Always remember friends first, to inform and maintain loyalty


A friend is a professor at Penn State. Among his furious reactions to the child abuse crisis there, one dominates. He’s bewildered. And he’s left to stew about it because the administration neglected to reach out to its employees in meaningful ways early.

Crises almost always assault you from outside, even if the source is internal.

Suddenly, TV trucks pull up out front, the email basket is full and the phone rings ceaselessly. The crisis seems like a foreign invasion; the proverbial Visigoths are at the gates.

Visigoths flock to weakness and flee from strength.

Perhaps a professor at your college is accused of holding a series of pot parties with high school students in his off-campus home and claims it helped recruit promising students.

Or police arrested your operations director after finding child porn on his home computer.

Everything in your being wants to shout at the invaders that you and your business and your institution had nothing to do with this mess and they should all just go away and leave you alone.

Your second instinct should be to remember that you already have a crisis plan in place, compiled six months earlier when things were calm. And the part of that plan that you want to pay immediate and initial attention to is internal communications.

When TV personalities thrust microphones, bloggers start typing, reporters call and it seems that every threat is external, it’s an illusion. Remember your employees, board members, clients, suppliers, political leaders, friends, supporters, volunteers, past customers and anyone else you deal with daily. Even your mother. Maybe especially your mom.

Why? You need to first make sure your friends have your back. This is because there will be Twitter posts about the crisis even before you shake the sleep out of your eyes after the 5 a.m. warning call. You want your friends to hear about it from you, not the media.

These are your friends, potential supporters and if you or someone close to you did something wrong or embarrassing, their loyalty will be tested. Lock them in early. Be their first impression in this crisis.

Tell the truth — always — don’t embellish. Never cover up. If you did something wrong, apologize. Take responsibility. But tell them about it first.

Even as you reach for the list of outgoing crisis messaging for the media invaders, remember how fearful, bewildered and worried everyone is internally too. They have jobs, families, friends and churches and temples to attend. The same accusations you face confront them, though they have less control over an effective course of action. To them, their situation is at least as important as the overall company’s.

They need to understand what is happening, receive facts about the crisis, and maintain or at least restore the level of trust and confidence they have in you and your decisions.

Beyond the logic is the harsh reality. In our 24/7 social media world, gobs of data already exist about your employees and what they do and even in some cases what they already think of their employer. Reporters will have names of employees, board members, major customers, in five minutes and will start calling them to find out what really happened.

If those reporters encounter employees, friends, customers who don’t know, who feel ignored and uninformed, you just positioned a fan behind this pile of manure. The last thing you want is to see media quoting insiders negatively.

What you do want is interviewees either saying nothing and referring reporters to a designated spokesperson, or saying positive, supportive things based on clear lines of internal communication.

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About steveoncrisis

The content is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It comes from Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and as managing editor and editorial page editor at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs at Eric Mower and Associates, one of the nation's largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agency with six offices in the Northeast and Southeast.
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