By Haley Harrison-Lee
My 16-year career in local TV news took me to many places. I never expected an Appalachian cockfighting pit frequented by the Mid-Atlantic’s wealthy and powerful to be among them. It was the kind of sordid corruption that made for some compelling reporting. The lessons learned from that and countless other crises I covered through the years helped build the communications playbook I now use to help our clients communicate effectively in times of crisis.
In 2008, the Page County Virginia sheriff’s office was facing a damning and rapidly spiraling reputational crisis that was eroding public trust in the agency. A tip from a Deep source set the stage: The man tasked with upholding the rule of law, the sheriff, was, in fact, turning a blind eye to an illegal cockfighting ring deep in the mountains outside Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park. After his arrest in a 22-count federal racketeering case, the sheriff was handed a court-ordered work “vacation.” In his absence, deputies told reporters they weren’t sure of the “pecking order” within the office, yet said people could expect the “same level of professional law enforcement we’ve been providing.”
It didn’t exactly restore public confidence. An agency in evident disarray, one major said that while the sheriff could no longer conduct business, “he is still the sheriff.” But not for long. Facing a public petition to remove him from office, the sheriff resigned and was eventually convicted and sentenced to 19 months in prison.
Crisis is inevitable, even if the mushroom cloud of scandal detailed here is not. Whether the top cop is engaging in criminal activity or if a business data breach, a public health crisis or some kind of employee wrongdoing strikes your organization, it’s essential to develop a proactive communications plan to prepare for the unthinkable. As a journalist, I saw these communications executed well and, in too many cases, very poorly. Having seen it all, there’s no denying a little forethought goes a long way in responding to and surviving crises. Here are some important questions to ask yourself:
- What are your organization’s weak spots, potential risks and strengths?
- Who’s on your team?
- What resources do you have in place?
- When would a response protocol be engaged?
- What are those broad scenarios?
The answers to those important questions should lead to a detailed action plan for responding to hypothetical scenarios. That plan should involve training and practice sessions to ensure you and your team are familiar and comfortable with the roles and messages you will deliver.
Like I said, my career in local TV news took me to many places. I’ve covered storms both natural and man-made. I’ve seen crisis communications at their best … and worst. Take it from me: If your organization hopes to weather your next storm, whatever that looks like, the work begins now.