Episode 71: December 4, 2009
by Lisa B. Marshall
Today’s topic is taken directly from the headlines: Did Tiger Woods just crash his car or did he also crash his credibility? Today, I’ll cover how to effectively handle a media crisis.
How to Handle a Media Crisis
My husband said to me, “Come on, is the Tiger Woods story news? Should it really be the top headline on CNN?” And my response was, “Well, yeah, I think so. Tiger Woods isn’t just a person; he isn’t just an athlete; he’s the world’s first billion dollar athlete. More accurately Tiger Woods is a company and a billion dollar brand. When Tiger Woods experiences a personal crisis it has repercussions far beyond personal embarrassment.
Unfortunately for him, the story has grown even bigger since the day of the crash. It seems he’s decided not to follow traditional rules of crisis management.
It is critically important for him--and for any individual or organization that is in crisis--to handle the crisis effectively. Reputations can be washed away or seriously damaged in an instant.
What are the Rules of Crisis Management?
So what are the rules of crisis management? In general, it’s important to be responsive, to be honest, and to be concerned. You have to respond, because if you don’t, there’s an information gap. And that gap will be filled by speculation and rumor. You need to be honest, because if you lie, you create a secondary problem--another problem with your credibility. And finally, if you are able to show that you care, people will forgive and forget.
So let’s review the rules in a bit more detail.
How to Respond to a Crisis
Rule #1: Be first and be fast. Be the first to break the news. Don’t wait for reporters to start camping out. Don’t hide, or the media and your supporters will assume you are hiding for a reason. That’s why it’s best for you to come forward immediately, so that you can define the issue in the most favorable terms possible. If you don’t define the issue, others will do it for you. Finally, when you break the news, it helps to release the information to a favorable audience.
When you break the news first, when you’re honest, and when you take responsibility, there is no story.
David Letterman did it right when he was the first to release the news of his affairs with staffers to a loyal and sympathetic studio audience. On the other hand, Tiger Woods waited nearly a week. He did, however, finally post an apology to his supporters through his website. For corporations, it’s also important to remember that immediate internal communication is as important as communication with the public.
Rule #2: Be honest. The next rule of crisis management is to be honest. Don’t sugarcoat the issues; always tell the truth. Say as much as you can. You don’t necessarily have to tell everything at once. But don’t tell half-truths or lies. If there’s damaging information, be sure it comes directly from you, so you can present your side of the story. David Letterman handled his crisis correctly by directly stating he had affairs with woman staffers. How about Tiger Woods? On his website he admits to “transgressions.” To me, that counts as sugarcoating and doesn’t stop the speculation or directly address the rumors.
Rule #3: Be responsible. Finally, it’s important to be concerned and show concern. Acknowledge uncertainty. Acknowledge misbehaviors. Apologize for errors. If you were wrong, say you were wrong. If you or your company caused injury, apologize sincerely. This is the time to be human, not professional. In this regard, Tiger Woods was on target. He wrote, “I will strive to be a better person and the husband and father that my family deserves. For all of those who have supported me over the years, I offer my profound apology.”
Summary: How to Handle a Media Crisis
When you break the news first, when you’re honest, and when you take responsibility, there is no story. You take the wind out of the sails of speculation and rumor. There is no story. Had Tiger Woods closely followed these rules of crisis management, perhaps it wouldn’t have been the top story on CNN.
This is Lisa B. Marshall, passionate about communication; your success is my business.
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