Currently serving as a military advisor in Afghanistan, Col. Barry Johnson is a U.S. Army public relations practitioner and advisor with 26 years of military experience. It is an honor and privilege to invite Col. Johnson to share his unique perspective on crisis communications with our Online Reputation Management blog. During the last decade, he spent over 5 years deployed in support of combat operations, with direct involvement in many of the military’s most challenging stories: Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, Saddam’s first hearing, Haditha allegations, civil war in Iraq, WikiLeaks, military withdrawal from Iraq, and the host of issues faced by military spokespeople each day in combat zones.
What are the biggest mistakes you see people and organizations make when dealing with the media?
There is a temptation to lie. Not necessarily to lie in a direct way, but rather organizations tend to lie to themselves. They sometimes do this blatantly by misinforming their own people, and sometimes through omission by keeping important details from the people speaking on their behalf. This is a huge mistake.
Rather than make their key communicators full advisors who help come up with solutions before crises hit the news, or keeping them close while an incident is unfolding, there is a tendency to hide the naked truth from them in order to “protect” spokespeople from knowing what’s going on, in case they “accidentally” say something. This never works. And it’s seldom the professional communicators who are the sources of leaks, unless it’s a calculated leak that serves an advantage in grooming the story in the right direction.
When working with the prison at Guantanamo Bay in 2003, and with detainee operations in Iraq following Abu Ghraib, it was all too common to hide the truth from spokespeople. I found this ludicrous, since detainees were inevitably released and told their stories anyway, usually with a fair number of flourishes and inaccuracies. As a result, spokespeople were left in a constant state of reacting to news reports, and trying to figure out what the grain of truth was in allegations in order to respond accurately and immediately. This repeatedly undermined our credibility and trustworthiness. It made it look as if we had something to hide, simply because media often knew more than the spokesperson they were talking to and journalists could never believe we wouldn’t have the answers readily available. It also played right into the hands of our enemies’ propaganda machines.
As a communications advisor and spokesperson to senior leaders, I advise them that when lawyers and operators tell them not to inform me of what’s going on, or leaders find themselves hesitant to tell me the details of what’s happening, then that’s probably the story and crisis they will have to deal with in the media. And it’s probably the most important thing they need to talk to me about so I know more than journalists when they start asking questions. I can’t help the team if I don’t know what’s really happening. If they don’t trust me with the facts, they should hire somebody they do trust as an advisor. When leaders choose to keep information from their communications advisors, they’re gambling with their organization’s reputation. And probably their job.
What is the first thing leaders should do when there is a PR disaster?
The first step is to simply acknowledge publicly that you grasp the seriousness and urgency of the situation.
How many times have we seen leaders criticized for appearing aloof during a time of crisis? To say nothing is to leave a void that will be filled by others, usually with a lot of criticism of whoever is perceived responsible for the crisis. Remaining silent also makes you look callous or afraid, both of which makes you the lead candidate for the bad guy in the story. Start providing information. Provide condolences, if appropriate. Tell the media what you’re doing to investigate and to get the facts. If there is a valid reason for not providing important details, tell the media what those reasons are, such as protecting an investigation in order to ensure prosecution.
Demonstrate, through both deeds and words, that people are what matter most, no matter what the situation. Do not be quick to point a finger or pass judgment, since first reports are inevitably inaccurate. Own as much of the news space as possible to keep your perspective and actions at the forefront, showing that you’re fixing the problem and taking care of people.
How can CEOs and agency heads help build and repair corporate reputation?
CEOs and agency heads must realize that there is ultimately only one strategic communicator for their organization, and they are it. They embody the vision and values upon which their organization’s reputation is built.
Anything else said by others in the organization is trumped by what a CEO says and does, or doesn’t say and do. They must be seen at the head of their organization, at the place where the crisis has occurred, providing all those key messages I’ve noted above early in the crisis. This may be nothing more than allowing media to see the CEO at the critical location of the crisis, and saying a few short sentences to put it in perspective. Or it may mean standing in front of media at some point and answering questions. What CEOs should not do, however, is become the de facto spokesperson throughout the crisis and the single conduit for information. Spokespeople by nature of their job are expendable creatures. A crisis tends to be a dynamic thing, and if the wrong message is sent, the messenger has to be held accountable. I’ve approached every job with the mindset of being completely expendable if the situation calls for it, and taking the blame for any message that got mangled. I have been fortunate that I haven’t had to follow through with being cast aside, but I have come close.
An example of coming close occurred for me in 2001, when NATO was involved with disarming Albanian rebels in the Balkan nation of Macedonia. I was the military spokesman for this mission and responsible for NATO’s media activities in the country. The nation was on the verge of the worst kind of crisis – a civil war. For a couple weeks, just prior to the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington that launched us on more than a decade of war, this was one of the top stories in the news, carried live on the news channels and headlines in the papers. Media presumed another Balkan war was just around the corner. The Macedonian government was difficult to work with at times, to say the least. And it was part of my responsibility, as the spokesman, to hold its leaders publicly accountable for their actions that made the situation worse. It would have been too difficult for the diplomats and generals responsible for finding solutions behind the scenes in their day-to-day meetings with the government to do this. As a result, Macedonia’s president demanded at one point I be punished and removed as spokesman for stepping beyond my bounds in criticizing their actions. I wasn’t removed, because my role served a broader purpose. However, I was rather conscientious after that about checking my rental car for bombs each morning before I got in it.
What can employees do to help their company during and after a PR crisis?
In most cases, the best thing employees can do is simply avoid discussing the crisis in public forums. This shouldn’t come as an edict from above, but rather through effective internal dialogue about the crisis and its impact.
Employees should instead focus on the actions they can take to help the organization overcome the crisis, and help the people affected by it. They should be empowered by leaders to offer advice and information of value internally. They should avoid writing opinions in response to things they read on social media sites or other forums. They should be given a productive way to talk about the crisis within the organization, without writing about it on Facebook. The organization has to be as intense with its internal communications as it is in talking to the press and engaging social media.
As often as not, some member of the organization will sooner or later publicly criticize it in some way regardless during a crisis. WikiLeaks is a sobering reminder of the damage one person is capable of doing. However, if the organization has to put out a “ban” on employees speaking to media and making public statements, it only further compounds the problem because that will become a part of the story and makes it appear as if there is something to hide. Public criticisms by employees may be infuriating to leaders, but it is not a reason to overreact and circle the wagons. Just respond to the criticisms the same as with any other criticisms that are being made. Don’t punish the culprit and make them appear a victim, unless their actions were truly illegal. If you punish them, it will turn them into a hero in the eyes of the press. Learn from mistakes and use internal communication to keep your best supporters, and potentially your worst critics, informed of what you’re doing. Employees shouldn’t have to read about it in the news or on a website, although of course they will.
What can organizations do to better prepare for a public relations crisis?
Organizations must not only state a vision and cite values in their handbooks, pamphlets and websites, they must genuinely believe in them and live by them. This matters most when a crisis occurs and those values are tested. I mentioned before having the procedures in place to manage a crisis and to practice scenarios regularly. This is simply prudent management. Having the right values and vision, and living by them each day, will depend upon having the right leader at the helm. Organizations choose their fate in a crisis well before a crisis ever occurs.