Mitch Leff

Brookhaven’s had its share of issues in recent months, from claims against the former mayor to open records problems that resulted in the resignation of the city attorney to the public dismissal of the city’s former communications director.

Media coverage – in this paper and a range of other media outlets – hasn’t portrayed the city in the most favorable light. But these kinds of situations don’t have to be “par for the course” when you’re running a city.

Of course, the best way to avoid negative media coverage of a crisis is simply not to have one. With the right advance preparation, many of these situations can be averted before they even happen. Proper preparation is key here. Any company – and that includes city governments – should take the time to put together a detailed plan to prepare for negative situations. It begins with thinking through all of your operational issues, all of the “what if this happens” scenarios.

That process should include, among other things, a thorough understanding of every likely issue and your process for handling it. It can begin with common situations (how to respond if a city building is evacuated) and go deeper into more complicated issues (what’s the city’s social media policy).

We find that often issues identified in this “discovery” process can be addressed early and thus never become problems. The very act of crisis planning is also “crisis aversion.”

There are strategies and practices that can help you better manage a “crisis” situation. When a crisis situation occurs, there are three rules that should be followed: respond quickly, respond honestly, respond accurately and completely.

Respond quickly

A quick response is key to taking control of the situation.  Explain what you know as fast as you can. If you don’t know all the details, say that, but provide a timeline of when you’ll have additional information.

For example, most airlines have excellent procedures in place in the event of an incident. They know who their spokesperson will be, where they’ll do their press briefings, how they’ll work with family members and more. They’ll schedule information updates on a regular basis (daily or even hourly) to answer questions, even though there’s often no new information to be released.

In the absence of a quick response, other voices will fill the information void. Those voices are not likely to be your friends or have your best interests at heart.

A common reaction by many organizations is to avoid talking with media in a crisis situation, thinking (erroneously) that they can prevent negative coverage that way. The opposite is usually the case: A news story that includes phrases like “representatives did not respond to requests for information” or “no one from the city responded to repeated interview requests” simply creates an impression that something is being hidden.

Cooperation with working media in a crisis situation is almost always the recommended course. The very effort to demonstrate openness and transparency often yields more positive opinions among the media and your target audiences.

Respond honestly
Once upon a time, a company or organization might have gotten away with lying or omitting key information. With a 24/7 news cycle and an Internet that allows access to an unimaginable trove of information, it’s almost a certainty that lies will be revealed.
The “honesty” component is particularly an issue with city governments. Freedom of Information laws allow media and citizens access to just about any piece of official government communications, from emails to texts to meeting minutes.

Respond accurately and completely

Not only should you respond honestly, you must add “accurately” and “completely” to your communication requirements. Many viewers watched Brian Williams’ interview with Matt Lauer last week where he talked about the actions that knocked him from the NBC Nightly News anchor desk. But his “apology” fell short to many when he declined to detail all (or any) additional cases where he misrepresented facts in stories.

In the aftermath of City Attorney Tom Kurrie’s resignation, it’s clear that the mayor and City Council have recognized previous procedural problems and have taken action to correct them.  A new resolution calling for the city to do more than is required by state open records laws is an excellent move toward demonstrating transparency.

Mitch Leff is president of Leff & Associates Public Relations in Atlanta. He’s been counseling clients on public relations, crisis communications and other media relations issues for more than 25 years. He lives in DeKalb County.

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