Politics is the ultimate reality experience. Successful campaigns can’t afford to live in ivory towers.
But when it comes to bad news breaking, people in the political arena too often naively think “It can’t happen to us.”
Sooner or later, it almost always does. The first rule of political communications is, “Expect the unexpected.” And in the ever-evolving instantaneous News Cycle you can’t afford mistakes.
Following these seven steps will help when you discover the news is bad and you’re in it.
1) Have a pro-active crisis communications plan
Remember, it wasn’t raining when Noah built the ark. The time to prepare for a crisis is before it happens. Knowing what to do will be immensely helpful when the raindrops start falling.
The first step is identifying your Crisis Communications Team. Pick a select handful of individuals in advance who will guide you through the crisis and inform them they are on this team. This is a case of less is more: when a crisis hits, everyone wants to be helpful and offer their advice. But the last thing you need to hear is a barrage of contradictory input about what you should or shouldn’t do or say.
Gather the Team, close the door and discuss the situation openly and frankly. Team members should be cool headed and steady in tough situations. Their task is made all the harder by a Henny Penny who runs around screaming, “The sky is falling!” This is a time for clear thinking, not for Nervous Nellies to vent their anxiety.
2) Have One Designated Spokesperson
In a crisis, one -and only one- person must speak for the campaign or organization. Typically, that person is the communications director or press secretary. But sometimes the comms guy or gal may be directly involved in the controversy and a fresh voice is needed. Make sure everyone knows at the outset that ALL communication with the news media, public and involved stakeholders goes through the designated spokesperson.
Be sure everyone is told to clam up and say nothing. Don’t assume they automatically know to do it – actually tell them. (Verbally, so there’s no paper trail that can get leaked to the media.)
3) Take a Deep Breath
No matter how bad the situation is, or how serious it may prove to be, stop and take a deep breath. Clear your head and then calmly and coolly assess the situation.
While that sounds incredibly simplistic, it’s essential. Too many times, the Crisis Communications Team wants to roll into action before stopping first to think. Making the wrong steps too soon can make a bad situation worse.
4) The clock is ticking
Never in history has time been as rare a commodity as it is today. In the fast-paced News Cycle, every minute counts. Stories are posted on newspaper and TV station websites as soon as the news breaks and are updated throughout the day. They’re also shared instantaneously via social media. In these situations the old adage, “He who hesitates is lost” is especially true.
The most damning thing in crisis communications is not communicating. Stories containing the lines, “The campaign had no comment,” or “The campaign didn’t return requests for comment” can be inaccurately interpreted as tacit admissions of guilt or secrecy.
The designated spokesperson must know how to buy time. Sometimes, if there’s an existing relationship with a reporter, the spokesperson can say, “Please give me a couple of hours and I’ll have something for you.” Other times a short, simple, direct statement is in order: “Our campaign is aware of these allegations. We are currently discussing the matter with our attorneys and other involved parties and will be addressing it shortly.”
Don’t be a turtle. Ducking into your shell won’t make reporters go away. Providing something they can use in their story, even a placeholder statement, buys time for your Crisis Communications Team to devise an effective strategy and signals your campaign isn’t trying to hide.
5) Come Clean
It’s a cliche, yet also there’s much truth in it: the coverup is worse than the crime.
No matter how much it hurts, come clean. ‘Fess up and take the hit. Always tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Reporters love publicly humiliating those who lie to them.
At the very least, a full disclosure and apology (if warranted) will dramatically shorten the life of the story. Failing to do so will only prolong it, and few things are as miserable as death by a thousand paper cuts. In some cases taking ownership of a mistake can actually gain support among voters. For instance, President Kennedy was astonished to see his poll numbers go up after he accepted sole responsibility for the 1961 Bay of Pigs fiasco.
6) Be sincere and authentic
If you need to make an admission of wrongdoing, be contrite and be sincere. Voters can see through phoniness like looking through a glass window.
Don’t couch your apology with qualifiers, either. “I wouldn’t have done it if he hadn’t …” “I admit I did it; but everybody else does it …” “While I admit my actions were in violation of the law, they were not wrong.” Take your lumps and then let your messaging team extol the virtue of your honesty and forthrightness.
7) Don’t be afraid to bring in the pro’s
Most unpleasant situations that you and your organization are likely to encounter can be successfully handled by your staff. But if the matter truly is that serious, don’t be afraid to call in professional crisis managers. They’re costly, but their expertise could save your reputation and you can’t be pennywise and pound foolish when it come to that.
I wish you smooth sailing. And should a storm suddenly blow up, don’t freak out. Almost every campaign faces one sooner or later. By following these tips, you’ll live to tell about it.