Crisis communications lesson from a missing plane

I tuned into CBC this morning and heard an interviewing about the media’s tendency toward speculation and rumours in the absence of solid information.  I assumed I was jumping in on an interview about PR crisis management so my ears, quite literally, perked up. Aha!  A familiar topic!

Turns out I was actually listening to an interview with Craig Silverman, an award-winning journalist with the Poynter Institute, talking about an article he wrote urging many of his media colleagues to stop the speculation and non-stop coverage of missing flight MH370 in the absence of real news.  He called for restraint.

While recent Malaysian Airlines coverage—and specifically the “gut feeling” CNN story cited in Mr. Silverman’s story is notably appalling—this is not a new phenomenon.  This is a blatant, global and high-profile example of how too-many media outlets report on crises and I’ve seen various degrees of this in every crisis or issue I’ve worked on for the past 20+ years. I get it. They need content, they need a source, and they need to meet the public hunger for information.

There’s a big lesson here for any organization planning for a potential future public relations crisis:  like nature, reporters covering a crisis situation abhor a vacuum.

(To be clear, Malaysian Airlines and all of those responsible for the missing plane have much more than a P.R. problem. This isn’t intended as an analysis or criticism of their communications.  Perhaps another post at another time. But I believe this interview and article have relevance for 99.9% of crises so I return to my point and post.)

To successfully protect your reputation in crisis, you must be prepared to provide real information on an ongoing basis.

If and when you face a mob of information-hungry reporters—iphones, microphones and cameras in hand, needing to fill insatiable 24/7 web deadlines—be prepared to provide background on your issue. What happened? What should have happened? How is this different from ‘normal’? When did you learn of this? What went wrong?  If you don’t know what went wrong, what are you doing to find out? When will you have more information? When will you provide another update? What are you going to do to fix this? How will you make sure it won’t happen again?

If you’re not ready and willing to share information, someone else will. Maybe an industry expert, maybe an academic, maybe even a competitor. One of the most important things you can do in a crisis is provide information and provide it quickly.  And keep providing it even as you work to mitigate or resolve the trigger event. One of my PR mentors had a brilliant adage:  “If you don’t tell them, they’ll make it up, and it will be bad.”

I agree with and admire Mr. Silverman’s plea and I wish him very good luck with this attempt to shift the paradigm. I hope even more fervently that Flight MH370 is found, and all 239 people aboard are safe.

I strongly suspect there is more hope of the latter. In the meantime, I’ll keep advising clients accordingly.