How NOT to deal with a crisis: lessons from an oil spill


I recently wrote a post about the basics of crisis management. In it, I noted:

"The reality is that organizational seniority of the spokesperson typically reflects how much attention the company is paying to the issue. In a fairly significant crisis, with a stock-price impact, your CEO likely would be the one to respond, at least to the top-tier media outlets in your industry covering the story."

With that in mind, it was surprising to see a report that Husky Energy - one of Canada's largest integrated energy companies - has decided to start exclusively using email to communicate with the media in the aftermath of a Saskatchewan oil spill which threatens community drinking water and has attracted national media coverage.

I agree with much of what fellow crisis expert Barry McLoughlin says in the CBC News piece linked above. Even when there is little new information available in a crisis, and when the narrative is not fully in your control, an appropriate company spokesperson - not a key message in an email - should be available to media. And with an issue of this magnitude, a senior leader should be the one answering media questions, rather than someone in the communications department.

By resorting to email alone, companies dehumanize their response and ensure they're perceived as monolithic entities without a human face. As Barry notes in his comments to the CBC, it's much harder to trust a faceless key message than a human being.

I'm betting Husky's rationale is that written messages and timelines, surely vetted word-by-word by the legal department, will be more effective with the media than what its spokespeople have been able to achieve to date. I've written about this approach too. Sometimes it works, but most often it does not.

I believe in the post mortem of this issue, questions will be raised about Husky's decision to rely on email instead of presenting a well-informed, readily available and transparent leader as the face of its public response.

Here's what to do when your company is facing its first reputation crisis


No matter what industry they operate in, large companies sooner or later find themselves on the receiving end of customer anger. Regardless of whether the grievance has any merit, a chance also exists that a simple complaint could snowball into something larger, either through social or traditional media. At other times, a more significant event like a privacy breach, power outage, product recall or fraud can end up in the media directly, putting companies in a reactive or defensive position from the start.

The damage that a crisis can inflict on a brand can be significant and is well recognized. In fact, reputation damage ranked as the top risk in Aon's global risk management survey last year. Part of this is a recognition that reputations are built over the course of years and decades, but it can take just a few news cycles to do them serious harm.

As a result, big companies have sophisticated plans, information networks, crisis committees and various contingencies to help them quickly and effectively respond to a reputation issue. Most also routinely retain external experts to run simulations, audit their plans with an eye for constant improvement, and train leaders on how to respond to media inquiries when crisis hits.

But what happens when you're a startup or a mid-sized company which has enjoyed rapid growth with few hiccups, and you haven't spent a lot of time planning for a potential crisis? What do you do when the first headlines hit, the phone starts ringing and customers, suppliers, regulators and investors are demanding answers which you don't readily have available?

Speaking from experience with crises both large and small, getting external advice from a level-headed crisis management expert is a smart move. But over and above that, here are three basic, practical things you should do right away when your company faces a crisis for the first time, or you're unprepared. 

1. Find out who has the facts, and get them in front of your seniorleadership team as soon as possible.

It's absolutely crucial to immediately figure out who inside your business is the closest to the issue at hand and has the relevant facts. That's because factually accurate information is the bedrock of any crisis response strategy. Until you have at least some of the facts, there's little you can say externally, other than acknowledging you're aware of a problem and are looking into it.

In addition, if you prematurely make a comment which ends up misstating the facts, it can come back to bite you. Even if it's just an honest factual error, you could later be accused of trying to mislead your stakeholders, which can create another negative storyline for you to manage.

Once you've found the issue owner, get that person or team in front of your company's senior leaders - fast. This is not a time for sticking to a slow hierarchy before booking a meeting for the following day. Social (and, increasingly, traditional) media move in real time, which means you need to do so as well.


Instead of waiting, meet immediately, hash out what you know and how you will find out what you do not. Make sure your communications team is at the table, as well. They'll be your main pipeline to external audiences, and the more plugged in they are early on, the faster you can respond. They should also be closely be monitoring social media sentiment and early media coverage online.

2. Formulate your first response

As soon as your leadership has all the early facts, agree with your communications team on who should respond to the issue, and how. It's most likely that your starting stance will be very factual and neutral in tone. Just as there are no second chances to make a first impression, this first public response will set the tone for how you handle the issue going forward.

Equally important: who will be your spokesperson? The reality is that organizational seniority of the spokesperson typically reflects how much attention the company is paying to the issue. In a fairly significant crisis, with a stock-price impact, your CEO likely would be the one to respond, at least to the top-tier media outlets in your industry covering the story. Meanwhile, your communications team should draft the messaging storyline, handle your response on social media, prepare written statements for customers, and line up media interviews. They should also quickly run your CEO through a mock interview to prepare her or him for the most likely questions.

