April 1, 2010
An issue was brewing, and my organization needed to prepare a response quickly. I had about 10 minutes to pull the whole communication together. Adrenaline pumping, I jotted down key messages, fact-checked the background information and proofread for accuracy. I was almost out of time, but as my finger hovered over the send button, I suddenly realized that I needed to leave my desk — even if only for a moment — clear my head, and take another look before launching the plan. I got up, left my office and took a walk.
When I returned a few moments later, I sat down and looked at my computer screen again, and to my surprise, several new thoughts immediately came to me — ideas that clarified the messages and strengthened the communication.
I’ve experienced this same epiphany many other times over the years. I call it the “ninth minute” stage in the communications process. I’ve learned that, no matter how much time I have to get a response out the door — even if it’s only 10 minutes — it’s critical to take that ninth minute to sit back, look beyond the moment and assess whether what I’m about to do is the right course of action.
Here are some important ninth-minute steps to take before you go live in any high-stakes situation.
• Ensure that the action you’re about to take is linked to your organization’s strategies. To be sure that you are linking to your strategy in the ninth minute, you need to have that strategy in place by the first minute. Otherwise, chances are that whatever you do will end up being a knee-jerk reaction.
Dave Imre, APR, CEO and president of Imre Communications in Baltimore, says, “Never take off the strategist’s hat. The minute you embed yourself and talk total tactics is when you’ll make a mistake.”
He continues, “Before you hit that ‘send’ button, consider not only whether your response fits this particular situation, but whether it advances your organization and speaks to its mission.”
PR professionals are best prepared to make that assessment in times of crisis if they’ve already spent their down time learning as much as they can about their business and developing a supporting communications strategy.
• Consider and prioritize all stakeholders and key publics. When organizations are under stress and moving quickly, it’s easy to overlook key audiences. In the ninth minute, ask yourself: Are you speaking to everyone you need to speak to? Have you overlooked anyone?
And, while you’re considering all of those audiences, be sure that you prioritize them appropriately.
“It’s important to consider all publics, but not all publics are equal — so you need to assign them each a priority and consider their relative weight,” says Anthony D’Angelo, APR, Fellow PRSA, director of operations at St. Joseph’s Hospital Health Center Foundation in Syracuse, N.Y. “This helps you avoid the mistake of sinking all your time and energy into talking to one group while overlooking the needs of another.”
For example, suppose that a company experiences a problem with one of its products. If the fear of legal action is high, then the organization might be tempted to only talk to regulators and the broader consumer audience. While these are important audiences, the most important audience is the consumers of this particular product, and the most important message is the company’s commitment to and concern for them.
• Weigh the pros and the cons of your planned communication. Imre describes a possible scenario: An organization and its brand are under attack, and well-meaning employees want to set the record straight and protect the company. There is no social media policy in place, so these well-meaning employees defend their brand on blogs and Twitter without disclosing who they are. The pros of doing this are probably obvious to the employees. The cons, however — inadvertent disclosure of confidential competitive information, or the ethical implications of anonymous blogging — may not be.
Analyzing these pros and cons doesn’t need to be a complicated process. D’Angelo advises doing a simple, low-tech exercise — list the possible pros and cons of your intended actions before you take that final step. And, he adds, “Put it on a single sheet of paper. When you’re on the firing line and the bullets are whizzing past your ears, you need to be able to work through this quickly.”
• Take the long view. If you really believe that you are staying true to your organization’s mission and vision and serving the needs of your shareholders and society, then it might be best to weather the short-term negative publicity rather than react immediately.
That negative publicity might seem overwhelming at the ninth minute, but as D’Angelo notes, “What will this look like after tomorrow, after a week, a month, a year? The situation may look painfully urgent right now, but that doesn’t mean it will have the same significance down the road. If you have a solid strategy that serves both your organization and your shareholders, hold on to that strategy — even in the heat of the moment.”
Confirming that you have a good organizational strategy — or figuring out that you have a bad one — is much easier if you have a social media strategy in place.
For example, Imre says, if you have social media know-how and are monitoring conversations, then your organization already knows what people are saying about you. Understanding what’s going on now helps you to better predict what will happen next.
• Don’t neglect the problem while you’re paying attention to the communication. In times of crisis, D’Angelo says the temptation may be that instead of trying to work the problem, you work the communication about the problem. The main focus needs to be on fixing the problem for the short term and the long term — and if you’re working to fix the problem, the communication will flow accordingly.
“So, at the ninth minute, it’s a good idea to take a hard look at your problem-solving process as well as your communication process,” he says.
• Control your emotions. Counsel your clients and managers to do the same. At the ninth minute, emotions can run high; stress and speed can be the enemy of good judgment. The tone and content of your communications can have far-reaching implications, so choose your words carefully. Be accurate and truthful, and don’t guess. Ask yourself: Would you want to see your comments in print — or in court?
When I teach this concept to college students, I often mention a principle called the “24-Hour Rule.” If possible, wait at least a day to send any sensitive or high-stakes communication — particularly if it is emotionally charged. Write a draft, but then sit on it overnight and look at it again the next morning with fresh eyes.
However, even if you have much less time than 24 hours, you can take some specific steps to ensure that emotion and urgency don’t triumph over good judgment. Leave the computer area and take a break before you push the send button. Call someone who you trust and talk through your planned response with him or her.
“Responding to a crisis needs to be a collaborative process,” Imre says. “It’s not that it’s a group event, but it does take a team approach to get it right.”
Copyright © 2010 PRSA. All rights reserved.
Susan Balcom Walton, M.A., APR, is an associate professor of public relations at Brigham Young University. She has also held communications management positions at various Fortune 500 companies.
Email: susan_walton at byu.edu