Saturday, October 27, 2007

Media Relations during Crisis Response

Slightly two years after Hurricane Katrina, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is once again being criticized. The agency has received highly critical reviews of its response efforts during the 2005 hurricane response. The agency is widely viewed as having responded too late with too little. Two years later and many still blame FEMA for the lack of recovery in the New Orleans area.

The California wildfires are still burning as of this writing but by many accounts the response this time was much better. Citizens were evacuated in time and despite the massive property damage, many lives were spared. Inter-agency coordination worked much better this time with state, local and federal responders working with a synchronization seemingly unimaginable during 2005.

Perhaps this lack of friction caused complacency on the part of FEMA officials, regardless of the reason by now you will have heard of the “FEMA news conference”. Apparently a short-notice news conference was called giving reporters only 15 minutes notice. When no reporters showed up, FEMA personnel stood in as reporters and asked “softball” questions of Vice Admiral Harvey Johnson (FEMA deputy director). It is simply unbelievable that such an idea should have ever been conceived, much less attempted, by an organization with such a damaged reputation.

Media relations during a crisis response can either make an agency look like a hero or a fool. No matter how well the personnel execute the response effort, if the media gets the wrong message (or worse no message), the effects will be long lasting. The media must be viewed as an ally in getting the right message out. Your organization or agency must be seen as an honest broker of information and sincerity. If it isn’t, the effects can be devastating to the bottom line. The incident at Three Mile Island is a classic example of what I mean. Officials denied the facts, even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, and as a result nuclear energy to this day is still viewed with suspicion.

Gaming or ignoring the media is a recipe for disaster. Rather than avoid press conferences, agency leaders should actively schedule regular briefings to present an update. Avoid the short notice press conference (unless there really is something breaking), you will just be seen as trying to keep the media out. Work with your public information officer to develop a consistent theme to deliver in each and every update. Obviously as response efforts change, conflicting information can arise. It is imperative not to ignore these contradictions, explain them (or you may find that your explanations are provided for you by others!).

In physics you are taught that Mother Nature abhors a vacuum. In the media, lack of information is just as abhorrent. The tendency by industry or agency heads unfortunately is to answer questions on the fly or give glib answers. Both of the these tactics can lead to a public relations night mare. You goal should be to keep the story as a one night, local coverage event…not turn it into a national event.

Former Attorney Alberto Gonzales serves an example of turning a one night story into a national event. When he fired several judges (who were all Presidential appointees), he opted to give the answer they were being relieved for cause. Being appointed, the judges all served at the pleasure of the President and therefore Gonzales could have simply (and correctly) said the President would now like to make some changes. End of story but when Gonzales opened up the “relieved for cause” issue all of the judges could bring forward their performance appraisals (which all had excellent performance ratings). The more Gonzales attempted to explain his comments, the deeper he dug himself into a hole and the media attention increased.

Even small communities and companies need to be prepared to provide the right message. The steps you took to prevent or mitigate the crisis are articulated upfront. You need to convey the urgency with which you and other responding agencies are bringing the crisis to a successful conclusion. But most of all, you need to convey a sense of concern for all of the victims and what steps you are taking to help survivors with recovering from the disaster.

In my experience, the media has a sixth sense for finding the one employee that didn’t get the public information memo. You need to train ALL of your employees regularly on how to respond to media questions during a crisis response. “No comment” isn’t a response, it is a dodge. Have your media relations plan in place before you need it. If you are the head of your company or agency, it wouldn’t hurt to have you and your staff participate in a few mock interviews. You may think you are calm and collected speaking in front of a group but try it in front of a camera with a reporter asking several questions you never thought of. The practice could help you come off much better in front of the camera when it really counts.

The bottom line to remember is this an opportunity to let the public know how well you agency, community or company has prepared to respond during a crisis. Unfortunately for FEMA, they don’t quite seem to be there yet.

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