If it's clearly obvious the crisis is due to your company's actions (or a failure to act), you should strongly consider a prompt and transparent apology. Sincere apologies garner good will with impacted stakeholders, and have been seen as a potential lawsuit deterrent. Lawyers sometimes counsel against apologizing, lest it later be seen as an admission of guilt in a court of law. That's a discussion to have with your legal team, but various laws now exist - depending on your jurisdiction - which protect apologies from being treated as an admission of fault or liability.

I've also seen a number of instances where companies refused to apologize for to their customers because they believed the fault was with a third-party supplier. That's a mistake. The customer is your customer, not the supplier's. 


You should also be prepared to admit you don't have all the answers. During my communications career, I sometimes would hear crisis advisors say, "you have to control the story on your terms, so always stick to your messages, regardless of what you're being asked." Sometimes that works. Often, it does not. You will rarely be faulted for plainly stating that the situation is moving rapidly and that you're working as fast as you can to obtain the relevant information.

3. Keep the information flowing internally and externally

If you've promised you will do everything you can to get answers, then you should absolutely make sure you do it. That means that when your company's initial leadership meeting described in point No. 1 has concluded, the group should have already agreed to reconvene for a series of future updates. This is a critical time, and one where companies often lose control of the storyline. If the gap between your first response and follow up is too wide, you run the significant risk of letting other voices recast the crisis and tell the story for you.

As soon as you have more facts, and your leaders and internal advisors (legal, investor relations, compliance, and others) have had a chance to weigh the information and develop an update, you should share it externally across your social channels, and reach out proactively to the reporters covering the story. Don't wait for the phone to ring. If the media aren't calling you, you can bet they're calling someone else who might be providing them with inaccurate or biased information, intentionally or otherwise.

You should also consistently be going back to fact check that everything you're sharing internally and externally is verified as accurate before you disseminate it. It takes a lot of effort to pull back wrong information or to correct media reporting errors which you created with inaccuracy, so it really pays to double- and triple-check.

Here's something you likely won't be thinking about while dealing with the crisis, but should be: your decisions and actions should be recorded. When you have a moment, write down what you've done and how you've done it as it's happening. That will make any post-mortem of the crisis much more valuable and help prepare you for the future.


Advice, perspective and experience

The three points above will help you cope with the initial impact of crisis. But if this is your first time at the rodeo, you really should enlist someone with experience in the arena. Perhaps you have a veteran executive on your advisory board, or maybe your head of sales chaired the reputation risk committee at the last company where she worked. In addition, outside advisors with crisis management experience can be brought in to help.

Lastly, you have to ensure that this is a learning experience for you and your company, and that you invest in preparing for the future. Proactive planning can drastically reduce your response times when the next issue hits, and there's no better time for it than right after a crisis.

I hope you enjoyed the post and if so, that you’ll take the time to like, share and comment!

Busting a PR myth: why "sticking to your key messages" will NOT get you great results


For many years, one of the big mantras in PR has been that you should keep hammering away at the key messages you’re trying to get across in a media interview, no matter what.

Is the reporter asking you a completely unrelated question? Doesn’t matter – repeat your key message. Do they want to speak to you about an issue or topic your key messages don't even cover? Doesn’t matter – repeat your key message. Is the interview a fairly relaxed conversation about your company’s strategy, rather than a reputation-destroying crisis? One size fits all – just repeat your key message.

If you do this enough, this line of PR thinking goes, your points will stick and the reporter will repeat them. The industry even gave this approach a name of its very own: “block (the reporter's actual question) and bridge (to your key message).”

Great - except it rarely works!

Don't get me wrong: without a doubt, messaging is extremely important to PR success. Your spokesperson or leader should know the story they want to tell, how to tell it, and why. However, that's very different from the "block and bridge" definition of a key message: a narrowly worded statement, aimed exclusively at promoting the speaker's self-interest and often repeated ad nauseam.

Leaders are counselled to “block and bridge” when they speak with reporters because of the illusion of control it creates. After all, if every single one of your answers contains the same one or two points you’re trying to convey, the reporter is bound to use them somehow. You're also creating a simple script for your spokespeople to follow, which makes missteps less likely. Nothing bad can happen if you only talk about how great you are or how well your company is doing, right?

