Houston Has Solved a Problem


The communications component of a crisis is often as much of a challenge as is the crisis itself.

Former Exxon Chair, the late Larry Rawl, was famously told in a congressional hearing that if the Valdez oil spill had happened in Japan the entire management team would resign to let others take over.

Mr. Rawl snapped back that the Japanese also kill themselves and he refused to do that. BP’s Tony Hayward, trying to manage the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill and fire in the Gulf of Mexico ironically said he wanted his life back. This was a thoughtless comment given that eleven of his colleagues had actually disappeared in the disaster and were never seen again.

These unfortunate remarks happened on the international stage, but the same insensitivity can sink response to a local event too. Although there’s little advice on public communication in most of 100 urban emergency plans that I’ve studied, but Houston’s plan sets a very good tone.

“Be courteous and don’t play favorites…” is a solid start. Newsmakers say the darndest things to reporters, calling them left or right wing, saying their questions are stupid, or that they’ve asked the wrong question. This kind of abrasive behaviour would get you ostracized at a dinner party, and why some newsmakers think it will help the relationship with reporters is unfathomable.

Courtesy doesn’t cost anything and takes less time than discourtesy. The advice not to play favourites doesn’t work.  A newsmaker does have to deal with reporters on deadline ahead of feature writers whose magazine will publish a month later. But with all reporters on the same deadline, they should all be treated much the same.  One confusing matter these days is that most media also have websites with print, audio and video on them—so determining deadlines is tough.

Houston’s plan goes on: “avoid ‘off the record’ remarks…Never say anything you would not want to see printed or broadcast…” This sounds obvious, like not volunteering to a traffic cop what’s in your glove compartment if it’s inappropriate.

Many newsmakers think they will ingratiate themselves with a few juicy “off the record” remarks. But this raises a question.  What does it mean to have a remark “off the record…on background…on deep background…not for attribution…”? There’s no consistent definition among reporters, news outlets or spokespeople. Oh…except that what’s off the record is what you didn’t say.

“Listen to the reporter’s questions” is good advice in an emergency because if reporters have to make a public point of repeating the same question, it sounds as if you’re being evasive.

“Don’t accept the reporter’s definitions of what happened…Pause, think; take more time if you need it…” is logical advice from Houston’s plan writers, because by definition you, the expert, know what happened, what the issue is, and what can be discussed better than a reporter who has just arrived on the scene. If you don’t know, say so and also say when you might know.  You can also say that one of your colleagues might know.  Or you can say that no one may ever know.  What’s the truth?

“Respond only to the question you’ve been asked. Don’t speculate. Stick to the core message” is even more powerful advice if you recognize that the reporter might not be on the right track and adding safe, rehearsed, powerful information can be a good upgrade. But this can’t be done on the spur of the moment.

All cities need pre-written messages, policies and fact sheets to give reporters the ammunition they need to fill pages and newscasts in an emergency.

No urban emergency plan is perfect, but Houston’s sets a high standard for communication policy.

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