Picture this: you’re the head of a company, a government official, or perhaps a corporate spokesperson. Your company, or your city, is embroiled in a scandal and you’re tasked with addressing the public about it on live television. Are you sweating yet? Wipe your brow because here’s how to handle crisis communication.
When asked a difficult and direct question, one thing you do not want to say is “no comment.” No comment is a comment, and it’s a bad comment. It comes across as if you’re hiding something and you’re afraid to answer a question. Think of “no comment” as your “in case of emergency, break glass” answer. You should only say it as a last resort.
Well then, what do you say instead? We’ll get to that in a moment but first there are things you must do before you even open your mouth. When it comes to crisis communication your nonverbals can be almost as important as the words you say. If a reporter is asking you a tough or aggressive question, don’t let them know they’re getting to you, even if they are. Break out your best poker face as if you expected the question and you’re fully prepared to answer it. If your face and body convey weakness, the audience will take notice and you may lose the battle before you even have a chance to defend yourself. Viewers might make up their minds about you based on your expression and posture. It will be a significant challenge to get them on your side.
Regarding eye contact, don’t look down and try not to look away when asked a tough question. Establish direct eye contact with the person asking the question and maintain that eye contact when you answer it. This gives the appearance of strength, confidence, and honesty.
To put this in perspective, watch a political debate. When the moderator asks a candidate a pointed question, or when a fellow candidate verbally attacks that candidate, if the candidate is well-coached, you’ll notice they seem in complete control. They stay poised, keep their eyes up, and wait for their turn to speak, and then they turn a potential negative into a positive. Your nonverbals set the tone, and then your words drive it home.
So, what is your message and how do you deliver it? Simple: use “Three P’s” specifically tailored to crisis communication. When asked a question you don’t want to answer, you can Punt, Pass, or Pivot. Let’s starting with punting.
In football, if it’s fourth down and you don’t feel like you can achieve a first down your best option is often to punt the ball. It’s not flashy and it won’t dazzle anybody, but it gives you a chance to reset, regroup, head to the sidelines, and plan for when you take the field again. With crisis communication, punting allows you to do the same thing.
Here’s how you punt: when asked a tough question, only answer what you know to be factual in the moment and say it in a way that isn’t incriminating. Let the person asking the question to know that you, and your team, are diligently working to gather more information and when you have that information, you’ll be back to provide an update and answer more questions. In the meantime, interested parties can go to your website, or call or email the person you’ve appointed to get updates. These steps are crucial because you don’t want reporters chasing down sources. Sources aren’t always accurate, and they typically don’t have your best interest in mind. As mentioned earlier, neither do reporters. Reporters want juicy stories, and if they can get that juice from a “source” you’d better believe they’ll do it. You want to be in control of the information that’s disseminated, so you can shape the narrative in a way that doesn’t harm you or your company. By answering only what you know in the moment but promising you’ll be back in touch soon and that you’ll provide real-time updates, you should be able to stay on top of the flow of information. Here’s how this might sound:
REPORTER: “What can you tell us about the shooting at your mall?”
YOU: “First, we want to express our most sincere condolences to the victims and their families. At this moment, local law enforcement is on the scene, collecting as much information as they can. We’ve cleared the mall and the police are leading the investigation.”
REPORTER: “Can you confirm that five people were killed in the shooting?”
YOU: “This is an ongoing investigation, and we are doing everything we can to collect as much information as we can. We’re working in tandem with law enforcement and I’ll have an update in one hour. Thank you.”
REPORTER: “What about the shooter? What do you know about him?”
YOU: “Again, this is an ongoing investigation. I don’t want to speculate on anything. I’ll be back in an hour with more details. In the meantime, you can call this phone number, or check our website for updates. Thank you so much, and again, we express our deepest condolences to the victims and their families. Thank you.”
This is an extreme example and a horrible situation that hopefully none of you will ever have to face. But, in the case of a situation like this, or any situation you weren’t expecting, you don’t have to answer every question immediately. In fact, you shouldn’t. You certainly want to be sympathetic, if not empathetic, and appreciate why the questions are being asked but don’t be railroaded into providing answers. Don’t just give an answer because you feel obligated to do so. No matter how many times the questions are repeated, even if multiple reporters are shouting at you, remember that blurting something out is not the solution. It will only lead to further damage control. Punt the ball, take a deep breath and regroup, and provide more information after you’ve had a chance to digest it.