This logic might make sense at first blush, but I have seen it in action both as areporter and during my communications career, and the results just don't bear it out. Here are a few of the reasons why this approach doesn't work most of the time:

It erodes trust and insults the reporter

Imagine a reporter asks you about the economy's impact on your business, and you answer by saying, “That’s a good question, but the real point here is how well equipped we are to continue to deliver sustainable earnings growth.” Block! Bridge! Key message! Great!

Of course, what's really happening is you are openly showing that you don’t understand or care about what the reporter is trying to do and why you’ve been given the opportunity in the first place. You’re also implying you think you can defeat the reporter’s professional-grade spin detector through brute force alone. You can bet the reporter knows this, and it can cost you media opportunities further down the road as a result, in addition to destroying any trust that already exists between you.


Years ago, while working as a journalist, I called a soft drink company for a story about the industry. I wanted to speak to someone in marketing about the sales decline in one product category. The company could have offered up someone who was willing to acknowledge that the market had changed, and who could talk about what the company was doing about it.

Instead, I was treated to a “block and bridge” interview about how everything was completely, unequivocally great. Rather than a conversation, the exchange felt as though the spokesperson was reading a set of two or three key messages to me, over and over again, regardless of what I was asking. It was a frustrating waste of time. I never used any of the comments, and didn't bother calling the company for future industry coverage.

It hurts your brand and authenticity

Even if you succeed at jamming your key message in the reporter’s face enough to get them to print some version of it, there is a good chance your quote will be highly incongruous with the rest of the story, or taken out of context altogether. I've also seen many instances where interview subjects were perplexed as to why a journalist paraphrased what they said, parked it at the bottom of the story, or did not quote them at all.

Quite often, repetitive, lazy and blatantly self-promotional "block and bridge" key messages are to blame. I recall reporter colleagues often complaining of being "key messaged to death," which was synonymous with a wasted interview.

There’s a significant knock-on effect here, because you also have the audience to consider. The customers, prospects, investors and other stakeholders who read, watch or hear your interview could see you as absent, inauthentic, unrealistic or thoughtless. This can have long-lasting, negative ramifications for your brand and your stock price.

It wrongly assumes all media requests the same

To be fair, “block and bridge” can work when you’re facing a legitimate crisis, with little available information early on, as well as a rapidly evolving storyline. For example, if an equipment failure at your company causes a power outage, you will only be able to tell the media that you’re investigating, at least until you have more information, no matter how many questions they ask you. The same is true when you’re trying to protect your reputation in a news cycle during which rumour and inaccuracy has entered the coverage. When you're trying to set the record straight, factual repetition can be key.

However, in the vast majority of media opportunities, adopting the “block and bridge” strategy comes across as needlessly wary, cautious and even paranoid.

For example, if a new competitor to your business emerges and a reporter comes calling, you shouldn't assume they are "out to get you." In fact, it's great that you've been given a chance to insert yourself into the story! This could be a great opportunity to talk about what sets you apart, how your leaders have shaped the industry thus far and how you will innovate to continue to stay ahead.

There is a better way!

Experienced and confident leaders know when to ignore the "block and bridge" counsel. And savvy communications advisers who truly understand the media very rarely invoke it.

Good spokespeople and their advisors know the story they want to tell and, importantly, how to tell it authentically, transparently and in a compelling way. Again, it's important to know and understand your messaging, rather than to drill home a set of rigid "block and bridge" key messages.

I firmly believe that PR success for companies hinges on healthy, respectful, give-and-take relationships with reporters and editors. That means an open and mutual understanding of each other’s goals, and of what makes a good story.

"Block and bridge" tactics almost never have a place in this sort of world view. When a good storytelling relationship exists between a company and a media outlet, there is no room or need for repetitive stonewalling with irrelevant key messages as a means of hammering home a point.

That doesn't mean that leaders and companies should abandon any hope of telling a strong, positive story about their businesses. Quite the opposite - narrative arcs in which adversity is overcome can be truly compelling, especially if they're anchored around human, multi-dimensional characters. Are you telling a good story? That should be the focus.

In addition, when you build trust with a reporter, over time, they will become more willing to listen to the story you’re trying to pitch, just as you will become more interested in listening to their queries when they come calling. And they'll also be more receptive to hearing your side when crisis hits.

So, as you get ready to act on your next media opportunity, think about more than just your company’s key messages. In fact, begin long before then: connect with the reporters and bloggers who cover your company and see what they find interesting about you, and how you can help each other.

I hope you enjoyed the post and if so, that you’ll take the time to like, share and comment!