A communications failure with lessons for everyone

by WordWrite Staff, on Mar 28, 2019

Navigate crisis communications effectively.

Not everyone cares. I know, that sounds pretty harsh. But, recognizing this reality may be the key to a successful communications program. As a young PR professional, this was a lesson I learned the hard way.

In a previous job for a non-profit, I was responsible for organizing and promoting a large community event. I also had to raise money to cover its costs, which was no small task. Over time, the holiday tradition had taken on various forms and drew hundreds of thousands of people to downtown. Many businesses relied on it for their annual revenue, whether they were stores, restaurants or media entities that sold sponsorships and air time. Eventually, some big corporate sponsors became confused about who was responsible for putting it on and gave their money to media outlets instead of the non-profit that had owned the event for nearly 50 years. This meant we had less money, yet the same public expectations for a grand event. There was internal talk about cancelling it altogether.

One afternoon, I found a certificate tucked away in a file drawer. It was an official, government document. In a nutshell, I held proof that the event had been trademarked many years earlier and our non-profit owned it. This seemed like the answer to my dilemma – take back ownership so others couldn’t use it for their own financial gain. Essentially – save the event.  

I started with cease and desist letters from our attorney to the entities using the name and then sent much softer and kinder letters to area businesses, municipalities and other groups who held events with the same name. In it, we requested they pay a small fee to use the name. And, indicated we would donate all proceeds to a non-profit that helped children and families stay warm during the winter. This seemed like a good solution to a complicated problem.

As the letters were received, people got angry. This was change, and for some, it was a major one. Reporters and producers called wanting to do stories. I spoke to everyone who called and went on the record – answering all of their questions. My thinking: if I explained the situation logically to everyone I talked to, they’d surely see my side. I had nothing to hide and I was only doing this to save the beloved event.

The only problem? No one cared. Negative stories came out, we were called the Grinch and things got ugly. Thankfully, as with most things that involve change, it eventually died down and people reluctantly accepted the new reality. I, however, carried this with me for years. I failed and it hurt.

Here’s the good news, though – because of that experience, I learned the valuable lesson of preparation and message consistency.

In business, I can think of many situations that could mirror my own if not handled properly – corporate restructuring, benefits changes, product recalls, acquisitions, new brand, lawsuit, etc.  With any change, comes the responsibility of communicating it to everyone it impacts. Are you prepared? What is the ultimate goal you’re striving for? Do you know your key messages? Have you anticipated questions? What will you say to the ones you can’t or don’t want to answer? Will your audience understand the WHY behind the change?

Here are a few key takeaways to consider the next time you have a company change coming up: 

  1. Prepare everything in a detailed plan -- audience research, messages, questions/answers, roll-out cadence, timing, accountability. If this will be a major announcement, pull together a team several months in advance and meet regularly. Make sure your team members represent key functional areas within your organization. This is not a time to leave anyone out.
  3. Create a key message document. We use a “message pyramid.” This is a simple one-two-page document that organizes messages in a hierarchal fashion – overarching message at the top; three key main messages and details under each one. It is the roadmap used to prepare every communication item that goes out to the various audiences. It’s not a script that must be followed to a T; it’s more of a guide that ensures consistency across the board. Everyone works from the same core document. If it feels like you’re constantly repeating yourself or seeing the same messages everywhere, keep going – this is what consistency looks and feels like.
  5. Keep emotions in check. It’s easy to get caught up in the emotion of something, especially when it’s a project you’ve been involved with from start to finish. Ask for outside perspective from a colleague or trusted partner. What might seem logical to you, may not be received well by others. Remember my experience? Don’t do that.
  7. Get help from a communications consultant. When big change is happening, an external expert can provide perspective that you may not get from an internal audience close to the issue. A consultant can share their experiences from working with a variety of companies that may help you avoid common pitfalls. 

At WordWrite, we rely on our 3P process to help companies facing change or challenges. We create a plan, utilize a message pyramid and follow the industry-leading PESO model for sharing messages using the most appropriate platform for the target audience. If you’d like to know more about our process or companies we’ve helped, give us a shout.  

Get in touch with us today!

Topics:public relationsPESOcommunication lessonsmessage pyramidkey message plan
Hollie Geitner-wordwrite-headshot-1
Hollie Geitner
Vice President, Culture and Brand Ambassador

Hollie Geitner is Vice President, Culture and Brand Ambassador at WordWrite Communications. You can get in touch with her via email at hollie.geitner@wordwritepr.com or follow her on Twitter at @JustHollieG.



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