In today’s world, news of a corporate disaster or fatal injury travels fast. In less than a minute from the time an incident occurs, media phone calls begin.
There are countless recent examples of how companies have botched initial post-incident communications in such a way that their actions have led to devastating consequences, from inviting political attacks or litigation to causing shifts in political opinion that directly diminish stock prices. A company must have a battle-tested plan for immediate incident response that includes media communication and public outreach. Keep the following four considerations in mind when planning post-incident media response.
Think big picture
When responding to questions from The New York Times, keep in mind that anything told to a reporter may be on Twitter and the Internet within minutes of the communication. Any media communications must be deliberate and strategic given that the initial media themes often serve as the groundwork for political attacks and claims made in future litigation. These longer-term interests must be weighed when crafting responses to media questions likely focused more on the company’s immediate response. Communications with the media must be made while considering the other post-incident drivers of exposure such as government investigations, politics, public opinion and the likely certainty of post-incident litigation.
Own the message
Be proactive rather than reactive in the wake of an incident. As facts are learned, disclose them, but stick to the facts and avoid the desire to speculate until facts are truly facts. Any corporate media response needs to emphasize the human interests involved, particularly if workers, the public or the environment has been injured. Public opinion and political actors will turn against the company quickly if the company appears to focus on corporate and property interests above human factors. Some of the most logical considerations in post-incident communications are those most often forgotten: show empathy, ensure that those responding to the media have had media training and do not forget to communicate with the company’s employees (they should hear about the company’s reaction to the incident from company executives and not from CNN).
Do not make it worse
Benjamin Franklin is credited with saying, “Never ruin an apology with an excuse.” Too often, post-incident communications take a manageable situation and turn it into a corporate crisis. Until the facts are known, resist the need to respond to every criticism, do not blame others involved in the operation, or attempt to dodge liability. Above all else, do not underestimate the incident’s impact and never declare success too soon.
Understand the information
Following an incident, the company will be inundated with requests for information from the media and from government actors. There needs to be a plan in place for identifying and preserving information pertaining to an operation that will help determine the causes of the incident and potentially assist the company in future litigation. However, before disclosing any information, understand what it contains. (Too often a company discloses information to the media or the government without first assessing its contents.) For example, the information could contain privileged legal advice that would otherwise be protected from disclosure by the attorney-client privilege but by disclosing it, a company risks waiving the protection of privilege of that information.
Incidents are never expected, but make sure company executives are adequately prepared to deal with the post-incident drivers of exposure, including media response, before the company is caught off guard.