Bimbo Banter

After the Disaster

  • Leadership
  • April 15, 2015
  • by Merrie Spaeth

American bar association

Responding, Carrying on and Lasting Consequences

It was a great honor to be a panelist at the American Bar Association’s Section of Environment, Energy and Resource’s (SEER) 2015 conference. The charge of the panel was to outline the necessary action to take following a disaster—in this case, an oil refinery fire that caused a major explosion. The distinguished Carol Dinkins, former U.S. Deputy Attorney General, chaired the panel which included James Bruen of Farella Braun + Martel and Peter Wright, managing counsel of Dow Chemical, both of whom have practically  written the book on how to handle major incidents. As the only non-attorney panel member, and the one with illustrative (and entertaining) video examples, I played a small role, but I made some important points. Since the case study began “after” the disaster, my role was to address communications and how to deal with the media during a crisis.

In the hypothetical (but very real) scenario, I was tasked with defending my “company,” but I had to ensure that I could define just how prepared we were to handle the situation. Here’s what you need to know about preparing for a crisis:

No mistakes. One ill-timed sound bite can destroy a narrative. Preparing to communicate during a crisis requires training before a crisis so everyone is using the same methodology or approach to communication. It also means selling your C-suite or experts on the importance of rehearsal and control. Remember BP CEO Tony Hayward’s ill-suited “I’d like my life back” comment? Good communication means influencing what people hear, believe and remember. This is the exact opposite of the attitude “What do I want to say?” Bottom line: If you haven’t rehearsed it, don’t say it. Ongoing training and practice is important in order to get comfortable with responding to challenging questions. The goal is to respond conversationally without being trapped by the parameters, words and topic of the question, which leads directly to the next takeaway.

No negatives. The rule is simple, but execution requires practice:  don’t repeat and deny negatives. This is because the listener overlooks the denial and hears the opposite of what the speaker is trying to say. “This is not a criminal investigation” only raises the idea that it’s criminal; “This is not yet a criminal investigation” implies that tomorrow, someone will be indicted. During the conference, I heard a number of lawyers say, “These chemicals aren’t dangerous,” and “Tell people not to worry.” This is right up there with the nurse who says, “This won’t hurt.”

Is it true? While you’re scoping out potential crisis scenarios, make sure that the comments you prepare are true. These are the immediate assertions such as “Safety is always our top priority,” “We provide ongoing training” or “We proactively encourage employees to report issues.” There are many examples of companies that made such claims only to have reporters find employees who contradicted them.

Who’s on first? That is, who speaks for the company? Most companies use a tiered approach when choosing a spokesperson depending on the type and severity of the incident. Whoever it is, they must understand likeability and the medium through which they’re communicating. Think of the coal company CEO who was in the hot seat for a spill last year. He knew everything about coal mining and nothing about what makes people listen to you and believe you. Additionally, communication “mission control” needs to develop a close relationship with the legal team because, in a volatile situation, they will rule the day and you’d better be able to work closely with them.

Make sure you have compelling competitive video. Most negative news results in horrific images and video. Proper preparation means having images and video that supports the company’s contentions. Generically this means that if you claim safety is a top priority, what can you point to that visually proves it? A safety campaign, safety training videos or other safety-related material. If you have legitimate, non-hyped material you can share, sometimes a reporter will use them and they will help counter the negative images.

Set up monitoring systems. It is imperative to have your monitoring systems in place, which includes thinking through how the company and your employees use social media. Telling employees “don’t do it” is unrealistic, and today, a significant portion of “media” is citizen-generated. Everybody has a cell phone with a good camera and video capabilities. You need to be prepared.

Do your neighbors like you? During the discussion, Peter Wright emphasized that a company or organization develops good relations with its closest neighbors, charities, community groups or others because it’s the right thing to do but also because, when the chips are down, you hope they’ll stand with you. While your supporters won’t know any of the details of the incident, they can say “We know they care about us,” which is priceless. If you genuinely care about those people, by extension, others will believe you are good corporate citizens and can be trusted.

