“There’s a Dateline crew in the lobby…”

I was invited recently to provide a short presentation on “crisis communications” to a group of California Young Democrats gathered in LA for the state Democratic Convention. “Crisis communications” is that adrenaline-generating mixture of experience, luck and timing that communications professionals attempt to practice when the TV live truck pulls up unannounced in front of your office. Someone important has done something embarrassing or been accused of doing something illegal or unethical. Oddly, it seems to occur most often to elected officials.

Preparing for the presentation provided me with a chance to consider how we as communications professionals handle these cases.  There are agencies like Sitrick, which have thrived in this practice and can claim they have successfully steered these unfortunate targets of the media’s unflinching gaze through this often torturous fifteen minutes of infamy. I had the chance to work with Lynne Doll at Rogers as a client once giving me a front row seat to a master at work. The industry lost an amazing professional with incredible integrity when she passed away in 2010.

But there are few communications professionals who have the experience and creativity to manage what can appear to be a very chaotic and uncontrollable situation. Some communications agencies and consultant only focus on helping their clients tell better lies.

Some people deserve the scrutiny. They’ve been caught red-handed violating our trust, our laws or both. Some were just in the wrong place at the really wrong time. But most were simply guilty of being human and being famous, or at least well-known. Whether drunk driving, cheating on their wives or husbands, or suffering from a drug or alcohol addiction — these are offenses we ourselves or someone close to us has experience with. When you’re a corporate CEO or a county supervisor, your drug addiction can become TV news fodder.

And it isn’t just individuals who need help in these situations. Institutions and companies often find themselves seeking “crisis communications” support. The city council that’s being criticized for a controversial public works project is going to find itself on the defensive and maybe the target of a recall if they don’t handle it right — and fast.

Some turn to communications professionals like us for help. We often begin that conversation by getting to the facts. There’s always more to the story that needs to — and should — get told. And when it’s true — she had too many glasses of wine at the reception, or he didn’t buy those concert tickets or he was cheating on his wife — the solution can be very simple. Own up to it. Admit it. Be honest.

Many of my communications colleagues will disagree with me here but as a reporter for more than twenty years, I watched my share of public officials, celebrities, and other high profile individuals, turn a human foible into front-page news and a career-ending scandal simply because they couldn’t summon the humility, and good sense, to own up. The public will forgive many things but they don’t seem to have much patience for a liar.

The so-called “news cycle” has shrunk down to hours and minutes. Your time in the glare of the disapproving scandal spotlight may not last very long these days. But the damage it can do to a person or organization’s reputation and credibility, can survive long after the media has moved on to someone else’s crisis.

It really is ok to stop talking

If you’re a public official or spokesperson, coming up with a great quote or sound-bite to encapsulate an idea or issue can be challenging. But what can be even more difficult for many is knowing when to stop talking once they’ve delivered the message.

Celeste Greig, in comments to a reporter at the site of the state GOP spring convention in Sacramento ran head-first into this challenge…and came away bloody.

Celeste Greig on rape and pregnancy

Greig, described in the piece as the President of the California Republican Assembly,  apparently was being critical of former Missouri U.S. Senate candidate Todd Akin, who probably lost his election because of insensitive and biologically inaccurate comments about rape and pregnancy.

“That was an insensitive remark,” Greig said. “I’m sure he regretted it. He should have come back and apologized.”

Good comment. It served to distance the “new” GOP from the bumbling messaging that hamstrung them last election cycle. But Greig couldn’t just stop there.

“Granted, the percentage of pregnancies due to rape is small because it’s an act of violence, because the body is traumatized.” At this point her companions were probably trying to signal her to stop. But she went on.

“I don’t know what percentage of pregnancies are due to the violence of rape. Because of the trauma the body goes through, I don’t know what percentage of pregnancy results from the act.”

And with those two sentences Greig stepped into the same pile of you-know-what that Akin did. She has been appropriately criticized by California lawmakers and women’s right advocates for essentially endorsing Akin’s ignorance while ironically trying to distance the party from it.

In the words of my esteemed colleague, Edward F. Coghlan, sometimes we need to give people permission to shut up.