Communications specialist shares secrets of surviving media spotlight during a crisis
Allegations of legal malpractice. Campaign finance misappropriations. High-profile client misdeeds. You may find yourself in the harsh glare of the media spotlight for such crisis situations at some point in your career. And when that happens, you may need the services of someone like Bruce M. Hennes, who regularly handles crisis communications for Hennes Paynter Communications in Cleveland.
“Rule No. 1 is ‘tell the truth’ because the truth always comes out in the end,” Hennes said.
Speaking to lawyers at the annual ABA Bar Leadership Institute in Chicago, Hennes advised on the ins and outs of managing media when attorneys get into sticky situations, using simple guidelines from a damage control playbook he developed over the years.
“Rule No. 1 is ‘tell the truth’ because the truth always comes out in the end,” he said.
Rule No. 2 is “tell it first.” Do not wait until the media knock on your door. Rather, make it a priority to get ahead of the news cycle. Whoever tells the story first generally determines the trajectory of that story, Hennes explained.
Rule No. 3 is “tell it all.” While a crisis situation likely involves confronting hard issues, avoiding those issues may have disastrous consequences. “Tell everything you are legally, ethically and morally allowed to tell,” advised Hennes, adding, “if you don’t tell it all, I guarantee you someone else will.”
The “telling” begins with responding to a reporter’s call in a timely manner. “If a reporter calls you at 10 o’clock and you don’t call him back until 2, 3 or 4 in the afternoon, you almost might as well not have called him at all because that story has been written,” Hennes said.
Another insight on the media: Your story goes through many hands before it is actually published. For instance, “reporters never write headlines. Only editors write headlines,” Hennes said. And, because of that, there can be a fundamental disconnect between the headline and the story. The reporter may tell one story, but the headline may say something entirely different.
Appearing on live television may be one way to control your story and tell it your way. Live TV can be used to pierce media filters, allowing you to talk directly to a mass audience. “For six to eight to 10 seconds, we’re golden to say whatever we want,” said Hennes on using television for such strategic purposes.
When going live isn’t an option for getting your side of the story out as quickly as possible, Hennes urges his clients to communicate directly with their audiences. In a story about a school, for example, the audience would consist of teachers, parents, students, support personnel, school board members and state regulators. For reaching your audience, Hennes recommended using “POTS” or plain old telephone service, snail mail, faxes and billboards, as well as email and the latest Internet-based technologies, including social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter.
Hennes believes it is crucial for organizations in crisis to understand that it is a reporter’s job to tell stories. Reporters take the facts you share and transform them into what Hennes calls “story frameworks.” Iraqi war stories and sports stories are told within the “hero framework,” for example. Other common frameworks include stories about redemption, falling from grace and overcoming odds.
Lawyers are apt to encounter what Hennes called “The Three V’s Framework,” which stands for the villain, the victim and the vindicator. “The villain did something wrong to the victim and the vindicator rides to the rescue. Whoever makes the accusation is the vindicator,” he said.
“The second that framework is triggered, the only thing that counts is the speed of your reply,” Hennes said. Even if you’re not the villain, “if you have waited hours or even days to get your side of the story out, nobody will believe you, because when the facts don’t fit the frame, people discard the facts.”
You do not want to be the villain. Once you get branded as the villain, nobody will believe what you have to say. “You can’t just talk your way out of being a villain,” Hennes said. “You’ve got to act your way out.”
Turning from a villain to a vindicator and winning in the court of public opinion is possible. To do that, Hennes uses what he calls his “Three ‘F’ Formula:” “F”-up, fess up and fix up. “Admit what happened. Talk about what you or your client did when it happened and then pivot over to what you’re going to do to make sure it never happens again,” he explained.
“Most of the time you’re not going to be judged by what happened,” Hennes added. “You’re going to be judged by what you did after it happened.” By using the three “f”s, you force the reporter to write the story about you being the vindicator. But when you use the words “no comment” or push the camera out of way, you’re giving reporters the power to cast you in the role of villain.
Hennes believes every organization should assemble a crisis communication team and develop a crisis communication plan that includes protocols and procedures and a clearly defined media policy. Plans should also include preapproved messages for crisis scenarios as well as templates for letters, statements to the media and other communication tools for each scenario.
To avoid being branded a villain in the media, Hennes shared several practical tips.
- Don’t return reporter phone calls in a timely manner.
- Speak through spokespersons.
- Avoid making eye contact.
- Use “weasel” words and phrases such as, “I’m sorry you feel that way.”
On the other hand, vindicators:
- Return phone calls.
- Make eye contact.
- Offer sincere apologies.
- Express honesty through their body language, with open, expansive gestures.