When you’re experiencing a crisis, and the media want answers, there are some types of questions you need to recognize and avoid.
Inevitably these questions, which might take different forms, tempt you to speculate. They will be asked repeatedly. They are the most common type. Stay on firm ground by keeping to the facts as you know them at the time.
In a 2006 West Virginia mining disaster, the executive in charge, clearly unprepared for a crisis, still performed incredibly well, instinctively avoiding traps:
He correctly avoided speculation and went a step further, also correctly, by repeating his highest priority at the time: hopefully finding and saving the miners. Unfortunately, all but one died.
“Can you guarantee…?”
I’m hearing this question frequently right now during this coronavirus situation. It can lead you into very dangerous territory, especially with something like this pandemic that we’ve never experienced before. Again, just stick to the facts as you know them at the moment.
In another mining accident, this one in 2007 in Utah, the mine owner repeatedly predicted outcomes, including the ease at which they would reach and save the trapped miners:
Sadly, the miners never were found and all six today are entombed in that mine.
The best way to control information is by defining your process. What are the steps you’re taking? Lay them out. This gives the media and the public a road map of expectations. By using your process as an outline, you can use it as the basis for updates on your progress.
During a National Transportation Safety Administration investigation into a commercial plane crash in 2008 in Denver, a spokesman laid out the blueprint for media and the public to follow:
Setting a goal is fine without painting yourself into a corner. Stating your aspirations helps inspire hope and something to look forward to, as long as you keep yourself open and flexible to adapt to unexpected changes.
At the start of a media briefing, especially the first one, before you open up to questions, establish rules about what you can/will/will not answer. And, you can gain some control over the information flow by having a process and describing it.