By Lynn Holley
Dennis Culloton and I have been colleagues for a long time, longer than we care to admit. From all news radio in Chicago to helping professional clients with media messaging and reputation maintenance, we have partnered up most recently to train future crisis managers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In part one of this two-part blog series, let’s revisit a recent conversation Dennis and I had for the class on being a successful crisis communicator and working with clients.
Lynn Holley: To kick off this conversation, let’s first start with how do you define crisis communications?
Dennis Culloton: You know it’s funny, when I went into private practice after working in aviation at O’Hare International Airport and then as a press secretary for a governor who was under investigation, I used to joke that when clients would call me and say they have a crisis, I was tempted to say, “Do you have a 747 on fire? Do you have people surrounding you with shotguns? OK, stop whining.” But you have to kind of temper that.
In all seriousness, a crisis is sort of in the feelings, and the eyes, of the client or the principal who you’re working for. Most business leaders, even most elected officials, aren’t really accustomed to dealing with the media in the way that they should, let alone social media. And even though many of my clients and many of the people I’ve worked for over the years are conversant on things like Facebook and Twitter, very few of them know how to use it and filter out the craziness that takes place in some media. So the short answer is anytime there is a bump in the road, that can be a crisis to one of my clients. And our job, as crisis managers, is to try and identify the issues, categorize it, understand what the threat level is and give our clients some tools and techniques to deal with all of that.
LH: How would you describe the way crisis communications differs from regular public relations? I mean there are special skills you have to have to be a crisis manager. We know that.
DC: You’ve seen Star Wars right? Come to the dark side! That’s crisis communications. So there’s lots of people that make a living in public relations doing what they call “branding,” for example, and they roll out new exciting soft drinks and iPhones and you call me when there’s a recall or when the iPhone blows up. So, it’s the flip side of all the fun things. I’m just not wired to be on the balloon and confetti side of public relations. I’d much rather dig into the problems to help clients get out from under them. I think that goes back to our mutual upbringing in news and especially in the breaking news world that we spent a lot of years in when we were younger. We’re still young of course.
LH: Still young, yes. I think your biggest asset when it comes to being a crisis manager is that you’re very calm. It takes a lot to rattle you. Have you always been that way or is that something you’ve had to develop?
DC: You know, when I was young it was something that I definitely worked at and wanted to project. I just always respected the people that kept it together, and I wanted to be there for the anchors and my colleagues and be cool headed and get to the right news source faster than the other man or woman we were competing against. So very early on I tried to project that image and then it just sort of became the way I was. Many years later when I started my own business, I was working with an executive coach who had me take a personality test and it turns out I’m more likely to go into chaos and struggle way more in sort of a routine kind of operation. So it all kind of worked out that I wound up working in a business suited to how I was built.
LH: What skills do you think are most helpful to succeed in this field?
DC: That’s a great question. In my opinion, the most important thing is this: Have curiosity about this business and how different stories develop. You don’t have to be behind the scenes, although you certainly learn a ton being behind the scenes, but it’s critical to just watch everything from C-SPAN to CNN to Fox News, and read some of the other national news organizations such as the New York Times and Washington Post. It’s important to watch how stories develop and ask yourself, “How did that get there? Why was that their response? And was that response helping?”
You’ve seen this play out. You could ask those questions in so many national stories that have been talked about in recent years. Whether it’s the Russia investigation for President Trump or the scandals that the Clinton Administration went through, for each development you can ask, “Why was that said? Was that person in the loop? Is that person trying to walk a tightrope?” These are strategies you can use to continue to evaluate and be a student of national news stories that often involve crisis.
LH: Take us through the process you have in contemplating what actions to suggest to a client when a crisis happens?
DC: Well, the first thing we try to do is marshall all the facts. And at the same time, if it’s a bad situation, the client will want to get some empathy from you to find out if you agree that they’re getting a raw deal. So, we’re also part counselors. I see it as our job to get the facts and move our clients along expeditiously through the grieving process so we can get to the action phase. And the longer they delay and the longer they want to bemoan their fate, the worse the situation gets outside the boardroom. So that’s the biggest challenge. Just trying to get them to agree that yes, you’ve got a problem, yes it’s unfair. Now let me help you take some action-oriented steps so we can staunch the bleeding, so to speak. Then you can develop a longer game plan and try to figure out if there are things that you can do operationally or procedurally to improve a situation. You know, asking a client, “Can you get comfortable with this? Do you agree that this is something we can do to get in front of this?” A lot of times, clients really want to spend more time dwelling rather than thinking about how to take actionable steps to get to the positive territory.
LH: How do you handle a situation as a crisis manager when you have a client that doesn’t listen to you or doesn’t accept your guidance? Have you ever said, “I can’t work with you?” Or if you haven’t, is that an action you would ever take?
DC: Normally in the middle … if we’re brought in, I try to at least get the client through the first couple of days to get things stabilized. But there have been times, and it’s rare, where you do part company because the client doesn’t want to take the steps necessary to move forward and to get on top of the problem. And that’s a tough place to be because I really enjoy helping people get through the crisis that they face. I also have training as a lawyer so it’s that advocate in me. It doesn’t happen very often, maybe once every several years, but sometimes people just want to keep doing things in a way that’s worked for them in the past and hope it’s just a matter of a turn of a phrase or putting out more press releases that will turn the story around. Most of the time in crisis, that’s just a piece. It’s taking a comprehensive approach, understanding not only what you want to communicate to people but what you’re going to do differently.
Dennis Culloton is the president and CEO of Culloton + Bauer Luce. One of the most experienced crisis communications and media advisers in the marketplace today, Dennis operates on the philosophy of providing clients with a dynamic, strategic approach to achieving their goals.