When President Barack Obama recently said the private sector is “doing fine” during comments to the press, the clock started ticking, said Mandy Arnold, president of York-based public relations firm Gavin Advertising.
Someone — either the president himself or his press secretary — needed to come out in the moments immediately afterward to correct his mistake,
“If you do it right away, before someone else calls you on it, you’re fine,” Arnold said. “If you wait for someone to call you on it, then you’re in trouble.”
Gavin Advertising launched in September, and its work in the specialty area of crisis communications has grown more quickly than anticipated, Arnold said.
Arnold’s clients have included York-based Family First Health, which began working with Gavin at the beginning of this year on a broader marketing to clients and potential donors, Executive Director Jennifer Englerth said.
But a situation in need of crisis communications skills quickly developed after York city officials informed Family First Health that its leased parking spaces at 101 S. George St. would no longer be available for patient use.
The city moved into the property and made it the new City Hall. Gavin helped Family First Health stay consistent in its message and focused on the goal of having access to its South George Street facility for its patients, Englerth said.
Ultimately, Family First Health was able to retain parking for its patients, she said.
Arnold holds master’s degrees in communications management and crisis communications, and she wrote her thesis on public perception, awareness and trust.
Making sure a client identifies and articulates its true mission, role and identity in the community is key to forming responses — which are far different from gut reactions, she said.
“So much of it is helping people find the words to deliver,” Arnold said.
Being upfront and honest are among pillars of the firm’s strategy to help clients who face crises, she said.
Here are some dos and don’ts for managing crisis communications situations:
People who react immediately tend to have visceral responses toward what they perceive as being attacked. Instead, step back and assess a situation based on who the organization is in the community and what its goals are. A responder needs to know exactly where they are coming from and know where they are going, not just where they are in the moment.
Also, audiences don’t want jumbled responses. If someone rambles through a reaction, it almost guarantees the wrong message will get out.
Do designate a spokesperson
It helps an organization stay consistent with a message and remain clear in the delivery. People who are not clear on the message should not be responding because a consistent, core message needs to go out across all communications platforms. That is even more important in an age with so many outlets for information, including traditional news media and social media.
Always answer the question that is posed. An organization has to remain upfront, honest and transparent, and from there figure out the most important information to convey. The response cannot be the person’s own opinion, however. It needs to be from the organization and consistent with its values and purpose. Too often, people respond with who they are instead of who the organization is.
Do think with an audience response in mind
A person in a crisis communications situation should know exactly what behavior they are trying to elicit from receivers when they respond. They might want people to take specific action or simply be on the organization’s side in a situation. Or they might need to respond in such a way that allows for time to plan a more in-depth response.
Don’t get overly detailed
The general public does not want lengthy responses. For mass audiences, a responder needs to package information in ways that are easily digestible. A lot of Gavin’s process for responses includes vetting messages to see whether even the individual words themselves elicit the response that is needed and how those words might play differently with decision makers and the media.