Being Creative in the Face of Crisis

by Andrea Hanstein
Fullerton College
Fullerton, CA

From the very moment your NCMPR Board of Directors selected New Orleans, Louisiana., as the 2014 national conference site, I knew the theme of this year’s Summer Institute had to be crisis communication. What other American city has endured so much heartache over the past decade, yet manages to emerge stronger than before?

As I began to search for potential speakers, it dawned on me that the real question was,  “how was I going to approach crisis communication from a different angle?” If you’re like me, you have gone to more state and federal trainings than you care to remember, and have had your fill of JICs and Timely Warnings.

Enter New Orleans native John Deveney, president of Deveney Communications. Most recently, John created the strategy and led the team that managed the state tourisms response to the BP Oil Spill. That response reshaped public perception and preserved Louisiana’s $9.4 billion tourism industry. John believes that the fight-or-flight response is a natural instinct triggered in a crisis. Weak leaders choose flight and strong leaders fight using basic crisis communication tactics. But the strongest leaders don’t stop at the basics. They grow and innovate in every situation — even in a crisis.

Lucky for us, John loves to share his experience and expertise with fellow communicators and jumped at the chance to lead our Summer Institute. He was engaging, funny, thoughtful, and most impressively, he managed to hold our attention for two straight days! While I can’t summarize his entire presentation, I thought I would share with you one of the takeaways that I found most useful.

After Hurricane Katrina, John developed what he refers to as the “Four Hard C’s of Crisis Communication”, quick (okay so it doesn’t start with a “C”, but it sounds like it does), candid, context and consistent.

Quick. No matter the size and scope of the crisis, respond quickly, even if you don’t know all the answers. Communicate to your key publics what you do know, even if it’s not a lot, and what you’re doing to find out more. Let them know when they can expect to hear back from you.

Candid. The best thing an institution can do is to be candid in its response. Certainly, there is sensitive information that can’t be shared publicly, but in a crisis, be candid. Make sure that you’re giving the information that you’re able to give and, again, as quickly as possible.

Context. Let people know how the situation fits into a bigger picture. Who is your organization? What is your role within the community?

Consistent. Make sure that you’re consistent in your information. If you don’t have any new information to share, be upfront about it. Instead of canceling your daily briefing, have your spokesperson tell the media that there is no new information, but that you welcome questions.

Bottom line — crises are stressful and require a strategic response. But if you remember the Four Hard C’s of Crisis Communication and never stop thinking creatively, you too can come out on top.

Newsflash! John Deveney will be joining us at the 2014 national conference in New Orleans (March 19-21). Check your registration brochures this fall for his pre-conference intensive focusing on media training.

Andrea Hanstein is public information officer at Fullerton College in California.

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