In a world where all the media wants is headlines and all the public wants are scapegoats, it’s vital that when an issue arises, you take action quickly, tell the truth and work ethically.
“Next to doing the right thing, the most important thing is to let people know you are doing the right thing.”
What is an issue?
Issues can come in all shapes and sizes. It may involve a single student, a group of students, parents and family, caregivers, staff, organisations or businesses that you work with, programmes and courses you run - the list goes on. It might be one or many things all at once. It might be something small, or something huge.
An issue might not be an issue to you. It might not be true. It might be something that you could see coming, or might come from out of the blue.
It’s anything that will, or could potentially, hurt your reputation.
Quick case study: When things go wrong
Let’s look at an issue that could happen to anyone. In this example we’ll see how quickly an issue, and the speculation around it, can travel - and at what points you can take action to help manage the communication as swiftly as you can.
Please note this case study is provided for illustrative purposes only.
An issue hits!
It’s lunch time at a school and an international student has an epilepsy attack. The provider jumps into action and does everything they should, including calling emergencies services. Due to nature of the emergency, the services include a helicopter being called out, as well as an ambulance. There’s the local fire service too, to clear the field for the helicopter. It’s all go!
The local community hear the sirens and the whirling blades of the helicopter and see them all heading for the school.
This is high drama. Already the issue is alive.
Speculation and panic start immediately
Before the helicopter even touches down, you’ve got concerned parents calling the school to check their child is okay. All they get is a busy signal. The line is clogged. Some parents who can’t get through to the school, or to their child, panic and drive to the school, causing traffic problems.
Many jump onto social media, some onto the school Facebook page, some onto the local community page, some onto Twitter.
The message rapidly spreads that there is a helicopter, an ambulance and other services called to the school. Something terrible had happened. But what?
There is no communication yet from the school who is busy focusing on the student, too tied up to even think about managing communication with people, so people filled the gaps.
Some start saying that they think someone might have died. Some speculate that there is an armed offender on the loose. Some get second-hand information from their kids and pass on a variety of versions of the story.
Some people try to be reassuring, saying that the school would put up a notice on their website and that people should check that. Others say that if something had happened to their kid, the school would have contacted them already.
The world are on social media too
The school has a number of students from the same region overseas studying with them. All their families are hooked into the school’s media channels - their website, their Facebook page, and to the local community pages.
They see all this information coming out too. And they want answers.
The importance of acting quickly
The school does what was most important first - they make sure the student is taken care of and they get hold of the family immediately to let them know what is happening.
Managing the issue and care of the student has to come first and foremost.
However, having a simple first-step procedure in place to quickly manage the communication around an issue will help to stop any false rumours or panic spreading.
What could have been done in that first crucial hour?
A simple mechanism would have been for the school to have a dedicated person responsible for managing communication (and only the communication) the minute an issue arises.
It’s vital to have a dedicated role for communication around issues - and to make sure it does not involve any of the people who are dealing direct with any affected student or their family.
The person with the dedicated communication role would quickly make a brief statement to place on all their online channels and on their phone line. And they could tap into connected channels, such as community pages.
A simple statement at first may simply say that an incident has taken place and that you will be providing a formal statement shortly - and to be assured that those concerned have been contacted.
From there, a simple follow-on statement might look something like this: There was an incident at the school this afternoon at 3pm involving one of our students who has a known medical condition. The student is being looked after by emergency services. We have contacted the family of the student.
Whatever the appropriate response, being visible on the channels where people are talking is vital - don’t let other people fill the information gaps in for you!
Any incident will have its own unique needs in the way it is handled. Your own procedures, and that of agencies involved such as emergency services and the Police etc, will determine how the response should be managed.
The lesson from this brief case study is to illustrate how quickly information gaps are filled by people and how quickly information spreads.
It shows that in your planning, you need to take this into account.
Never do nothing
The first and most important rule with issues management is that it’s never okay to do nothing. Even if the issue is seemingly small to you - if it’s an issue to someone else, then you need to deal with it, and deal with it swiftly and methodically.
An issue is typically not about what actually happened; it is about what people think has happened. It is usually the publicity and not the issue itself that will sink an organisation.
Handle on your own? Or bring in help?
Depending on what level of issue or crisis you’re dealing with, you will need to make a quick decision on whether you can handle the issue alone, or whether you need to bring in external resources to support you.
Even if you bring in external help, you will still need an internal plan of your own to work with.
“It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.”
What if the media calls?
If a journalist rings, never say “no comment” - or answer their questions there and then. It’s often a good idea to get the journalist to put their questions in writing via email - that way you can be sure of what they’re asking. Say that someone will ring back or email a response.