Engage your own employees. Very few companies regard employees as true ambassadors. We find employees are discouraged from communicating when they should be encouraged. In a high profile situation, your employees will be asked by friends and neighbors, “What’s going on?” They may not have detailed answers, but if they can attest to the company’s concern for safety and for doing the right thing for the right reasons, that’s a powerful counter dynamic. When BP finally let reporters talk to their oil rig employees, they heard powerful messages reflecting the pride employees had for the company. They shared that BP treated people well and that they considered themselves fully competent to handle anything. In this case, the messenger made the message even more compelling

Anticipate the obvious questions. These are incredibly predictable:

  • Will anyone be fired?
  • Who’s to blame?
  • How much damage is there?
  • What is it going to cost? Can you give me a range?
  • What will you do differently in the future?
  • What kind of charges/claims/litigation are you expecting?
  • Will you dispute/fight the charges?
  • Will you apologize? (Have you apologized?)
  • Will you shut down/close the facility?
  • Can you guarantee this will never happen again?
  • Could this be sabotage?
  • What chemicals are involved? Are they dangerous/toxic/life threatening?
  • Is this similar to (fill in name of most recent disaster)?

In the immediate moments following the incident remind people that the company will “do the right thing,” and Panelist James Bruen sagely advised expressing a commitment to “investigate quickly and thoroughly and be transparent.”

Remember to remind all audiences that as you collect and pass on information, they should be prepared for the “facts” to change as new information is discovered. Many companies have gotten caught by saying something, only to appear to contradict it later. Reporters look at facts, particularly statistics, as immutable. It’s best to set the stage for changes at the start.

Respond with an acknowledgment. Remember that no matter how the question is framed, any short, truthful phrase that acknowledges that you heard the question is accepted by the questioner/listener. This is particularly true for what we call “formula” questions like “Can you guarantee this will never happen again?” These frame up as yes or no questions, and “no” is always the truthful response, leading the speaker to say, “No, I cannot guarantee that.” While this is true, it also sounds as if more disasters are imminent. I prefer a substitution technique for this type of response as it is equally true to say, “I wish I could, but what I can guarantee is,” and then remind the listener that you are committed to reacting quickly and completely, that your employees are highly trained and that you have a well-developed plan. These messages should be true and, ideally, will be prepared and approved before the incident.

Lastly, here are two bonus takeaways:

  • Nothing is local anymore; that is, a story can become local, national or international news almost instantaneously, particularly if there are sensational images or charges involved. This means you need to deal with adverse news from a venue that isn’t your headquarters. It also means you need to react before you know all of the facts and quite possibly before you know any of them.
  • The story need not be true to create a crisis. Coca-Cola found this out in 1999 when it was charged with putting scores of European schoolchildren in the hospital, which resulted in a product recall in three countries. The French Ministry of Health issued a finding six months later stating that nothing was ever wrong; it was a case of mass hysteria fanned by the media. Sound familiar? Unfortunately, the impact was very real.

It’s time to amend the old saying, “There’s nothing certain but death and taxes.” In today’s highly networked, volatile environment, it’s all-but-certain that your clients or company will face an adverse incident. You may not have an oil refinery that explodes, but something will blow up. Are you prepared? At least ask yourself—or your clients—if something happened, do we have competitive video or material that tells a different story? If the answer is “no,” then no, you aren’t prepared.

You May Also Like


Should A CEO Be Spontaneous?

The 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer: Expectations for CEOs revealed that people (63 percent of respondents) want a CEO who “speaks spontaneously over one who delivers well-rehearsed speeches.” We submit this is a totally false choice. What people are really… more 


A CEO’s Survival Guide

The Wall Street Journal just savaged GE’s new CEO, Larry Culp. Many of their criticisms are unfair but reporter John Stoll’s column provides an excellent coaching tool for communication staff. Culp went on CNBC, and the company stock… more 

Memphis skyline from the air

Believe in Memphis

Sometimes you get to see the heart and soul of a city. Yesterday was one of those times for anyone at the memorial service in Memphis for a man named Phil Trenary. Phil was the former CEO of… more 

Back to Top