The next option when dealing with crisis communication is to pass, but this time we aren’t talking about football; it’s more like hot potato. Simply put, if you’re not the person authorized to answer a question, don’t answer a question. It’s a very easy way to get yourself out of an uncomfortable situation. If you’re a member of the finance department and a reporter calls with a question about an employee who’s gotten into trouble, that sounds like something for human resources or the legal department. This is applicable even if you’re part of the C-suite or upper management: you can simply pass the question off to the appropriate department. Here’s an example of what you might say:
YOU: “I appreciate the question, and I understand why you’re asking it, but I’m not the person who can give you that answer. Let me put you in touch with our legal department (or please feel free to reach out to our legal department). Thank you.”
That’s it. Nice and easy. Once you’ve said you’re not the person to answer the question you’ve pretty much shut down the conversation, which is your goal. There aren’t many follow-up questions reporters can ask if you’ve made it very clear that you don’t have any answers. That said, they may very well try again, and try to bully you into giving them a soundbite. Stay strong and stay on message. If you can’t answer the question, you can’t answer the question. It’s really that simple.
Now for the final P: pivoting, and how you can transition your answer from a position of weakness into a position of strength. Let’s say you manage a hotel and you’ve got a bedbug problem. It’s all over the news and television reporters are on the steps outside the hotel’s front door, microphones in hand. You don’t have to answer their questions, but if you don’t − and nobody else from your team does − you’re giving the journalists all the power. They will tell the story the way they want to, and they might even get some angry hotel guests to give them spicy quotes. You don’t want that to be the story that goes out to the world.
You need to get out in front of the story and reframe the conversation toward a positive, or at the very least, neutral angle. In some situations, when it must be acknowledged, you can start by sympathetically addressing the problem − perhaps even apologizing for it − and then moving toward a solution. But you don’t always have to admit wrongdoing. If it’s a developing situation or an ongoing investigation, let it breathe. There will be plenty of time to apologize later; perhaps you won’t even have to do so.
No matter what you say in response to the reporter’s question, your goal is to pivot away from negativity as quickly and powerfully as possible. Here’s an example of how it might unfold.
REPORTER: “Can you talk about the bedbug crisis at your hotel?”
YOU: “First, I wouldn’t characterize it as a crisis. I do understand some guests have been inconvenienced, and for that we sincerely apologize. We will be taking care of any medical bills and clothing expenses and offering them complimentary stays. We are currently conducting a thorough inspection of each room in the hotel to make sure all rooms are up to our standards. Customer safety and satisfaction are of paramount importance to us. It’s the very backbone of who we are. And we will make sure this situation is rectified. Thank you.”
In this situation, if the hotel has won any safety or customer satisfaction awards, it would be good to throw those in there. People love stats, data, and specific examples. If you have any of those that bolster your position, don’t be afraid to use them. Of course, if you don’t have them, don’t fabricate them. That is easily disprovable and will destroy your credibility.
Theoretically, you don’t have to apologize during that soundbite. You can avoid that by starting with the mention of the room inspections. In some cases, especially if you’re unsure the hotel does indeed have bedbugs, that may be the way to go. But if it’s a certainty that the bedbugs do exist at your hotel and did bite guests, you should show some contrition. It’s endearing and will help you gain the public’s trust.
There are even some situations where you can incorporate all three P’s into the same answer. For example, you could give the bedbug answer like this:
YOU: “This is a developing situation that we’re investigating, and when I have more information, I’ll get back to you. Of course, you are welcome to reach out to our customer service spokesperson, as this is her area of expertise. I can put you in touch with her. What I can tell you is, customer safety is of paramount importance to us. We have led the industry in safety ratings for the past three years. The safety of our guests impacts every decision we make as a company.”
Another technique that will help you redirect a conversation is to subtly change a few key words. A problem isn’t a problem; it’s a challenge, or even an opportunity. A crisis isn’t a crisis; it’s simply a situation. Take the emotional aspect out of the equation and speak about it more matter-of-factly. The media loves juicy stories; the more boring you can make your story, the quicker they’ll move on to something else.
Finally, pay attention to every single word you say. You might give a 50-word answer and 46 of those words are great, but the four that aren’t perfect will be the only ones the reporters will use. Don’t give them an opportunity to quote you out of context. Understand that every word matters. When it comes to crisis communication, your entire answer must be on point.
If you’d like to learn more about becoming a powerful public speaker, just reach out to me here.
Have a great day!