Crisis Communications

Social Media in a Crisis: How to Help the Search for Hannah Graham

By Crisis Communications, Social Media

The city of Charlottesville, the surrounding counties, and the University of Virginia community have been dealing with a crisis for the past week. On September 13, Hannah Graham, an 18-year-old second year student at UVa went missing.

Social media really lights up in a crisis, and can be useful for those trying to share a message, such as the tweet below from Charlottesville city government, encouraging witnesses to come forward.


People who may not normally pay attention to Twitter or Facebook are tuning into these platforms to try to get the most up-to-the-minute information. These platforms can be helpful for that, and it’s good to see the news organizations live streaming press conferences and sharing news updates as they are available. A couple of ways to stay on top of these are to follow the hashtag #hannahgraham on Twitter and to like the pages of local news organizations reporting on the unfolding story. is one, and is another.

In all crisis communications, one of the main rules is to refrain from speculation. Speculation can hurt a criminal case, it can distract from the mission at hand, and does not assist law enforcement in doing their jobs.

Here are five things you can do to help in the search for Hannah Graham:

  1. Share updates on Facebook from official sources to gather volunteers to search for Hannah, that share the WANTED poster of the person of interest in the case, and the tip line information to help make it accessible to anyone who might have a lead.
  2. Retweet sources announcing press conferences or other news the Charlottesville Police Department wants shared.
  3. Use the hashtag #hannahgraham to become part of the search stream on Twitter.
  4. Steer clear of fueling rumors or speculation about the case by staying out of online conversations about it.
  5. If you have something relevant to share, contact the police department, not the media.

Let’s all try to stay focused on helping the law enforcement professionals in this difficult case.


The 5 Actions Paula Deen Should Take Right Now

By Communications, Crisis Communications

I haven’t been a fan of Paula Deen for a long time. When she came out of the closet about her Type 2 diabetes and began touting a pharmaceutical product that would allow the user to deeneat whatever they wanted, I grew incensed. Deen has grown a food empire; restaurants, cookbooks, television programs, endorsed brands, product lines — she has been, by all counts, a financial success.

I hope she banked a lot of it, because I believe her payroll just ran out.

Food Network dismissed her after, in a deposition, she admitted using a racial slur. Smithfield Foods dropped her as a spokesperson. It’s not looking good for Deen, even though some fans still support and defend the on-air personality.

I’m neither working for Paula Deen or any of her employers, nor am I defending her in any way. But were she to ask, “What do I do now, y’all?” I would say this:

  1. It’s time to put your succession plan into place. Your sons are untainted (thus far) and as adults, it’s time they took over the family business. Get the heck out of the spotlight and start transferring ownership to them. 
  2. Stop making terrible apology videos.
  3. Disappear from the spotlight and begin to think about the next stage of your career. Writing is a good place to start, and your fans will still buy your cookbooks.
  4. Enroll in sensitivity training and let people know you’d like to learn from your mistakes, and pass along to your children and grandchildren a greater understanding of how important it is to be thoughtful about language. Share what you learn from that experience. But please, not on YouTube. Write it, and run it through an editor first.
  5. Take trusted counsel from your attorneys and PR firm. Not from friends. Not from Al Sharpton. Not even from fans.

Many have empathy for Deen, either because they, too were raised in a generation or geography where racial slurs were commonplace and even accepted, or because being human means we all make mistakes. Others will throw the book at her, tired of the practice of letting people (especially entitled white people) off the hook for being inappropriate. If you’re a die-hard fan, buy up the cookbooks and DVDs; I think it’s going to be awhile before we see any kind of meaningful comeback from the southern butter pusher.

WTF? Friday: How NOT to React to a Crisis

By Communications, Crisis Communications

WTF Friday

I enlisted the help of my friend Alex Gulotta executive directorof Legal Aid Justice Center to demonstrate exactly how an organization or individual DOES NOT WANT to react in the event of a communications crisis.


Rather, consider these three steps:

  1. Get out in front of it — if the writing’s on the wall, what can you do, proactively, to head any damage off at the pass?
  2. Plan reactionary statements for all possible scenarios.
  3. Develop the right messages about the situation that are CLEAR, SINCERE, and INFORMATIVE.

Thanks for the demonstration, Alex!


Transparency and the Crisis Communications Client: Five Questions to Inform Decisions

By Communications, Crisis Communications

As I’ve said before, I love crisis communications. There’s something about the challenge of taking a bad situation and getting the best out of it, that I enjoy. The opportunity to tell the story of a company’s good works in a community that has been hurt by it (think BP), to humanize a brand, or to help rebuild a reputation that has all but been ruined is a challenge I like.

But of course, sometimes that means engaging a client that people don’t like. Or that has done something to harm the environment, or people’s lives or livelihoods. It means defending, in some cases, the indefensible. In public relations, the BIG money often comes from the indefensible industries; tobacco, legalized gambling, chemical production, firearms manufacturing, and the like, all fairly unpopular sectors with a great many haters.

So how does a PR firm decide it’s worth taking on a client that, on the surface, seems to have NOTHING positive to say?

Here are five questions to carefully consider before engaging with a crisis client:

  1. Does the client share the same values as you and your firm? 
  2. Has the client demonstrated the ability to take and follow other professional counsel (e.g. legal counsel)?
  3. If the client has committed past sins, is that now over, and are you confident the client will not repeat the same mistakes?
  4. Has the client expressed true remorse and demonstrated a commitment to change, in both words and actions?
  5. Is there a benefit to your firm, either financially, from gained experience or as a future case study, to enable other crisis work?

If you and your firm aren’t satisfied with the answers to these questions, it’s probably wise to walk away, and allow other counsel to take on the work.

What other considerations are there when considering crisis work? 

Four Rules for Communicating in a Crisis: Handling the Aftermath of the Newtown, CT Shooting

By Communications, Crisis Communications

Schools and news organizations are struggling to manage communications following the tragic school shooting late last week in Newtown, Conn. We’re inundated with content about the shooter, the victims, and the ensuing battle over second amendment rights.  Friends finding the news difficult to handle are staying away from news sites, keeping the TV off and, let’s all hope, steering clear of Facebook.

If you’re in a role, however, that necessitates addressing this kind of tragedy (certainly school administrators, educators, leaders and managers of public, and presumably safe places and media) keep in mind these four guidelines for communicating in a crisis.

  1. First and foremost, express empathy for those affected.
  2. Recognize victims and those who came to their aid. At a moving vigil, our president read the names of the children killed at the elementary school.
  3. Affirm for the audience that steps will be taken to prevent this kind of incident in the future. Explain how that will happen or be addressed. Reassure the audience that safety comes first, and that the commitment to that effort is ongoing and strong.
  4. Make sure that resources are available, and how to obtain them is widely published.

These are four items anyone needing to communicate in a crisis must follow. Furthermore, it’s important to note that HIDING FROM YOUR CONSTITUENCY in the time of a crisis is perhaps the worst step to take. The NRA has taken down their Facebook page, rather than defending its position. 

Be available. Answer questions. Provide value.

Especially in a time of crisis.