Impending Crisis? Be First to Communicate

by Deirdre Campbell, APR, MBA

Any organization facing an impending crisis should carefully consider whether it should be first to “break the news” to important stakeholder groups. Indeed, the mantra should be: “When in doubt, be the first one out” with the news.

first one out v2
Often, the logic of not communicating is that management doesn’t want to alarm audiences. Occasionally this may be true but, more often than not, management groups need to weigh that concept against the reputational damage of not communicating.

A case in point is the tourism destination of Tofino, on the west coast of Vancouver Island in British Columbia, Canada. After a devastating earthquake off the coast of Japan, the city of Tofino issued a tsunami warning because authorities were worried that a tsunami could strike coastal regions in Oregon, Washington and British Columbia.

Management at resorts and hotels in the Tofino area monitored the warning closely. They kept in contact with authorities and, based on what they were told, many decided to not notify guests because they simply did not want to alarm them.

Unfortunately, guests started hearing about the warning from other places—social media, family members back home, and news reports on television. Hotel managers felt they had their guests’ best interests at heart by not creating a panic (as this was just a warning), but complaints from guests were loud and clear:

“Why weren’t we kept informed by management at our hotel?”

handled the crisis differently
Flash forward to another tsunami warning nearly two years later. This time, local hotels handled the crisis differently and did two things they didn’t do the first time around.

First, as soon as they got news of the warning, they notified their guests—they did not try to control the message. They laid out the facts of the situation and, by doing so, instilled a sense of trust and transparency. Second, management explained all options to guests. They had the option of staying, but management also gave guests directions for gathering areas on higher ground that had been identified as safe places.

Lessons to Learn
There are a few lessons here. First, during a crisis, organizations cannot control a message in today’s social media-driven world, regardless of how negative or difficult that message may be. When an organization does try to control they message, they appear to be hiding something, especially if news can be found elsewhere (and everywhere).
social media driven world

Second, put a communication protocol in place. Know who you need to communicate with and how you can best reach those audiences.

Third, be first to communicate. It is the foundation on which trust and transparency are constructed.


The owner of The Tartan Group, Deirdre has been a communications professional in Canada for over 20 years and Tartan celebrated its 12th anniversary in 2013. Today, Tartan represents clients in Washington State, Western Canada, and in South and Central America, and is based in Victoria & Vancouver with a new affiliate partnership in Miami.

A respected business entrepreneur and popular speaker, Deirdre has been named a PR practitioner of the year, recognized as a YW/YMCA Woman of Distinction for her work in the community and was named a business person of the year finalist in 2012. An accredited public relations practitioner since 1996, Deirdre completed her MBA in PR/Communications through Royal Roads University in 2003. Deirdre’s volunteer work includes serving as past-Chair for Tourism Victoria, British Columbia, on the board of the Downtown Victoria Business Association and being on the Board of Advisors for the International Ecotourism Society, where she is currently helping to coordinate the 2013 conference in Kenya.

Deirdre is also
licensed to deliver At Ease With the Media.

Fallacy of the Ambush Interview

by Eric Bergman, ABC, APR, MC

In some circles, it is common for media trainers to use ambush interviews at the start of training. One or more participants are singled out and asked (but more often coerced) into participating in an interview at the start of the training — without any preparation or guidance. Theoretically, this demonstrates the value of being prepared, although it seems to underscore a message that there may be a reporter lurking around every corner or under any rock.

truly ambushed
Realistically, ambush interviews are extremely rare. Most organizations, when they have serious issues brewing, are aware that such issues could erupt at any time.

How many of us have attended meetings in which someone in the management group says, “I really hope reporters don’t get a hold of this”? If such a comment is ever made at a meeting, the organization should never be ambushed. It needs no other warning because it has, quite frankly, warned itself.

There are rare occasions in which an organization is truly ambushed. I have had two clients who experienced such situations recently.

In one, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) securities investigation team swooped down on a major bank to investigate the financial activities of one of the bank's publicly-traded clients. In another, a not-for-profit organization had a staff member arrested (at home, not at the office) in a high-profile criminal investigation.

