Direct Communication Can Trump Great Media Training.
By Judy Hoffman
Monday, 5th November 2012
Without a doubt, it is a good thing to handle a media crisis well.

Teaching management teams how to do that is the way I spend the vast majority of my time in my consulting business.  Of course, it is vastly preferable to not have the crisis hit the media at all.

Practicing excellent interpersonal communication skills can be the key. Let me give you an example of how this can work.

I was hired some years ago to help a company that wanted to be able to treat (clean) contaminated soil.  They would perform a needed service, given the number of oil spills that occur.  But no one in the community wanted the required incinerating equipment in their backyard.  

The company went through a protracted permitting process to try to site an incinerator on their property.  During the hearings, the company promised they would always take great care to have the piles of contaminated soil completely covered by heavy tarps prior to transfer to the incinerator.  Those neighbors who lived closest to the facility were, to say the least, skeptical.

The required permits were obtained and work began. Things went along smoothly for over a year, and the neighbors were content. Then one day, as luck would have it, a very strange wind pattern hit the facility. It raised one end of the tarp and sucked some of the contaminated soil up into the air before depositing it on a half dozen houses across the street from the company site. 

Plant personnel, who had watched what happened, knew right away that they were going to have some very unhappy neighbors.  They felt sure that at least one of those neighbors would go to the media, leading
to a negative story.  They called me.

What I recommended they do was to choose a couple of the managers who were on site - those who had the best interpersonal skills - to go knock on the doors of those neighbors immediately. I advised that they first apologize for what had just occurred, explaining the odd set of circumstances that had had led to the situation. Then I told them to offer to pay for a cleaning service to come to each of the houses to do whatever was required to make things right.

After the initial reaction of "You want us to go WHERE and do WHAT???" I convinced the senior manager on site that this was the best chance they had of nipping this crisis in the bud. I knew that if the neighbors were allowed to stew, complain to each other, and start calling the Mayor or regulatory officials and/or the media, the company would have a major PR debacle on their hands.

So with some fear and trepidation, the company representatives went knocking on the doors across the street.  The result was very positive.  People were surprised and pleased to see the company responding so quickly, apologizing for the inconvenience, and offering to make it right as quickly as possible.  The cost to the company was minimal and their reputation was not damaged in negative news articles.

This "belly button to belly button communication" - so termed by fellow crisis communications consultant Jim Lukaszewski -
is incredibly valuable.  It avoids the filter which the media would provide in getting the message out.  The message can be targeted precisely to those affected without having to involve the entire readership base.

It is delivered much faster than if the neighbors would have had to wait for the next morning's newspaper (or for the next news story on the internet or cable channel). And, importantly, the neighbors could look into the eyes of the company representatives and sense that the apologies were sincere.

So don't assume that all crisis communications efforts have to be conducted through the media.  When something bad happens, consider whether you may be able to reach your specific, concerned audience with a message targeted directly to them and do it quickly enough to prevent a PR media crisis.

The founder of JCH Enterprises, Judy Hoffman, understands being on the "hot seat." For more than 16 years, she was the Manager of Public Affairs and the media spokesperson for a chemical manufacturing company in New York State. The company made a chemical with an objectionable odor noticeable to the human nose at extremely low levels.

She serves as Chair of the Board of Directors of The Orange County Partnership (the economic development arm of the county in which she resides) and as Secretary of the Board of Directors of the New York State Chemical Alliance and is an Elder in St Paul Lutheran Church, Monroe, NY. Judy is a cum laude graduate of Gettysburg College with a B.A. in Political Science. She can be reached at info@judyhoffman.com 


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