A picture may be worth a thousand words, but the right picture frame gives perspective, depth, and clarity to the picture. When it comes to crisis, how you frame the events determines whether you win or lose the battle.
Last week, Montana Public Radio interviewed Teresa Valerio Parrot, Principal of TVP Communications in Denver, about crisis communications strategies in higher education. Parrot’s firm was recently hired by the University of Montana to help mitigate crisis events that were triggered by a large number of sexual assaults on campus, some involving high profile student-athletes. UM is currently the subject of two federal investigations and an NCAA investigation surrounding the events.
In listening to the Parrot interview, three major themes emerged that are needed in every crisis situation to get mitigation strategies going in the right direction:
1. Looking ahead is more important than looking back. It’s always tempting in a crisis to focus on the problem at hand. It’s emotional, it’s ever present, and it needs fixing. Parrot reminded the audience that a crisis is an opportunity, and that even though immediate tactics are needed to stop the bleeding, the real work lies in looking heading and devising a blueprint that takes advantage of an organization’s strengths.
2. Transparency and truth are not optional. Hiding or trying to cover up a crisis can be a natural reaction. The more difficult work is facing the situation head on from the beginning with an underlying culture of truth and transparency. Parrot talked about the importance of employing transparency as a long-term strategy with big picture benefits rather than implementing a short-term pain relief strategy of hiding and secrecy.
3. The right perspective gets you a win in two courts: the court of public opinion and the court of litigation. One of the most common default strategies in crisis communications is to avoid talking about anything that might jeopardize or encourage litigation. It is a tightrope, but Parrot said that avoiding communicating about a crisis because it might result in legal action is the wrong way to approach the subject. She talked about the two courts that every communications strategy needs to consider and how to balance each: the court of public opinion and the court of litigation. It is possible to be transparent and tell the truth without compromising your legal position.
I saw a great illustration of these themes in action at the College Sports Information Directors Association annual conference in St. Louis. Colleague Bill Smith and I presented a session on using social media in a crisis. In the presentation, Smith reviewed two case studies that illustrated both strategies: truth and transparency against secrecy and lies. The outcomes of the two cases (TCU and Arkansas) vividly illustrated how perspective heading into a crisis makes all the difference in mitigation of the events.
Even though the pressing events of a crisis garner your attention, be sure you head into a crisis prepared with the right perspective. Careful planning and training are necessary to be successful in crisis management. Take a few minutes and listen to the interview linked in the second paragraph above. You'll be glad you did.