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When Bad Things Happen

The now off the air Australian radio pranksters have been the radio buzz all weekend long. Ever since they pranked the hospital where Kate Middleton was staying they have been the talk of the International radio industry. They were even promoting their stunt after the fact. Until it went horribly wrong and the nurse who fielded the call was found dead. Now, the situation has turned into a crisis for them. What if you had to deal with a sudden crisis? Are you prepared? We turned to Brian Glicklich who's written about crisis management for Radio Ink before.

The first question Im asked in a crisis almost always has to do with my clients greatest fear. Usually, its about business: How much will my company be damaged when this story comes out? Sometimes its about getting fired. Occasionally, its about being convicted. Fear is a funny motivator. It causes most people to do the wrong thing at the wrong time. People in crisis talk too much, in the wrong tone, and before they have all the facts. People in crisis speak generally instead of specifically, or distantly instead of from the heart. Bad things happen to everyone, but when they happen to a business, doing the right thing at the right time can keep a small fire from becoming an inferno.

Its a truism, but one that bears repeating, that if you wait until you have a crisis in your company to learn how to handle one, youre in for a bad day at the office. Especially for broadcasters, where our business is to aggregate an audience and there arent many quiet corners to hide in. Thats why you need a team and a plan so you can identify potential problems, avoid the avoidable, and contain the things you cant avoid.

Radio contests, for example, have a long history of unintended consequences, from visits by the bomb squad to listener injuries or even deaths. But many operators dont have a comprehensive plan in place to spot problems with contests and promotions before they get on the air. Having a plan and a formal policy is critical because if something slips through, your communications strategy will include pointing to that policy. Typically, the team handling a problem will include either the market manager or the group CEO (depending on the scale of the problem) as the public face of the company to the media, plus legal counsel and a communications head in the background, as well as a crisis consultant if specialized expertise is needed. 

And not all problems occur on the air. Publicly traded companies faced with missed projections and declining revenue can find themselves in a negative press cycle,where each story broadens the path to the exit for analysts and shareholders. Since reporters read each others stories,  these articles tend to come in waves. And because the public looks for patterns in the press, a negative cycle can turn into something very serious very quickly.

To mitigate this, you need to build and maintain relationships with the reporters covering radio, even if you dont like what theyve said about you in the past. You need to tell your own story in the affirmative, especially when reporters arent writing about you. And when they are working on a story, aggressively use your
own team to find out what they intend to report before they report it and correct their characterizations before they print them.  Finally, be prepared to quickly correct any inaccuracies after publication, using the communications tools you have available.

One other kind of case needs special scrutiny. Talk radio lives in a cauldron of strong opinion. Special interest groups have a history of misrepresenting the words of talk hosts and using radios high profile to advance their own agendas at your expense. In many cases, the charges they make will be either baseless or highly manipulated. And youll be very angry. While each set of circumstances requires a unique response, the best path will be based on your assessment of the validity of the protesters comments and their ability to generate attention themselves if you deny it to them.

If they are wrong but able to gain little attention, ignore them. If theyre wrong and represent a threat to audience or advertisers, calmly and dispassionately debunk them in public, ideally through a friendly print reporter or other third party for credibility. The best way to mitigate the risk of extremist advocates is not to sink to
their level but to instead counter then reasonably. By contrast, theyll be seen for what they actually are.

Here are five guidelines that can help you find the best way out when controversy comes to your door:

1. Have an early warning system. The system needs to run throughout your organization, including people on the ground in all your markets who have training to recognize potential problems and gather facts. Have a way to escalate very quickly when a local event threatens to break out. The CEO must be included in this group.

2. Move quickly and carefully. Early statements need to come in the initial news cycle. You can never avoid comment or be unavailable. But you also have to avoid saying too much before you have all the facts. You cant afford to be forced to retract part of an early statement.

3. Damage assessment is critical.You have to know if youre in the wrong or not and tailor your response to your level of vulnerability. Sometimes doing more than you have to early on will demonstrate enough goodwill to keep events from escalating. But never apologize if you arent wrong. Showing weakness emboldens the opposition.

4. Do SOMETHING. If you have a choice between saying something and doing something, do something. People will trust you more when they see you acting in alignment with your statements.

5. Always tell the truth. Lies or half-truths offered in a crisis are always discovered. Assume your opposition is as smart as you are. I usually assume theyre smarter, and that means I am often able to accurately anticipate their actions. And heres a special word about e-mail: Use it carefully. Pretend youll be reading every word out loud to a jury one day and youll probably use your phone more often. Theres no such thing as a truly deleted e-mail. Trust me on this. Finally, remember the core principal of crisis: Youre almost always hurt worst by what you dont know.

Brian Glicklich can be reached via e-mail at brian@howhandyisthat.com



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