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Communicating effectively during times of crisis

June 27, 2019 By    

Sirens filled the air along with the telltale rotten egg smell. It was breaking news right in front of me, as police, fire and EMS conducted a precautionary neighborhood evacuation.

Photo: iStock.com/SergeyIT

Photo: iStock.com/SergeyIT

My TV news video camera was focused on a firefighter and propane technician in the backyard, examining the homeowner’s leaking 1,000-gallon aboveground tank. What the propane tech did next at this potential crisis scene remains fresh in my mind 30 years later.

The tech looked up and instinctively asked me: “Does any of your gear run on batteries or start and stop with a switch?”

His training and situational awareness instinctively kicked in to reduce any risk at the scene. Yes, my gear did run on two brick-sized batteries. Electrical sparks of any kind could negatively change this news story.

I slowly moved backward to a location where my zoom lens could safely capture the rest of the incident.

News anchors later explained that quick-thinking professionals brought safety to a potentially disastrous situation. The pros dispersed the tank’s remaining fuel, and residents returned to their homes 90 minutes later. This story was repeated on the evening’s newscasts, reaching 1 million homes in upstate New York.

While I was dispatched the next day to report on tank safety, most propane companies declined speaking on camera. A few national names offered a “no comment,” while others explained they had no one locally authorized to speak to the media. Working under a tight deadline, I finally found a local company to speak on camera about propane’s safety record during transportation, storage and customer use.

The story on tank safety ended up being more educational than sensational. At the time, newsroom colleagues told me the story felt like a helpful primer on propane safety.

Another side of communication

Some 25 years later, I was again drawn to the front line of another propane crisis communication situation. This time, my public relations and marketing firm was hired by a major propane company to help combat 24 months of brand-bashing media coverage.

Several reporters had gone after the marketer for billing and delivery issues and blown things out of proportion. A few highly vocal customers made it appear as if the errors were commonplace and the company didn’t seem to care. The company took the complaints seriously and dug deep into customer records to determine what was true.

Sometimes the fact-finding efforts did not meet newscast deadlines, adding to the false perception that the company was hiding something. As far as I could tell, that was not the case.

Our job was to get the propane marketer out of hot water and clear the air. Many months of these “hit-and-run” stories crafted by the media had a negative impact on sales, employee morale and brand perception. To add fuel to the fire, our multiple requests for corrections and retractions at several stations were met with resistance from reporters and even sometimes station management. This was not the kind of journalism I learned, but it was what the company was facing.

In one segment, a reporter wagged her finger on camera trying to shame the marketer. Admittedly, this type of coverage may be isolated, and a vast majority of media outlets seek the facts for balanced reporting. However, advocacy and “gotcha” consumer reports exist.

With the marketer nursing a black eye, we developed a proactive strategy to take control of brand messaging on the stations producing the negative news. We carefully crafted advertising and media sponsorships that presented the company in a more positive light.

Soon after our own campaign started, the negative news coverage in multiple markets stopped. There has not been a single negative news story by any of the offending since.

Our next mission was to rebuild the brand’s positive visibility through community engagement efforts, large-scale event sponsorships and partnerships with local and national non-profit agencies. Rebuilding the reputation from the communications crisis was a time-consuming and costly process.

We coordinated a local blood drive with the blessing of community-minded company executives. Three years later, the event had grown into a national campaign supporting 19,000 blood drives. This life-saving campaign continues to roll forward.

Don’t wait until the call goes out on the police scanner for a neighborhood evacuation to get your crisis communication strategy in place.

What marketers need to know

Understand you cannot control the messages communicated by fact-seeking reporters. The best strategy is to help reporters in a way that mutually supports the media along with your brand and company policies:

  • Predetermine what general information can be released based on company policies involving approval from c-suite, marketing, legal, operations and PR.
  • Respond to media inquiries within one hour during business hours to assist with stories when they are both good news and bad news.
  • Build media relationships for the long haul.
  • Develop an around-the-clock emergency response protocol that includes media training for senior managers and executives.
  • Ask what deadline they are under and exactly what information they need.
  • Tell reporters you will give them what information you can and by when; avoid the “no comment” response or “hiding,” as it makes the company look guilty.
  • Prepare to respond to categories involving billing, transportation, regulations, call center, supply, equipment, storage, emergencies, employee conduct and upset customers who do not understand company policies.
  • Beware of trying to befriend a reporter. It can backfire. Reporters can be friendly, but they cannot be your friend.

Roger Rosenbaum is an Emmy-nominated reporter who received several first-place awards for reporting from the Associated Press and the New York State Broadcasters Association. He has consulted with propane marketers on media relations and content creation.

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