Preparing for the Worst
Crisis Counselors Know Disasters Occur When Least Expected
When her phone rings, internationally renowned crisis communications expert Joan Gladstone never knows what crisis she’ll be facing. Gladstone compared that 24/7 uncertainty with Forrest Gump’s famous declaration that because life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re going to get.
As featured speaker at IABC Orange County’s Network and Knowledge October 13 luncheon, Gladstone said her most important advice was for communications pros to help clients and employers determine who will serve on the advisory team when a crisis occurs. Smaller groups can mobilize quickly and communicate most effectively.
“It’s important to anticipate what leaders think about when a crisis hits,” Gladstone advised. “It’s important for us to have empathy, because the best crisis plan means nothing if we can’t persuade our leaders to follow it.”
It helps to identify a reputable consultant prior to a crisis occurring, she noted. “You can’t do media training in the midst of a crisis.” In fact, she said, a company’s CEO may not be the best spokesperson in spite of intensive media training, and such a realization needs to be communicated delicately.
Gladstone shared her own case study involving a guest at the Mission Viejo Claim Jumper restaurant who claimed to have discovered a used condom in his French onion soup on an Easter Sunday. Encouraging audience members to share their own advice and insights, she walked them through the steps she took to counsel the company through the ensuing crisis.
“You must be calm until you’ve procured all the information and evaluated the options,” Gladstone warned. “Listen to what people are saying, to their angst and emotions. Provide research. Monitor customer service calls, because they can be the best sounding board to see what people are thinking.”
In the midst of a crisis one of the best techniques, she said, is to ask logical, thoughtful questions to draw people out carefully and then come up with solutions. “Persuade your clients to say what they know immediately because the press needs information,” she advised. “Even if you only have the answer to one question, you can build your statements around that knowledge.” Most helpful, she said, is illuminating the path by providing a factual written statement that the team can focus on. “No one does that better than we do,” she said. “A one-sentence statement is better than an endless debate.”
Crisis specialists must remain objective and think ahead five years into the future about the ramifications of all their clients’ decisions, because lawsuits can take that long to go to court. “Keep track of everything the team does,” she advised. “Chronicle what was done and when, knowing that it may be evidence for the court and for fact-based reporters.”