In a Crisis, Secrecy is Your Worst Defence

In a crisis, it is difficult to know whether or not information should be released. With privacy legislation lurking in the background, and lawyers often heavily involved, it can be easier to hide behind a shroud of secrecy than be transparent. But my advice to my clients when they are facing a crisis has always been: “When in doubt, let the information out." 

A perfect case in point is a recent article in the Toronto Star that reported Toronto’s student transportation fleet has been in 1,157 collisions with 20 injuries during the past five years. To make matters worse, nearly 80 per cent of those accidents were deemed preventable — which simply means they did not need to occur at all. 

school bus crisis communications

When confronted with these grim statistics, the school boards claimed they were unable to identify how many accidents in which each transportation company has been involved because of privacy legislation. 

According to Kevin Hodgkinson, the general manager of the Toronto Student Transportation Group, “They’re not our vehicles, they’re not our drivers, so that’s not our information to provide." 

But Ryder Gilliland, a lawyer with Blakes who represents The Star, said the legislation contains a “rarely invoked” clause that allows public bodies to disclose third-party information if it’s in public interest. 

But even after being made aware of this clause, Toronto school boards refused to release the accident statistics of the transportation companies serving them. Is it not in the public’s best interest to know what companies are getting in more accidents than others? I’m sure any parent would feel it is, regardless of whether their children are attending an elementary school in Toronto now, have attended school in the past, or will attend in the future. 

In this situation, child safety should be the Toronto Student Transportation Board’s top priority. Rather than hiding behind privacy legislation, they should be open and transparent, encourage each school board to evoke the disclosure clause, and release the number of accidents in which each transportation company has been involved.

If they hide behind privacy legislation and one more child is injured — which, statistically, is only a matter of time — the issue may grow beyond manageability. 

Releasing the statistics will also have a positive effect on the behaviour of the transportation companies and their drivers. Once accident rates are revealed, these companies will face public scrutiny, ultimately forcing them to change driver behaviour and set higher safety standards.

This is the right thing to do in terms of public interest. Let’s be honest. Eighty per cent preventability is absolutely unacceptable when it comes to child safety.

When dealing with any crisis, transparency is always the best option. By being transparent, companies will prevent bigger problems in the future. 

And, as I always say: “When in doubt, let the information out.”

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Eric Bergman

Eric Bergman, BPA, ABC, APR, MC, FCPRS, is arguably the world’s most credentialed and experienced media training consultant. He has helped organizations manage issues and crises, and coached spokespeople, for more than 30 years.

To learn more about his media training program, At Ease With the Media, please click here.

Crisis Management is NOT Crafting Messages

As a “profession” of communicators and public relations practitioners, it’s time we came to grips with an important reality.

Crisis management (and, by extension, crisis communication) is not about crafting messages. It’s about influencing behaviour—specifically the behaviour of the individuals, executives and/or leaders whose actions or decisions led to the crisis in the first place.

For example, consider the Jian Ghomeshi scandal. When the former radio host was fired from his job at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), he immediately took the initiative with his now-infamous Facebook post.

Step one in the standard crisis communication handbook is to get in front of the issue. Check. Step two is to control the message. Check.

(I can’t believe people still use this playbook to attempt to control the message. In my media training program, I’ve been teaching for more than 20 years that the only thing you can control is what you say. That statement was true with newspapers, magazines, radio and TV in the early 1990s; it is doubly true in a world dominated by social media.)

Ghomeshi’s post (now removed from Facebook) portrayed a downtrodden radio host whose sexual habits were at best misunderstood and, at worst, a fascinating form of cultural discrimination.

The post was well-written. It laid out his logic, and managed to tug at the heartstrings of fans. It received thousands of likes in a few short hours. In short, I have no doubt that some consultant somewhere (i.e. at Navigator, Mr. Ghomeshi’s agency at the time) was patting him- or herself on the back for crafting a well-designed message.

But it was a pile of crap. And any senior PR practitioner worth his or her salt would have pointed it out to him.

Mr. Ghomeshi is now facing multiple criminal charges of sexual assault. While it is up to the courts to ultimately decide whether the sexual acts were as consensual as Mr. Ghomeshi claimed in his post, there are a couple of lessons for those of us, as “professionals,” who help organizations steer their way through issues, emergencies and crises.

First, get to the truth

We are not lawyers. We have no obligation to represent individuals (or organizations) when they are lying through their teeth. In fact, we probably shouldn’t represent them because, if we do, there’s a high probability their stink will stick to us.

(As an aside, I have long yearned for the day when the media know to dig deeper because the PR agency has fired the client early in the crisis. When that day arrives, I believe we’ll finally be able to call ourselves a profession.)

The first step in any crisis is to ask tough questions behind closed doors to determine what is true and what isn’t. We need to look executives in the eye and determine whether they are honestly attempting to deal with the issue, or if they are looking for some form of spin to save themselves from the poor decision-making that got them into trouble in the first place.

If they are unwilling to answer our questions, and we’re an outside consultant, we should get up and walk out until they are. If we’re an internal consultant, we should polish our resume and start sending it out. It’s only a matter of time before it’s needed.

Second, help them understand the consequences of the truth 

This element of crisis management has two sides: the consequences of not telling the truth to the outside world; and the consequences of telling the truth.

In my three decades of experience, by the time a crisis reaches this point, there is a short-term game and a long-term game.

In the short term, not fully disclosing the truth may mean the issue will fade after a time. After all, the world has a relatively short attention span. But it’s only a matter of time before all those problems hidden under the bed or in the closet are brought into the open again by social or traditional media—or both—and lead to irreparable damage to an individual’s or organization’s reputation.

Think I’m kidding? The following statement was found in a recent article about Dalhousie University that had nothing to do with the recent debacle at the university’s school of dentistry:

“Dalhousie also recently began inquiries into the behaviour of 13 male dentistry students after they were linked to a Facebook page containing sexually violent content about women.”

Because of the way it bungled bringing out the truth, Dalhousie can expect reporters to “bridge” to that problem for years, if not decades.

Over the long-term, disclosing the truth is generally the only option that enables the organization to protect its reputation. We need to help our clients understand this concept before we can help them communicate.

Third, help the world understand the truth

This is the communication part of crisis management. The organization must come clean, apologize for its actions if necessary, make reparations where possible, and help the world understand what it’s doing to ensure a similar problem never emerges again.

There you have it; three guiding principles that can help solve any crisis.

Two-thirds of this solution has nothing to do with communication. In fact, if you attempt to communicate without identifying the truth and its consequences, you’re attempting to spin your way out of a problem. If that happens, don’t be surprised if the crisis lingers and the organization’s reputation ends up in tatters.

And the stink sticks to those who engineered the spin in the first place.

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