Pilot Flying J, the nation’s biggest diesel fuel retailer, is under investigation for claims that it cheated customers out of rebates on bulk fuel purchases. This April, FBI and IRS agents showed up at the company’s headquarters looking for evidence of rebate fraud that allegedly took place for more than five years.
On the day of the raid, company CEO Jimmy Haslam released a statement saying he believed there was no wrongdoing. Later, he said the matter was about rebates involving an “insignificant” number of customers. (A review by auditors showed that about 250 trucking companies out of 400 may have problems with their rebates. The company faces multiple lawsuits.)
Today, in a crisis, speed wins. It’s not unusual for the news media to call or show up – sometimes within 15 minutes – looking for information. So it’s understandable that a company spokesperson will want to have something to say in a timely manner. The challenge is to avoid saying anything that will later turn out to be inaccurate.
Remember these misstatements?
Early on in the Deepwater Horizon oil spill crisis, BP CEO Tony Hayward downplayed the incident, describing the amount of oil being released as “relatively tiny” in comparison with the “very big ocean.” He said, “I think the environmental impact of this disaster is likely to be very, very modest.” (The oil flowed for 87 days with a total discharge of 4.9 million barrels.)
And in 2007, the Crandall Canyon coal mine in Utah collapsed, killing six miners and three rescue workers. At a news conference, Robert Murray, president and CEO of Murray Energy, the mine operator, insisted that he could prove the mine collapse was caused by a 3.9 magnitude earthquake. Later, Murray’s claim was flatly rejected by a study which showed that pillars in the mine collapsed, causing giant slabs of sandstone above the mine to shift. The mine collapse was so powerful, it registered as an earthquake.
Not that long ago, company spokespersons had the luxury of time when responding to crisis-related media inquiries. Newspapers, which generally came out in the morning, had late-day deadlines. TV news was at 6PM and 11PM. All-day news radio? It didn’t exist. Ditto the Internet. So, depending on the time of day the crisis occurred, reporters could often wait hours for a response. Those days are gone.
People are used to instant news. And they (and reporters) have come to expect an instant response from a company spokesperson. But that doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice accuracy for speed. Here’s how you can balance those two elements:
▪ Make sure your organization understands that a quicker media response is required today. If your mindset is that reporters can wait, your company runs the risk of being perceived as hiding something, uncaring or unprepared.
▪ Most news outlets value accuracy. But some take the approach that being first is better than being accurate. They feel that they can quickly correct their inaccuracies – for example, by placing new information on their website (all traditional news outlets also have websites). You, on the other hand, must be accurate – especially from the onset.
▪ In the early moments of a crisis, information is often limited and sketchy. Politely challenge those who are providing you with the details. Ask them how they have come to know what they are telling you. For example, have they actually seen something with their own eyes? Or did they get it second or third hand? Be skeptical. Before sharing anything, verify. Separate fact from conjecture.
▪ Don’t feel you need complete information before talking to the news media. (Lawyers are notorious for wanting every “t” crossed and “i” dotted before letting their company speak publicly.) It’s OK to brief the media when you have only partial information. You can always hold follow-up press briefings as additional information becomes available.
▪ Even when very few of the 5Ws and 1H (what, when, where, who, why and how) are known, you can talk to the news media and tell them you’re gathering information, you’re concerned about the situation (especially people), etc. Initial press briefings don’t need to be lengthy; they can last just a few minutes, and you don’t need to take questions.
▪ Resist the temptation to speculate. Get comfortable with telling reporters you don’t know, but that you’ll try to get the answers to their questions.
Mark Twain once said, “A lie can get halfway around the world before the truth can even get its boots on.” The same can probably be said about misinformation in today’s world of instant news. Most crisis communication experts consider the first hour of response the “Golden Hour.” In many breaking news events, initial news reports take place in this first hour. Make sure you’re prepared to share accurate information during that period.