In both of these cases, and in virtually every other, the spokesperson and/or the organization can buy enough time to get their facts in order and prepare a response.

If you speak to people who have been ambushed in media training and ask them about the experience, you’ll find that this tactic does not build confidence. More often than not, it has exactly the reverse effect. It has a negative impact on the person ambushed, and a similar impact on others in the training session. It works against the creation of a relatively safe environment that many adult educators believe is conducive to effective learning.

Media training should be conducted in a safe and supportive environment
I suspect that the ambush interview is often used to set the facilitator in a position of power for the day. The message appears to be: “Pay attention … or else!” I agree with Dr. Dorothy Billington, who has studied adult learners extensively and writes that facilitators should create an environment in which they treat “adult students as peers—accepted and respected as intelligent experienced adults whose opinions are listened to, honored, appreciated.”

In Dr. Billington's worldview, there needs to be a relatively equal relationship between facilitator and learner because “adults learn best in an environment in which they feel safe and supported.” Certainly, the person conducting the media training is the expert. But the more equal the footing between facilitator and learner, the better the experience from the learner's perspective. And isn't that the only perspective that truly counts?

Eric Bergman, BPA, ABC, APR, MC
´┐╝Eric Bergman, ABC, APR, MC, has coached spokespeople for more than 30 years. His media training program, At Ease With the Media, has helped thousands of spokespeople from five continents manage exchanges with journalists to win-win outcomes, while protecting themselves and their organization.

While he continues to train and coach spokespeople himself, he also offers the only structured, disciplined online media training program on the market, and the only “train-the-trainer” media training program available worldwide.

Contact Eric if you’d like to set a new standard in media training for your organization.

Media Training Excellence Should Parallel Excellence in Negotiation

I found this gem on YouTube. It’s a short video from a consultant on the topic of negotiation, and I got two things from it.

First, there are some interesting insights into negotiating effectively. Second, it’s possible to draw many parallels between excellence in negotiation and excellence in media training.

The consultant starts by saying: “the essence of negotiation is to have something to do with results, and at the same time to build some form of relationship with your client or the person you’re purchasing from.” From a media relations perspective, how do your spokespeople build relationships with journalists who, by definition, ask questions for a living?

Simple. You answer their questions in clear, concise terms. It should be the first (and primary) skill taught by any reputable media training program.

Only when that skill is mastered should the focus even begin to turn to messages.

If you’re negotiating with someone, you should have a plan. Absolutely. But if you sit at the table and realize that your plan bears to resemblance to reality, what do you do? Do you stubbornly stick to your plan? Or do you adapt?

If you’re negotiating, you adapt. Unfortunately, most media training (whether conducted by an outside consultant or by internal practitioners), teaches stubbornly sticking to the plan.

As you watch this video, keep in mind the difference between a “stay on message” perspective and one that advocates creating win-win outcomes with journalists.

As I’ve often said, and as the research has clearly shown, there are many parallels between excellence in negotiation and excellence in communication.


Cruelty to Animals a Key Message Case in Point

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By Mary Ann McCauley, ABC

Imagine you’re being interviewed for a hard-hitting television news story about the inspection programs your organization conducts. You’re prepared. You have your key messages handy.

The interview goes on for more than an hour. What airs is less than 44 seconds from you. However, the journalist used the following key messages as sound bites:

"I'd give us an A. In fact, our inspection program is more than 98 per cent in compliance."

“We do thousands of inspections annually. We've done 55,000 inspections since the year 2000."

“The percentage (of organizations being inspected) changes. It's a balancing act.”

Would you consider yourself successful? Apparently, if you’re the American Kennel Club (AKC), you wouldn’t.

The AKC’s director of communications was interviewed by NBC investigative reporter Jeff Rosen in connection with the story alleging cruelty to dogs being raised by AKC-registered breeders. The entire story lasted less than 5 minutes. Pieces of AKC's interview lasted less than 45 seconds.

You’d think the organization would be pleased. The journalist featured three key messages prominently in the story. However, after the story aired, the AKC sent a letter to members listing 11 issues with the story, all under the heading “The Facts The Today Show Didn’t Tell You.” (
You can read the full letter here.)

