Saturday 7 September 2013

Crisis Media - The Good, The Bad, and The Very Ugly

14 Tips for Responding to Media Inquiries in the Midst of a Crisis

Written by Robyn T. Braley

Adrienne Arsenault of the CBC The National, Global TV’s Dawna Friessen, and CTV’s Lisa Laflamme are in the lobby with their camera crews demanding a comment. In the parking lot in front of your head office is a gaggle of newspaper, radio and more TV reporters.

Mobile trucks are parked across the street where technicians are busy locking onto satellite signals. Just when you think it can’t get worse, in walks Anderson Cooper from CNN. Great, now the story has developed legs and gone global.

Just then, your receptionist sends a text noting she just got a tweet with a link to a YouTube video. This is the end. Now it's gone viral.
What now? This isn’t the time to google media trainers looking for advice. In the summer of 2013 we’ve seen the good, the bad and the ugly of crisis response media strategies in Canada.

The Model
The good – make that the great – crisis media response strategy belonged to Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi. The way he used integrated media to communicate with key audiences during the devestating Southern Alberta floods has become a model.

As news of the impending disaster began to trickle into the communications grid, he red-eyed it back to Calgary from a speaking engagement in Toronto to take command. During the early hours of the crisis, he looked frumpy and disheveled. Nenshi looked like he hadn’t slept; which he hadn’t. He stayed on duty for more than 48 hours straight touring disaster sites, the command centre, and doing countless interviews.

The Mayor inspired and moved entire communities to take action locally while reassuring observers across the country and around the world that Alberta was still in business and would somehow overcome the current difficulty. Mayor Nenshi became a beacon of hope in a time of great trouble.

Heroic Stories
He was honest, forthcoming, and told it like it was. Between facts and figures, Nenshi told fresh stories of first responder and volunter heroism. He scolded people who were taking unecessary risks and putting their own selfish interests ahead of others. He encouraged people to keep holding on because help was coming.

When the first call for volunteers was sent out around 7:00 am on June, 24th, 2013, more than 2,500 gathered by 10:00 am in the parking lot of MacMahon Stadium. They had no idea what they would be asked to do. They were just there ready to serve.

Until the waters began to subside, the Mayor made himself available to the media whenever needed. He used all forms of traditional and new media to communicate with Albertans. He used television, radio, newspapers and the City of Calgary website. He was relentless tweeting and using other social media mediums on an hourly basis.

The Bad
And, now for the bad. No, let’s make it the indifferent. Google Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. (CNRL) president Steve Laut and review his company’s media response to the recent Cold Lake bitumen spill. His manner was cold, emotionless, and lacked any hint of caring. 

As background, Alberta’s Energy Regulator had found that 5,975 barrels of bitumen had surfaced at the Primrose and Wolf Lake facility. The toxic ooze killed wildlife and contaminated groundwater aquifers, soil, vegetation and a nearby water body. Authorities estimated that the leak had started seeping to the surface about one year earlier.

The Perception
To state the obvious, by not disclosing the spill early on eliminated any chance of mobilizing disaster services to control and reduce the environmental impact or to minimize public exposure to health hazards. Company actions smelled of cover-up.

Following months of delay, Mr. Laut finally travelled to the spill site to hold his first news conference and to guide the media through the contaminated area. He said, “CNRL could have done more to communicate with the local community.” Really?

He followed that by saying he was sorry. Sorry for what? That the company had been caught? That he was the one chosen to make the appology? He looked and sounded totally disinterested and annoyed that he had to be there.

It Gets Worse
CNRL’s overall crisis response strategy invited further scrutiny from regulators, the industry and international media. Observers close to the action stated that company leaders seemed confused and lacked focus.

But, it goes deeper. Global anti ”tar sands” forces are locked and loaded waiting for any opportunity to attack Alberta’s oil sands using all available communications forms. CNRL gave these opponants a gift.

In the eyes of observers outside of Alberta, CNRL’s behavior demonstrated what the economic and environmental oponants had been saying all along. Canadian companies – particularly those operating in the oil sands - are sinister, inept, not to be trusted, and simply don’t care about the community. Canadians know that is not true about the vast majority of companies.  

The Ugliest of Ugly
As for the ugliest of a very ugly media performance, it doesn’t get much worse than that of Montreal Maine & Atlantic Railway’s board chairman Edward Burkhardt. He became a textbook example of how not to respond through the media during a crisis.

It was his company’s runaway train that derailed igniting a firey holocast killing 48 people and turning much of Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, into ashes.

When Mr. Burkhardt finally showed up at the town three days after the catastrophe, he publically accused the train engineer, his employee, of negligence. When that didn’t gain traction, he pointed fingers at a neighboring town’s volunteer fire department which had attended a small fire involving the train the evening before the masive explosion.  

Mr. Burkhardt stuttered, he stammered, and looked totally bewildered. Most of all, he refused to take ownership of the disaster.

Cold and Callous
HhHe demonstrated the height of insensitive and entitled behavior by speaking in English to a mostly French speaking crowd. How easy would it have been to secure the services of a translator?

Then, rather than showing empathy, he got into heated arguments with angry townspeople who were determined to get answers during a news conference. He actually “spoke out loud” about how frustrated he was that people didn’t understand how much money he had personally lost due to the disaster. Really? He should have kept that thought in his head.

Everything Mr. Burkhardt said, the way he said it, and how he looked when he said it showed callous indifference and communicated that he simply didn’t care. He showed zero compassion for the townspeople’s loss of friends, family, neighbors and property. He didn’t seem to care that their lives had been changed forever.

As a final indignity, the company recently filed for bankruptcy protection in Montreal and Chicago. Spokes people carefully explained that filing for bankruptcy would actually mean the process for compensating townspeople for their loses would be fast tracked. Really?

Media Tips for Disasters
1.     Following are 12 tips for communicating through the media when disaster strikes.

2.     Be proactive in getting your message out. Silence may signal you have something to hide or force journalists to source quotes from people who may not know the full story or have their own interests at heart.

3.     Show up early. Be there and show you care.

4.     Be honest and forthcoming. Never waver. Lying will never lead to a good outcome.

5.     Before answering questions, take a few moments to compose your thoughts.

6.     Body language, eye contact, and tone of voice are important even in newspaper interviews.

7.     Don’t fidget or sweat.

8.     Make eye contact with the journalist. That will help you keep it personal. 

9.     In a news conference or scrum, look directly at individual journalists who ask a question. That will help you keep it one-on-one and to manage the feeling of being overwhelmed.

10. “No comment,” is never the right answer. If you do not have all the facts, say so.

11. Never “blather.” When you are exhausted or under extreme stress, keep answers short.

12. In early stages, keep the focus on the human costs for employees, their families and the community and any others who may be effected.

13. Publically reach out to all regulatory agencies. State that you want to find answers and be part of the solution.

14. Resist early conversations about cost estimates. That discussion will happen later. That there may be considerable financial loses will be obvious.

15. Just because you CAN doesn’t mean you SHOULD tweet. Be careful what you tweet. Choose words carefully. Vet all social media messaging with someone you trust for use of language, attitude, and unintended meaning.

Robyn T. Braley is a brand specialist, writer and speaker. He is the President of UniMark Creative which focuses on website design, video production, media services (editorial and advertising), and graphic design. Contact him at or

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