Two unconnected events within 100 miles provide ample crisis communications lessons:
When Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake addressed the media and the public for the first time as riots rocked her city in April, she paid a steep reputational price with one poorly-articulated phrase. Taken as a stand-alone sound bite – as it was by most media – the mayor seemed to be saying officials decided to give the rioters “who wished to destroy, space to do so as well.”
Given that several police officers were injured, buildings destroyed by fire, scores of cars burned, storefronts vandalized and businesses looted, the mayor’s sound bite was roundly criticized. The headline at Baltimore’s CBS affiliate was “Baltimore Mayor: ‘Gave Those Who Wished to Destroy Space to Do That.'” On conservative media, the “space to destroy” quote went nuclear. Readers of The Daily Caller learned that the mayor made a “stunning admission” and that she “wanted” to give the violent rioters space.
The next day Rawlings-Blake tried to clarify her statement, saying her phrase was poorly worded and taken out of the larger context of a “delicate balancing act,” which subsequent fact-checking reports by news outlets supported. But criticism and even ridicule continued unabated, especially on right wing blogs and in social media.
Philadelphia Amtrak Derailment:
From the Mayor of Philadelphia to the leadership at Amtrak, the still fresh lessons from Baltimore should have sensitized officials to show more empathy and strike the right balance between reporting updates, informing the affected, taking action and commencing the investigation. All of this communication needs to be presented with compassion and a careful choice of words considering all audiences.
Here are lessons from Baltimore and Philadelphia that CommCore teaches clients:
- The road to good intentions is littered with the debris from unfortunate sound bites. Just because YOU know what you MEAN to say doesn’t mean the media or the public won’t HEAR and repeat something different.
- Don’t wing it, especially in a crisis situation. Choose words very carefully, and stick to a prepared message that clearly conveys your meaning. If you are faced with follow-up questions on the point that go beyond what you can say at that time, respond with, “As I said before…” and then restate your message.
Speak slowly and pause between sentences. Give your brain time for a self-check as you speak so you can avoid an off-the-cuff phrase or word that will come back to haunt you.