The director of communications may have prepared for the wrong interview. She came armed with statistics about inspection success and, when the key messages above weren’t enough, followed up in the e-mail to members with comments about “canine research,” “reporting to law enforcement” and the fact “that breeders use AKC services voluntarily.”

The Only Key Message That Matters
In truth, this story was really about cruelty to dogs. ALL dogs. Registered, non-registered, mutt. Anywhere. And the only key message that matters is: “This is unacceptable. We will work with whomever we can to put an end to cruelty to dogs, regardless of breed or background.”

From there, everything else falls into place. You could use the interview to send a message to inspectors: “We will be exploring initiatives to build relationships with other organizations to maximize resources. If our inspection program is not working, we’ll do everything we can to fix it.” You could send a message to law enforcement: “We’re here to help. If you think there’s a problem, call us.” You could send a message to the American Humane Society or other potential partners: “Let’s work together on this important cause.”

What Can We Learn From This?
There are many lessons, but two stand out.

First, negotiate the interview and listen to what’s being said. What will be the primary topic of the story? Who else has the journalist talked to? What have those individuals or organizations said?

If the word “inspection” is used or remotely inferred anywhere in that discussion, red flags should be popping up everywhere. The journalist is not going to parade pretty puppies across the screen for the enjoyment of those at home. Rest assured that the pictures will be graphic.

Second, once you determine that the underlying theme will be, at best, mistreatment of animals, only two questions need to be answered by the AKC:

  • What are we doing to prevent cruelty to all dogs?
  • Is there more we can do?
Collect as many answers to those two questions as you can prior to the interview, and gently steer everything back to the critical theme of cruelty to animals when you’re there. However, chances are, you won’t have to steer at all.

That’s where the reporter is going, with or without your guidance or best intentions.

You might as well be waiting for him when he arrives.


Mary Ann McCauley, ABC
Located in Minneapolis-St. Paul, Mary Ann McCauley has assisted organizations with plain talk, strategic approaches and practical solutions for more than 35 years. A former journalist, she worked with an Iowa daily newspaper, and owned and operated a community newspaper in Southeastern Kansas.

She began her consulting career as a vice president with Brum and Anderson Public Relations, Minneapolis. Since forming her own consultancy in 1987, she has provided strategic communication counsel to clients in the financial services, telecommunications, electronics, health care, legal, manufacturing, nonprofit, and residential and commercial real estate industries.

Mary Ann is licensed to deliver At Ease With the Media.

Media Training Needs More Excellence

Communication theory clearly demonstrates that there are many parallels between excellence in negotiation and excellence in communication.

When we're negotiating with someone, we know that win-win is the best possible outcome. Both sides gain from the exchange; they preserve or enhance their relationship.

When we're negotiating, should we have a plan? Of course. But if we sit at the table and it quickly becomes evident that our plan bears no resemblance to reality, what should we do?

we should adapt
Should we stubbornly stick to our plan? Or should we adapt as circumstances unfold?

Honestly, if we hope to be successful, we should adapt.

Now bring this concept to average media training. Do people have a plan? Of course. In our vernacular, they're called key messages.

Are spokespeople taught to adapt as circumstances unfold? Or are they taught to stubbornly stick to their plan?

Unfortunately, most media training teaches spokespeople to stubbornly stick to their plan, as the following advice from an article in
Marketing magazine demonstrates:

“Get your message out, don’t let a reporter interrupt you ... and try not to get off track with what you are there to talk about.

“They are going to ask you a question, you are going to answer with your key message, they are going to ask you another question, and you are going to have a second or third key message.”

If you’re a former journalist, how did you react when spokespeople employed this tactic on you? And, if your reaction was anything but positive, how can you ask your spokespeople to evoke this approach on others?

It is possible to teach spokespeople to manage exchanges with journalists to win-win outcomes, just as it’s possible to teach effective negotiation skills. When they understand that skill, spokespeople achieve excellence, not mediocrity, with communication outcomes that strongly support organizational goals.