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A Scandalous View of Crisis Communications from Judy Smith

Judy Smith’s presence fills the room with a kind of electricity and humor that immediately grabs your attention. She’s engaging, ferociously intelligent and funny, with a great, warm chuckle.

Social Media Crisis Worse

The world-renowned crisis communicator and inspiration for the hit TV show “Scandal” delivered the closing keynote for the Vocus Demand Success 2014 conference with expert advice on PR and crisis communications.

“To do crisis,” she says, “you have to love it.”

During her session she discussed best practices based on her experience, which includes the prosecution of former Washington, DC Mayor Marion Barry, the President Clinton scandal involving Monica Lewinsky, and the Enron congressional inquiry. “Every organization needs to think about how to handle crises proactively because sooner or later, one will appear,” she says.

 Pre-Crisis Analysis

“Pre-crisis analysis is essential. Taking the time to do the work to try and prevent crises from taking place can make a huge difference,” Judy says, stating that organizations with pre-crisis plans have a 90 percent success rate over organizations who have no plan in place.

Identify the threshold

One of the critical elements of your pre-crisis planning is to identify your organization’s threshold. By threshold, she means, what will make you, or your company, respond in a crisis? Will it be numbers? Or content? Or something else. You need to know in advance what the threshold is. Your thresholds likely won’t be one-size fits all and may vary for every crisis.

Responding to crisis

How do you want to respond? Weigh who you have to speak on the organization’s behalf and decide whether that person should be the company spokesman or if it should be the CEO. Many organizations have a tendency to use the CEO too quickly, she notes.

Be wary of common mistakes made in crisis situations:

  • Getting out there too fast in response to pressure from social media
  • Responding before you know all the facts
  • Putting shades on the truth
  • Dribbling out information a little bit at a time.

Putting out information that cannot stand up causes you and your company to lose a tremendous amount of credibility, she cautions. 

Know Your Objective

What are you trying to do in this crisis? Are you trying to squash a story, or minimize it? Each crisis management strategy has an objective and the tactics you use will differ, depending on what you’re trying to get done.

“Crisis management includes not only the development of strategies to address specific issues and challenges, but also training to make sure people can handle crisis and lead through the crisis itself,” she says.

Judy Smith - Crisis Communications

Social Media: The Game Changer

Judy  describes social media as a real game changer for crisis management. “Social media for me is just a thorn in my side,” she says. “It’s painful. For us in crisis, it has totally changed the way we do business. It’s a big, big game changer. Before, people would be waiting around for the evening news and that was the big thing. Now, one tweet, one Facebook and it goes viral and you could be dead, left to right, done. That has really changed.”

“When you are in social media, you want to know the facts before you speak. If I have new information, I’m going to weight the odds of a leak, if I can hold it until I am 100 percent sure. If I can’t be sure, I will give it to a trusted source who will use it but not as confirmed information.”

Judy described how, in the past, she had been able to present the facts of a situation, argue strenuously with the journalist involved and then meet later, amicably for drinks. Today social media makes it easy for untruth and rumors to be circulated easily. Judy does, reluctantly, credit social media as as a powerful tool for crisis communications in its ability to rally people around issues and allow people to speak in their own voices.

Question and Answer Session

Judy closed her session by inviting the audience to ask a series of questions which she answered thoughtfully and in detail. One of the questions that provoked laughter from attendees was how she might have handled the Donald Sterling story. Her response? “I wouldn’t be allowed to talk to him because I wouldn’t be allowed to go to the game,” she answered with a big grin. Then, more seriously, “I would not have taken the case because I get to choose. I get to say yes and I get to say no,” she added.

Judy describes the Sterling interview with Anderson Cooper in May as a “lose situation” concluding, “There are somethings you can’t fix or can’t figure right away. There’s no argument you can mount that will fix what was said.”

Other questions included her opinion of the use of the phrase “no comment’ in media interviews.  “I’m not a fan,” she says. “No comment makes it seem like you’re hiding something. There are 20 ways to say no comment without using those words.” She recommended the audience go home and write a list of all the ways to say no comment.

To the question about public relations and “spin” she answered, “I’m not really on the spin side. I’m a big believer in the truth and in facts. It’s going to come out. Truth always comes out.”

Judy touched on the value of having a good foundation in communications before getting into crisis management and stressed the importance of being able to think strategically.

“Crisis has a lot to do with strategy and how you plan. Before I put out a statement, I think carefully about the words and I never speak in absolutes unless I know for myself, because truth is an evolving kind of thing.” She described her process as being like a chess game since before she says or does something she has to think about possible consequences several steps ahead.

Judy stressed the value of having the ability to exercise good judgement and confidentiality. “You must be able to convey a degree of confidence to your client. They are looking to you to set the tone and convey confidence in the solutions you propose.”

It doesn’t matter what size business you have, Judy says. “You will have a crisis. It’s just a question of when.” She offered the audience a suggestion: “Tonight, think about five problems that could come up in your company, what would they be? Then, think about, are you prepared for that crisis? If the answer is no, then what are you going to do? When it happens they will be looking at you.”

Want to see more from our amazing Demand Success speakers? Check out our recap of Demand Success!

Image: USFWS/Southeast (Creative Commons)

About Allen Mireles

Allen Mireles is a strategist and wordsmith with an affinity for technology. She lives at the intersection of social media and traditional marketing and public relations and never gets enough time in the garden. Find her on Twitter @allenmireles.

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