A true tale of the power of crisis communication

Two men took charge of two different crises

One man’s reputation soared. The other man’s status plummeted.

One man became a national treasure, while the other was hounded out of office.

Why was Rudy Giuliani’s masterful communication during the 9/11 tragedy seen as a triumph? While the former boss of BP, Tony Hayward was treated like a pantomime villain for his handling of the Gulf of Mexico tragedy.

The simple answer is one word – FOCUS.

What do you need from crisis communication training?

Every leader wants three things from crisis communication:

  • Positive news coverage
  • Messages that reveal their business is taking control of the situation
  • Powerful strategic quotes to reassure investors, shareholders and staff

The only way to achieve those objectives is by adopting the right FOCUS

Calm, commanding and composed

What leaders focus on during a crisis will determine the quality of their communication. When it hits, the fan leaders face severe pressure from many sources – staff, peers, investors and shareholders. And then you have a jumped up journalist asking negative questions and expecting an interview NOW! Is it any wonder why corporate leaders prefer the shorthand of No Comment to look down the barrel of a camera?

It is understandable when leaders reject media interviews, but it’s not the right thing to do. You see if a leader focuses on the pressure and the fear of an interview going wrong they’ll always say no. It is pure human nature. But there is a better way. We’ll come to that soon.

Let’s Attack the Real Problem

We have uncovered why some leaders reject interviews during a crisis. And the reason is more straightforward than you might think. Here it is they don’t know what to say!

Let’s dig deeper to uncover the truth. There is a simple reason why some leaders don’t know what to say. They don’t have a plan, a structure or specific steps to follow. When the media calls the usual response is “What do we say to the media?

That is the wrong question. It is the wrong question because the leader’s focus is also wrong. Speaking to the media during a crisis is not Trial by Media. It might become that way if a CEO behaves like Tony Hayward of BP. But if that is how a leader is focusing, then he or she will be defensive and miss the strategic opportunity

And now for something different!

Let’s flip your thinking and try something radically different. Why? Thinking in a new way will shift your focus. In turn, this will identify simpler, stronger messages. Kiss goodbye to being defensive and missing heaven sent media opportunities.

I heard a podcast recently on crisis communications. The speaker, William Espey is the Chief Communications Guru for a restaurant chain in America called Chipotle. His firm experienced two crises in three years. Each event involved food contamination.

Two simple ideas he stated that could shift your focus fast!

First, take ownership of the problem and imagine how you would respond if you have let down a friend. Now go and talk to your customers in the same way you would speak to a friend. Apologise and tell them what happened and what you are doing about the situation. [Of course how you apologise and the words you use requires coaching and guidance.] Jump on the media and begin telling your story to your audiences. Focus on speaking to your critical audience.

When Tony Hayward pleaded “I want my life back” he had the wrong focus. And his comments did nothing to rebuild TRUST or show empathy with the 11 families who lost loved ones. Leaders need to focus on one crisis fundamental – take eyes off yourself and concentrate on speaking to your most important audiences.

Your focus is to REBUILD TRUST

Alright, here is step two from William Espey’s podcast (you can listen to it here, courtesy of Stitcher)

Think long-term! Espey believes this shift is critical for one reason –

“Success is the Mother of Complacency.”

“Short-term expense [to protect your business] is better than long-term expense following a disruptive crisis problem.”

Chipotle’s food contamination crises cost them millions of dollars. They set up new, stricter food hygiene standards, conducted company training and many other actions. Now they live by the mantra “Be prepared for the preventable.”

Do whatever it takes to make your brand indestructible. Repair those weaknesses in your audits. Test your plans. Follow up on gaps from your crisis scenarios. Coach your senior people

Carrying out these simple yet powerful steps will create a radical shift in focus. That shift in focus results in seeing communication as a vital tool to REBUILD TRUST. And it nurtures the belief that you have got something to say

Now, all you need are the tools to ensure you gain positive news coverage, speak the quotes you want to see and, deliver strategic messages to reassure investors and shareholders.


TRT – The Media Training People

PS For more on Crisis Communication ask about our programme – “Communicate to Build an Indestructible Brand”.

Call on 0114 287 3170 or to book a Strategy Call send an email to susan@t-r-t.co.uk

Alford Grant is the owner of TRT – The Media Training People. He is a former BBC presenter and reporter. Alford has a twenty-year pedigree coaching senior managers, directors and CEOs. He is passionate about making coaching enjoyable, so skills are easy to learn.

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Crisis Communication

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