The problems with Healthcare.gov will no doubt eventually be repaired by IT pros, but the damage to reputations will sting for years to come. The challenge for the contractors involved is that the standard crisis communications playbook simply doesn’t apply in these situations.
This playbook says that in a typical crisis where a corporate reputation is on the line, a company should get in front of the cameras, accept responsibility, and make sure other responsible parties are held accountable. In this case, however, the other responsible party is a powerful government customer, backed by the White House, which has power over your contracts with all your other government customers. How do you ensure reporting is fair and accurate when your government customer insists you do not talk to the media?
We have seen this play out many time with our clients, many of whom have large public sector business lines. Oftentimes a client has performed miracles for its government customer, despite being blasted with budget-busting change orders. Sometimes the government customer has ignored critical advice from the vendor, such as to maintain equipment or update software on a regular schedule. Sometimes the customer simply is so scared of the media they direct all inquiries to the vendor, even in situations where the vendor has nothing to do with the problem area.
There is no easy answer. However one strategy we have found that works well is to equip the government customer with the means to communicate with the press. In effect, act as their temporary crisis communications PR agency.
- Provide them with:
- Talking points they can use with the press
- Infographics, photos, diagrams that explain the system architecture
- Statistics such as up-time rates
- Give them a list of friendly media contacts
- Work with friendly legislators and other surrogates behind the scenes to get your positive message out.
Even if your government customer says, “Do not talk to the press,” talk to them anyway! Not on the record, of course, but help point the press in the right direction. Your company’s future is on the line, so get scrappy. Better to risk taking some flak from your government customer for defending yourself in the media than to let your brand be permanently hollowed out by your inaction.