‘Chief Crisis Officer’: Information

This is an excerpt from CrisisResponsePro founder James F. Haggerty’s new book, Chief Crisis Officer: Structure and Leadership for Effective Communications Response (ABA Publishing). We will post other excerpts to the Knowledge Exchange periodically. In this section, Haggerty discusses the importance of information.

On Sept. 13, 2013, 12 people were killed in an attack at the Washington Navy Yard in Southeast Washington, DC. An entire neighborhood in downtown DC was put under lockdown after initial reports indicated a shooter was still at large. Indeed, later that day at a press conference, DC Chief of Police Cathy Lanier announced that police were actually looking for two shooters: a white man in military fatigues and a beret and an African American man with a “long gun.”

None of this information was true. The perpetrator was still in the building and already dead.

Where was this erroneous information coming from? Not from some irresponsible blogger or social media savvy bystander, but directly from tweets put out by the Navy’s public affairs personnel.

It is the crisis communications equivalent of the “fog of war”: Initial reports vary significantly from the actual battle taking place. The same is true in crisis response: Often the first reports you receive from the scene of a crisis will vary significantly from what is actually happening. Indeed, in the Navy Yard example, the official “sanctioned” reports from the Navy itself 
facilitated the false information. This information was then parroted by other “authorities,” adding further credence to initial reports that subsequently turned out to be wrong. It’s easy to see how, without proper information, a crisis can very quickly spin in a very wrong direction.

The problem is obvious: In the early stages of a crisis, critical information about what is happening can be difficult to obtain. In the midst of hurried phone calls, emails, Facebook posts, and tweets, how can you be sure that the information you receive is accurate and you are receiving unfiltered and unbiased reports from the front lines? Who should you trust to give you the best, most accurate story about what’s going on?

Every crisis is different and the answer to these questions depends not only on the specifics of your company but of your industry (i.e., how regulated you are) and geography, as well.

However, there are a few general guidelines and best practices to keep in mind:

  1. Ensure information is flowing “unfiltered” from the crisis site to the crisis response team: It is nearly always the case that the number of levels between you and what is happening during a crisis is proportional to the accuracy of the information you’re getting. Therefore, it is critical to start receiving information unfiltered by levels of management, who may have their own agendas or perceptions subtly biasing their reports. It’s not that these folks are explicitly lying; rather, they may be subconsciously describing things to you in a manner that is a little more self-serving than an independent evaluation would be.
  2. Don’t assume the first information you receive is accurate. In fact, assume it is wrong: It is better to assume that the first information you receive about a crisis event is completely wrong. This is why we create “holding” or “standby” statements in the first hours after a crisis that contain very few facts but a clear message: We are on the scene, establishing control, and will update you when more of the facts are known. In the initial moments of a crisis, avoid 
making any factual statements that you will later have to “walk back” (as the politicians say) because they were based on false or inaccurate information.

Finally, a great way to get unfiltered information is to have a member of the crisis communications team at the site of the crisis immediately when possible. This allows the entire crisis communications team to begin receiving unfiltered information from the front lines. Technology can also be a facilitator of this effort.

Whatever method you use, the key point is to establish the flow of information early to ensure the facts you are getting and subsequently conveying to media, employees, investors, and other stakeholders are accurate. This is the best way to avoid errors and inconsistencies in your initial public communications regarding a crisis event, which is key to instilling confidence that the crisis is under control, rather than spinning out of control.

One last point: Ensuring information is accurate is not just what you do when facing an immediate, event-driven crisis like an accident, a shooting, or Ebola outbreak. You must obtain proper information in all situations, including longer-term or slower-unfolding issues like data breaches, lawsuits, and investigations. In these situations, initial information is often sketchy or inaccurate, as the inside and outside legal team — or in the case of an issue like a data breach, the IT team — comb through the relevant information and begin to understand the facts of the case or matter before them. In this situation, there may be an urge to comment on what you think you know, rather than on what actually is happening. Despite the press of modern communication outlets like Twitter and Facebook, resist the urge to comment on facts that haven’t been confirmed yet, until you know for sure.

Image Credit: Actor/Shutterstock

This is an abridged version of an article that appeared today on the CrisisResponsePro paid subscription portal. (CrisisResponsePro subscribers can access the full version by clicking here. ID and password are required.) To take advantage of all of the content, data, and collaborative resources CrisisResponsePro has to offer, contact us at info@crisisresponsepro.com.

Related:‘Chief Crisis Officer’: Preface to the Paperback Edition‘Chief Crisis Officer’: Formulating Template Messages in the Crisis Plan