The following article appeared in the January, 2015 Vol. 29. No. 1 issue of O’Dwyer’s, page 16

When crisis hits, look for nuance over formulas

By Jessica Tiller Trzyna

There’s no paint-by-number approach to a crisis. Every disaster takes on a life of its own, and off-the-shelf approaches may not be only ineffective — they can also backfire.

When a crisis occurs, business executives and communicators alike often find themselves facing the challenge of making incredibly complex decisions while under extreme duress and without a minute to spare, but with little or no prior experience in actually handling a crisis situation.

Inevitably, these individuals find themselves Googling a step-by-step formula that describes how to handle a crisis situation. And as they quickly discover, the Internet has pages upon pages of “top 10 tips” that describe what steps to take to make a crisis go away.

While such tips can certainly be helpful, the reality is that every crisis tends to take on a life of its own, and an off-the-shelf approach will likely backfire. As we have seen from various crisis situations over the years (think NFL domestic abuse scandal, the Malaysian Airways Flight 370 disappearance, or the recent SONY database hacking), it is impossible to anticipate every possibility that could occur. And with stockholders, clients, customers, business partners, media, and the public all demanding information – and frequently taking to social media with their own take on the situation – simply replicating the steps that were used to handle a previous crisis is usually a recipe for disaster.

That’s not to say we can’t learn from best practices. To successfully handle a crisis, though, it’s essential to address both the “big picture” items – proper messaging, audiences, timely dissemination of information, who is the spokesperson, etc. – and the small details and subtleties that can spell the difference between just getting by and a truly successful initiative.

Really, the correct handling of a crisis situation comes down to considering the nuances of each individual case. A recent crisis situation which involved a well-regarded commercial real estate firm provides a good case in point.

During its long tenure in business, this company had won numerous industry awards and was widely recognized in the community for both the quality of its work and its involvement in “giving back” to local charities and non-profits. Unfortunately, much of the goodwill the firm had built up over the years went away, seemingly overnight, when a government agency for which the company was working alleged that it was responsible for delays and defects in a public building currently under construction.

Complicating the situation was the fact that despite repeated attacks by elected officials and the government agency itself, the firm responded by doing what many companies do – nothing. For nearly a year, government officials charged that the firm was guilty of errors that were delaying the project and, ultimately, making the building unsafe for public use. With the firm refusing to respond, media coverage of the issue was completely one-sided, leading both the media and the public to conclude that the charges leveled by the government agency must be true. Gradually, this almost daily barrage of negative publicity began to take its toll on the firm, as both prospective and long-standing clients shied away.

With its leadership admitting the firm “was beginning to die,” it finally took action. Recognizing that a paint-by-numbers approach would be ineffective, an aggressive campaign was launched to bring balance to the public’s perception by shedding light on the actions and inactions of both the government agency and other companies involved in the project. Readily understood messages which cut through the complex issues surrounding the project, while addressing blatant inaccuracies, were created. Visuals – charts, graphs, photos, etc. – were used to in place of lengthy explanations of complex engineering issues which otherwise would confuse the general public.

Because the firm’s CEO had a straight-forward approach and strong record of community involvement which would make him a respected and authoritative, yet sympathetic figure with whom the public could identify, it was assumed he would be the spokesperson when the firm went public. Unfortunately, the CEO didn’t feel the same way. He had no experience in dealing with the media and was reluctant to discuss the issue because he feared he could compromise possible litigation.

Given this, a news conference was ruled out. And due to upcoming public hearings, there was no time for extensive media training. Recognizing that putting the CEO into a situation where he was uncomfortable was not a good approach, it was decided instead to pair him with the firm’s legal counsel and conduct one-on-one interviews. This enabled the CEO to play to his personal strengths and let his personality shine through, while relying on counsel to handle any potential legal issues – all while avoiding the media circus that sometimes accompanies a news conference.

Knowing these interviews were going to be heavily scrutinized, even the smallest detail was considered. The CEO was instructed to dress plainly – no cuff links, no expensive watch, no pocket square. Interviews were conducted at the firm’s offices rather than at the job-site, eliminating the chance for camera crews to shoot perceived flaws in the building under construction. Even coming to and going from the firm’s offices was done by the back entrance so there was no chance of a photographer or TV crew filming anyone driving in what could be portrayed as an expensive, high-end car.

As might be expected, the CEO’s willingness to finally talk to the media and explain his firm’s position garnered a great deal of attention. And while perceptions did not change overnight, media coverage gradually began to shift as reporters better understood the project and started looking at the other parties involved, raising hard questions about their roles in the delays and design flaws. Reporters also began to express their appreciation for the CEO’s willingness to make himself available whenever they had a question or needed a statement. Media were never ignored. Rather, there was an “always respond” media policy, even if everything they wanted couldn’t be provided.

As the tone of the coverage began to shift, a stream of positive publicity about other projects being handled by the firm and its active role in the community was generated. Gradually, the firm’s reputation was restored as the media and then the public began to understand the real issues on the project and disassociate the firm from those problems.

While other examples abound, this crisis demonstrates why off-the-shelf approaches to dealing with a crisis simply don’t work. As this crisis illustrates, it is vital to recognize the subtle details. No one could foresee a CEO reluctant to act as company spokesperson. No Google “crisis tips” would recognize the hole which the firm had dug for itself. And subtleties like where to meet the media and what to wear are often overlooked in the rush to keep the bad news from getting worse.

Bottom line: prepare for a crisis by having a plan in place that provides a way of planning, of thinking about situations in an organization’s operations, and of preparing that organization’s people to understand and respond to the special demands of crisis conditions. But always respond to a crisis by evaluating and then customizing the response to address the situation at hand, while ensuring that key audiences receive accurate, helpful information in a timely fashion. The longer you wait to respond to a crisis, the worse it will get. And you can be sure it won’t go away by itself.

Jessica Tiller Trzyna is EVP and Co-Founder of Weiss PR Inc., a public relations firm with extensive crisis communications experience including strategy development and rapid response implementation for both corporations and individual executives. For more information visit www.weisspr.com or to contact the author, email jtrzyna@weisspr.com.