Knowing when to hold ‘em, and when not to hold back–proactive vs. reactive communications

In Communication, Organizational Communication - Assignment on March 25, 2012 at 10:35 pm


Something bad has happened. But it hasn’t hit the press. Yet. What do you do? Wait for the hum of helicopter blades overhead (helicopters, yeah, that was so yesterday). Or do you fire a pre-emptive strike and get your story out there before it gets out of control?

That has long been one of the most challenging strategy questions in crisis communications and public relations management. It is obviously  getting even more complicated in the social media era. Many communication analyst haven’t been able to duck this question because it comes up in almost every crisis communication plan.

One of the answers that i have receive is to  make clear there are not two options, but three. The first option, completely reactive, means preparing a holding statement, hope that no one notices the big problem or that it is a busy news day and just wait for the calls to come. Then, switching into a proactive stance depends on how many calls you get and how far and fast the story goes.

The third option, completely proactive says that by all means get your story out there before someone else beats you to the punch and gets it all wrong or makes you look a lot worse than you really are. This is a strong part of the school of thought that says if you have some bad news its an awful lot better coming from you than someone else.

The risk of the reactive is that you will indeed get caught behind, particularly in this time of global connectivity with news traveling at fiber speed. Anyone who has been caught by initial very negative stories knows how difficult it is to dig out that hole.

The risk of the proactive is that you may have created a crisis that might have gone unnoticed, that you drew attention to a problem that might quietly have gone away and therefore you have inadvertently and unnecessarily damaged the organization’s reputation. Most CEO’s and about 99.9% of corporate lawyers involved in these decisions are going to go this direction under the often mistaken notion that it is “safer.”

So, what’s the third option? Putting a statement on your website without distribution via email or newswire.

I did this about two months ago when I was serving as assistant for an government facility. There was a relatively small incident but one which required public emergency response with resulting visibility to the community. There were no media calls immediately even though it went out on the police scanner through local emergency management. I prepared a statement and requested authorization from the Incident Commander to put it on the facilities website. I remember a couple of the managers involved looking at me like I was nuts. “Why would you want to go and tell the world about this?” they asked. No media was calling, no citizens, apparently no attention.

These were the reasons I gave: 1) Given the event, it is more than likely we will get media calls because that is what has happened in the past. 2) When/if they do call I will tell them the I published the information on the website (hours/minutes) ago. 3) That will build trust and credibility with them–we are making something public that they figured they’d have to dig for and we did it before they asked. 4) If I get hammered with media calls or citizen calls, I can simply say all available information is on our website, giving me time, meeting their info requirements, and focusing on our website vs. news websites as authoritative source for information about the event. 5) I start training reporters to check the website first if an event happens which saves me precious time and avoids having to do interviews in which I might say something wrong or they might write it down wrong.

I could give a few other reasons, but that is enough. I did not convince the older managers who still thought I was nuts and was just a publicity hound looking to get a story in the news. But the Incident Commander trusted me, as eventually did the local and regional reporters. Which helped out when there were bigger events.

This is not the solution to the proactive vs. reactive dilemma. The way I deal with it in plans typically is to include a series of questions that help to classify the crisis into one of a few categories. But, having a third option gives you more ways to respond. There are some crisis events that are black and white in terms of what you need to do and how to respond. The tough ones come in shades of gray. With this public posting without distribution option, you have a response that also comes in a shade of gray.


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