It’s hard to imagine that the leaks of PRISM and other national security programs could have a silver lining for the Obama Administration, but there just might be one in terms of public relations. The exposure of PRISM and the Administration’s reactions to the leaks have at least taken some attention away from the IRS and the Department of Justice (DOJ). Certainly the back-to-back revelations of the IRS scrutiny of public interest groups and the DOJ’s seizing of journalists’ phone records caught the Administration off guard.
It’s been noted that the White House was late to acknowledge the seriousness of the situation and that they lacked a coordinated, consistent message and a single, accountable spokesperson, which may have contributed to an inability to contain the news stories coming out of both situations. With PRISM and the other surveillance stories, however, the Administration did a far better job.
What this demonstrates is the need for a good, quick-to-implement crisis communications plan – not just for government but for any organization. In an age of uber-fast communication, an organization’s reputation, brand and credibility can be ruined in a microsecond.
While a good crisis response plan requires weeks, if not months, of careful planning, there are a few key points organizations need to consider when preparing a crisis communications strategy.
- Act quickly and engage senior leaders. The only thing that makes a crisis situation worse is the lack of a response or comment from the affected organization. And the comment should come from someone high up in the organization.
- Create transparent messages. Audiences want honesty and sincerity in the face of a controversy. Organizations that don’t openly and clearly share details can be accused of dodging or using smoke-and-mirrors to save face. This is not the time to change the subject or bridge to corporate puffery. Designate a small team to craft the message and don’t let the corporate attorney have the last word. Listen to legal advice, but treat it as one consideration.
- Accept responsibility. If your organization was at fault for a situation, acknowledge that. You might also need to apologize to make amends for a mistake or for harm caused by your brand. Leaders who fail to issue an apology when one is warranted come off as arrogant and uninterested, which only exacerbates an already precarious situation.
- Explain next steps. This part is particularly important: clearly articulate how the situation will be prevented moving forward. Whether this will take the form of changes to policies, product, or practices, it is important to reassure audiences that the crisis situation will not be repeated if it can be helped. If laws were broken, make it clear that the parties involved are being cooperative with investigations to ensure the issue is resolved.
While the PRISM leaks could have been a much larger crisis for the Administration, the President acted swiftly, authoritatively and clearly in responding to them. The IRS and DOJ situations, on the other hand, are still capturing attention from media, pointing to the necessity of having a crisis communications plan that’s well thought out. It doesn’t have to be complicated either. Stick to the basics: acting quickly using senior leaders, crafting honest and consistent messaging, accepting responsibility, and explaining next steps. Finally, honor the public’s and media’s right to know what happened; otherwise you could find yourself profoundly dishonored.