The White House once again finds itself trying to batten down the hatches as another crisis consumes the president, his family and his senior staff.
Just as the President tries to change the subject, Russia continues to dominate the news headlines. What Crisis Communications 101 tells any public relations professional that we always need to be ready for the unexpected. When the unexpected happens every day you, find yourselves swirling in confusion, conflict and inconsistent messaging.
The result: A media feeding frenzy as each word and each action the Administration takes only fuels another wave of story lines, speculation and accusations. Given the frenetic cycle of crisis, there are lessons the White House and the press must take into consideration.
For the White House
- Establish a quiet period – for everyone. That’s right. For the next several days, the president, his family, senior staff, their legal teams need to be quiet.
- Develop a consistent set of talking points for all interested parties to follow. Of course, in “normal” crisis communications circumstances, you want to share what is most important to create a sense of calm and that the situation is under control.
- Assign a single person to speak on anything related to Russia. That persons should not be the president. It should not be the White House press secretary. It needs to be a prominent, credible, media friendly attorney who is comfortable managing the Washington media frenzy.
- Shut down social media. Yeah, this is a big ask, but if there’s any order to be restored no one – the president or any of his family members – should take to Twitter to share any information.
For the Press
- Avoid the squirrel mentality. Every utterance or nuance does not warrant 24/7 coverage. Just because it was tweeted does not mean we have to talk about it.
- Report first, analyze later. This period of on-going crisis communications has spawned even more pundits, analysts and journalists interviewing journalists. There are too many times when many of these individuals have no direct knowledge of the crisis or have not interviewed people directly involved. They have no facts. That only fuels uncertainty and erodes media credibility with a public who has lost faith in what the media are supposed to do.
- Provide context. In the midst of the daily crisis, it is easy to say that this is “the most unprecedented”, “the most unbelievable” circumstance we have ever seen. In some cases, it is, but either way, the press needs to help its readers and viewers understand why any given incident is more significant than the other. Providing direct references to history, Constitutional issues or legal standing would help everyone understand what is extraordinary about this current crisis.
- Verify, verify, verify. This era of digital media coupled with this period of constant crisis has placed increased pressure on media to publish first, verify later. This is a dangerous trap. On the upside, people are getting more news and information faster than ever in more ways than ever. On the downside, too many rumors and conveniently placed “fake news” is seeping into the headlines so much so several media outlets have found themselves running corrections and firing staff for reporting on stories that never happened. The press can play a key role in helping to restore stability if it takes every extra step to stay true to the facts
About the Author: Neil Foote, President & Founder, Foote Communications. He is a veteran journalist and media executive. He draws from his experience at the Miami Herald, Washington Post, Belo Corporation and Tom Joyner’s Reach Media. He also teaches digital and social media for journalists, media management and business journalism at the University of North Texas’ Frank W. & Sue Mayborn School of Journalism and runs Foote Communications, a media consulting firm. The native of Brooklyn, NY also is president of the board for the National Black Public Relations Society and founder of PoliticsInColor.com