“Laws are like sausages, it is better not to see them being made” – Otto von Bismarck
Since making the switch from national politics to the private sector five years ago, I continue to be surprised by clients and contacts who express their, well, surprise that politics would have anything to do with their business. For a lot of people, politics has such a nasty reputation, it’s understandable they’d want to stay far away from anything resembling the daily shoutfest of Fox News or MSNBC.
The truth is, clients in almost any industry would avoid a lot of problems and improve their interactions with the media by taking a page from the way things work on Capitol Hill or the campaign trail. And if you’re navigating a crisis? You’re most likely already in a political fight, whether you know it or not.
1. Be Fast. Be Flexible.
When responding to attacks against your company or a media story that’s caught fire, you need to move and you need to move fast. PR professionals who come out of the political world are used to the high-stakes nature of the 24-hour news cycle. We know there’s not always going to be time to allow eight different departments to review a media statement, provide edits and schedule a conference call the next day to discuss. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Reporters’ deadlines are real, and responding quickly and accurately is essential.
Another characteristic of fast-moving stories is that they change rapidly. What was a good strategy at 9 o’clock this morning might be completely wrong by noon. Clients who can quickly take in new information and make smart changes to the plan in a timely fashion are the ones who will be more satisfied with how things turn out in the end.
2. No Surprises
Once crisis strikes, it is absolutely critical that you do your best to develop a complete understanding of the issues and players involved. You don’t want to wake up the next morning to read reports that the attorney who has been representing you had their law license suspended last year or that the figures your COO told you to use in an interview are different than what’s in your annual report. When a client is under scrutiny, it’s much less painful in the long run to take the time early on to find out the facts – the good, the bad and the ugly.
3. “Let’s Pray That Doesn’t Happen” is not a Strategy
“Let’s pray that doesn’t happen” is actually a quote I used to hear a lot at one of my former political jobs. The thing is – there’s a good chance it will happen. A reporter will go back and read the testimony from five years ago and see it doesn’t match up to what you told your investors yesterday. Or, your competitor will go ahead and file that lawsuit. You have to be prepared for all kinds of unpleasant scenarios. It is infinitely better to have a plan that’s ready to be implemented but never gets used than it is to have to start from square one when there are TV trucks parked outside.
4. Know Your Opponent
Not just who they are, but what they are likely to do next. I often find myself actually pretending I am on the opposite side – what quote would I give a reporter in response? What would my next press release say? Who would I rally to support my side of the story? Some of your most effective and creative strategies come out of this line of thinking.
5. Know Your Friends
Many of us PR types paraphrase Mark Twain — when you need a friend, it’s too late to make one. It’s true in politics but also can be applied pretty much everywhere else. Who can you count on beyond your organization to back you up? Are you sure?
Establishing connections in your community, your industry, your customers is something that’s much easier to do before you need to defend yourself in the media. Keep track of those emails thanking you for going above and beyond with a customer. Develop a comprehensive charitable and community support plan that roots you firmly in your city, county or region. Establish a proactive relationship with your local elected officials and make sure they know all of the good you’re doing.
You don’t have to become a die-hard partisan or a cable news junkie to incorporate some of that political mindset to your organization’s communication strategy. It’s better to be at least a little aware of what goes on inside that sausage factory than to find yourself ankle-deep in pig parts without a clue what to do next.