By Greg Beuerman
Last month’s tanker ship / barge collision in the Houston Ship Channel marked over a dozen times I’ve participated in or led a multi-party crisis response Joint Information Center (JIC) following a major accident of some type. A Joint Information Center, or JIC is a coordinated effort to inform the public regarding an incident of environmental or economic importance that may potentially impact their lives in some way. JICs typically include the three basic functions of media relations, stakeholder group relations and community relations. With this most recent incident response fresh on my mind, sharing some lessons learned seems appropriate and timely.
- What we as professional communicators do really is important. After all, if we don’t give the facts someone else will and we’re not guaranteed to like what they say.
- Not everyone thinks what we do is as important as we do. Getting answers from busy people is always difficult, especially when they don’t think your job is as important as theirs is (protecting the environment and people’s health and safety, reopening rail lines, rivers or highways to traffic and commerce). Actually, I get that. Making them understand that its my job to tell their story and to make them look as good as they are at what they do can be a real challenge, especially early on in the incident response. Establishing and opening lines of communication with the experts who are planning and implementing the response is critical in the first hours if timely and factual information is to flow to the public at-large.
- Context is king. Pumping content out to the media and public is a meaningless exercise unless you can put what you’re saying into an appropriate context. Not every vessel incident resembles the Titanic and not every oil spill should be compared to BP Macondo. People need to understand the scope, size and scale of each incident in a way they can relate to without letting their imagination run wild.
- “What if” may be the two most problematic words in the English language. Hand in hand with the importance of creating an appropriate context for your incident comes the importance of taking the “what ifs” out of the public’s imagination. This involves near equal amounts of “what we know is…” and “what we know isn’t…” to help them process the facts without worrying about possible eventualities that are likely never to happen.
- Over-communicating can be a real thing and a real danger. Communicating in crisis doesn’t require a PR by the pound approach. It takes thoughtful and accurate consideration of the issues at hand and understanding the true intensity of public and media concern and interest. Throwing too much out there into the mediasphere can often simply serve to keep an incident alive when in fact, most people and the media may have already moved on.
- You really can run an effective information center without using social media. This is blasphemy, I know. While Twitter, Facebook and other social media platforms can be effective tools for communicating in crisis, it is possible to be effective communicators without them. Our most recent 8 day crisis response effort didn’t involve the first Facebook post or Tweet on behalf of the multi-party Joint Information Center or my client. Every single media outreach and interaction took place through conventional emailed media updates, press releases, press conferences and good old fashioned telephone calls, along with posting our statements on the temporary incident response website. And by the way, not once in the course of over 125 interactions with the news media did a single reporter ask us how to engage or follow the response on social media. (Just saying….)
- Think ahead to where the media might next want to take the story (whether you want it to go there or not). Once reporters cover the basics (what happened, why, how bad is it, how bad could it be), their next logical step often becomes a broader focus on the parties involved and their safety, health, environmental, legal or regulatory records or performance. This evolution can in and of itself eclipse the main issue at hand to become your next and most dangerous crisis to manage. Take time to ask the tough questions you might eventually encounter from reporters so you’re not caught flat footed when they begin to get bored with the original issue at hand and look for the sensational where none may actually exist.
- Stay abreast of what’s being said, especially if you’re not the one saying it. Even if you’re not using social media to tell your story, chances are pretty good someone else is. Chances are better than even that they may not get the facts right or, just as importantly, that they are saying something new that you’ve never heard before that may need to be addressed. Monitoring mainstream media coverage to ensure accuracy and that any developing trends in coverage is also a must.
- Learn from what went right and what went wrong. While history doesn’t always repeat itself, being certain to fully capture lessons learned in real time just makes sense. No incident is “over” until the key parties involved conduct a deep dive into more than just how the incident played out in the public eye. Just as important is reviewing internal communication, the flow of information, approval processes and the ability to educate and inform in a timely manner.