Many years ago I was director of communications for the American Medical Association.
Reporting to me were approximately 150 seasoned journalists, speech writers and public relations specialists, all pros at getting our message out via print and broadcast media. Communications from the most prestigious medical association in the world was important not only to the general public but also to academicians and healthcare professionals all over the world. So it was incumbent on me to make sure everyone in my charge was on the ball at all times, getting out the right messages to the right audiences.
Sometimes we had to engage in crisis management. A physician may have become embroiled in an ethical or legal mess, and a reporter from the national media would call, asking us to comment for the next day’s paper. We would have to come up with an immediate response. By immediate, I don’t mean like today, when the Internet, social media and cell phones are everywhere and communications is instantaneous. Still, we had to move quickly, and with no margin for error: everything that went on in medicine those days had big political implications.
When I got that job, we had consultants to advise us on what to do in a given situation, but I realized after a while that responding to certain matters right away was not necessarily the appropriate thing to do. Generally, the first thing anybody wants to do after they’ve been criticized in the press is to hit back, but that can be the kiss of death. That’s when patience and common sense come into play.
Given the 24-hour news cycle and instant news, I am surprised that most organizations today seem unprepared for any kind of crisis. The press is looking for any kind of scandal to occur, whether it’s in business, sports, politics or foreign relations. Even weather reporters seem like alarmists, exaggerating the threat posed by snow or winds.
Recently someone I know who is a top executive for a company in the Chicago area called me to ask how to handle a situation that was about to garner local media attention. A law firm had unsuccessfully represented his company in some litigation, and quickly issued a press release stating that the case had been resolved. The man I spoke with told me he felt the law firm hadn’t gotten its facts right and questioned why it would issue a press release without clearing it with the client. He said he had already talked to his customers and prospects and that they understood what was really going on, but now he wanted to know what steps to take to set the public record straight.
My response was simple, “Don’t do anything! Why issue another press release on a weekend when nobody generally is paying attention to the news?”
My reasoning, based on decades of experience, was that if the company sent out a press release, it would only bring more attention to the story, giving it new life that it might not otherwise have. I also suggested the man’s firm should talk to its law firm and tell them never to send out a press release until it has been approved by a company officer. Luckily, the company followed my advice, and indeed, the story died, as no media outlets picked up the law firm’s press release.
I always think it is best to hire the right in-house communications and public relations people and rely on them for such advice. Too many seem to lean on public relations consultants in a crisis, when those firms don’t know their company or industry, and may not be as skilled as your in-house team with the relevant media outlets. In-house communications and PR are not just an expense; they’re an investment in protecting your brand. If these people are good, they will be experienced in dealing with media storms. And make sure you hire people who aren’t going to agree with you all the time. Quality communications experts will tell you what to do and not to do and won't necessarily agree with your thinking. Remember, they deal with the press every day and you only do so once in a while.
You also have to keep your communications people in the loop. They can’t help you get through a crisis if they are surprised to find out what is going on across the company. The director of communications should be part of the C-suite, not relegated to a cubicle in marketing. To do otherwise is to expose the company to a future PR disaster. Talk to your communications team, and they will be able to do a better job of making sure you and your organization are always presented in a good light on all matters. It’s simple common sense.