Check the journalist’s deadline and confirm you’ll meet it. Note that this typically needs a quick turnaround, sometimes you may only have a matter of an hour or two. Deal with it. Get the response approved by your spokesperson before making it public.
Get a plan and jump into action
Here are the simple steps to get you started the minute an issue hits your desk. You must be swift and focused. You haven’t got any time to waste.
- Immersion: Gather the facts and details to get a full picture of the issue. (Ask yourself who, what, when, where and how to help you identify the facts). Be sure to identify what you don’t know; don’t make assumptions.
- Holding statement: Prepare a holding statement for your stakeholders. Even if the situation is complicated, you must not stay silent (see our Quick Tip below).
- Form a strategy: Do you need to accept responsibility for something? Do you need to launch an investigation? What legal or other limitations are you under? (for example, if you are working with other agencies such as the Police)
- Identify audiences and pull in third-party allies: Who is affected by this issue or crisis? Who can affect you? Who needs to know about it? Who can help you?
- Get your story and messages straight: Get your story and key messages right and tailor them for each audience. Make sure you have the facts to support your statement.
- Prepare your plan and brief people: Detail the who, what, where and when and make sure all staff are fully briefed. Everyone should know their role and what they can and can’t say. Appoint a spokesperson - this should be someone senior. This will give you a professional and consistent voice.
- Give information: Make sure you inform everyone internally and close to you – your Board, staff, relevant government agencies, agents, volunteers, stakeholders, and other partners. These people should all be told first by you, rather than the media, and be brought on board in your planning process where appropriate. Externally, use your website, social media channels, email networks, newsletter and face-to-face contact to reassure your students, parents and community that you are taking the issue seriously and what is being done about it.
- Monitor and evaluate: Keep working on your plan, monitor what’s being said externally in the media and via other channels. Revise your plan where you need to and keep everyone informed.
QUICK TIP: HOLDING STATEMENT
A holding statement is short and normally based on the following format:
- It says what has happened (note that this may differ from what people externally are speculating has happened - ignore that and stick to the facts.
- It shows sympathy with anyone adversely affected
- It explains what you are doing to tackle the situation. For example, cooperating with inquiries, launching an investigation, fixing the problem.
Be a wise monkey
Public relations disasters happen when people try to cover up their mistakes, trivialise an issue or downright lie. Often getting things right is just a matter of having a plan and fronting up as honestly and openly as you can.
Here’s some tips to keep you on track:
Own your mistakes: Often people think that public relations is about covering up the truth. It’s not. It’s about managing information. If an issue arises because of a mistake or error by you or anyone in your institution, whether intentional or not, you must own it. Never try to downplay or get around it. It will make things much worse in the long run. If you were wrong, admit it, say sorry, say what you’re doing to fix it or ensure it doesn’t happen again, and move on. Simple as that.
Focus on what’s in your control: The media will get things wrong, all the time, and they’ll spin a story around and around and make you feel like you’re in a washing machine. Don’t get sucked in. Don’t let it get you down. Sure, if the media get their facts wrong, correct them, but understand that the damage is done. Move on. Focus your efforts on where you have control - your website, your social media channels, your direct links (email, newsletters, face-to-face etc) to students, parents, staff and other key stakeholders - use the channels in your control to get the facts right and communicate with those who matter most.
Control your emotions: Sometimes an issue can make you feel like you’re under a personal attack, and you might be. Facts get skewed, stories get blown out of proportion, tempers may flare - but don’t let yours. It’s vital that you remain cool and calm. Don’t take anything personally, and don’t get emotional. Always stick to the facts and never rise to, or get sucked into any hype. If an issue is particularly taxing, make sure you take care of yourself and get support.
Remember it’s important to someone, even if that someone isn’t you: Some issues may be annoying. You might have someone with an issue you think is picky or that isn’t true. Whatever the case, never trivialise or marginalise a problem or complaint. If it’s important to someone, then it should be important to you. It may be tempting to ignore an issue, particularly if you know you’re in the right. Never do this. You won’t want to exaggerate an issue, but you also don’t want to come across as flippant or uncaring. Deal with things in a measured way, with respect and understanding.
Remember that prevention is better than cure
Although you’ll never be able to account for things going wrong, preparation is key. Develop a crisis management plan to ensure you are prepared for the next time things don’t go according to plan.
- Have processes, roles and responsibilities in place before an issue hits
- Never do nothing
- Get a plan and jump into action
- Decide whether to handle on your own, or bring in help
- Remember: own your mistakes, focus on what’s in your control, and handle your emotions