5 C’s of crisis communications

When you’re scrambling to save face after a disaster, remind your leaders to demonstrate these five behaviors.

A crisis strikes your company. News helicopters are flying overhead, reporters with camera crews start showing up at your headquarters, and journalists from all over the world are calling your communications department.

That scenario might seem dramatic—and admittedly, most corporate crises aren’t quite that sensational—but it happens. When a plane crashes, a factory has a major explosion, or an academic campus has a shooting, all of those things happen, and more.

It’s common for executives to deliver press conferences in those situations—and how well they come across during their early press conferences and media interviews is crucial to establishing strong public perception.

The five C’s of crisis communications detail the five attributes that executives and spokespersons must convey during their press conferences and interviews. Here they are:

1. Competence

Early in a crisis—before the facts are known and when company officials are as blindsided as everyone else by the news—it’s easy for an executive to appear flummoxed, unsure, and tentative. As an example, watch this video of the flustered chairman of a rail company responding to a derailment that killed more than 40 people in Quebec.

The public can’t see how well you perform handling the details of the crisis itself. They can’t watch you delegate roles, see your private meetings, or hear your phone calls. So whether it’s fair or not, they will judge your competence based on how well you perform in the media spotlight. Handle a tough press conference with dexterity? You’re deemed competent. Look uneasy before cameras? You’re not.

2. Credibility

There’s one question that drives the public’s perception of an executive or spokesperson more than any other: “Does he or she get it?” Anything that undercuts an executive’s credibility threatens their public image for the rest of the crisis, and possibly forever. In some cases, the best way to gain credibility is to concede, rather than defend, an obvious point.

When BP’s former CEO Tony Hayward declared during the worst oil spill in U.S. history that “the amount of volume of oil…we are putting into [the Gulf of Mexico] is tiny in relation to the total water volume,” the public concluded that he didn’t get it. He should have conceded that it was an environmental disaster and stopped there.

3. Commitment

To set the right tone, executives and spokespersons must express (in words or actions) a deep commitment to communicating with any affected stakeholders, the media, and the general public. Doing so ensures that reporters will use you as the primary source and helps communicate your commitment to solving the problem (or at least mitigating its effects).

When Carnival Cruises had a PR challenge in February 2013 after an onboard fire knocked out water and power, the company’s CEO got credit for showing up when the ship docked and going aboard to apologize to passengers personally. The company’s commitment to communicating to the passengers themselves was less effective; many complained that the crew didn’t keep them fully informed about the situation.

4. Caring

Little makes the public turn on an executive or public figure in crisis more than someone who’s cavalier toward the victims. As an example, when Lance Armstrong admitted to Oprah Winfrey that he had used performance-enhancing drugs, he took the opportunity to “jokingly” label a former teammate’s wife—whom Armstrong had falsely called a liar for years—a “crazy bitch.”

Few executives label victims that way, but they might communicate their indifference through self-focus. If an executive talks about the way he or she has suffered more than the way the actual victims suffered (see Tony Hayward’s, “I’d like my life back“), that exec will be held in low regard or become an outright pariah.

5. Capability

Finally, the public must perceive that the executive is capable of solving the problem. BP’s Tony Hayward failed that test. So did Susan G. Komen Foundation CEO Nancy Brinker. So did Paula Deen. So did Lululemon founder Chip Wilson.

Jet Blue’s David Neeleman got it exactly right.

When Jet Blue faced a media crisis after canceling hundreds of flights and leaving passengers stuck on grounded planes without food or water for many hours in 2007, CEO David Neeleman responded by releasing a “Passenger Bill of Rights.” That Bill of Rights offered passengers increasing levels of compensation based on the length of their flight delays.

This interview from the “Today” show demonstrated his competence, credibility, commitment, caring, and capability.

Brad Phillips is author of The Media Training Bible: 101 Things You Absolutely, Positively Need to Know Before Your Next Interview. He is also the president of Phillips Media Relations, a media and presentation training firm, and blogs at Mr. Media Training, where a version of this story first appeared.

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