.