Six Speaking Skills You Need For Managing a Crisis


I got the privilege of evaluating an advanced project during a meeting at Tampines Changkat Toastmasters Club this evening. The project was on “Crisis Management”. The speaker was expected chair a media conference and deliver an official statement addressing a crisis that had struck the organization that he was working for. Thereafter, he would be required to chair a question and answer session from members of the media – tough interrogators who are hungry for sound bites and hawkish for answers.

The speaker had to be on his toes and watch what he said – for any slip could further stoke the flames and potentially devastate the company further.

The speaker who attempted this project for the night, Gregory Ernoult, ACB, managed this challenge admirably. In fact, it was such an admirable attempt that it helped to surface a few pertinent points in crisis/media management and prompted me to blog about it (for you) too!

Since it’s close to 4am, and I’m too tired and lazy to think of an alternative structure to share those ideas, I shall proceed simply by sharing the three main areas Greg did particularly well in followed by the three suggestions I thought he could use to enhance his presentation and Q&A. But before we begin, we’ll have to understand the setting for his “crisis” first.

Crisis

The “crisis” that Gregory was supposed to manage and address was an accident at a hotel. A young girl (“Melissa”), probably around the age of 6, fell from the stairs after reportedly seeing a “ghost” at the premises of what used to be the Old Changi Hospital.

[For those of you who aren’t acquainted with Singapore – the building was used by Japanese Invaders to house prisoners during the World War 2 and is rumoured to be one of the most haunted places in the country.]

As the official spokesperson for the hotel, Gregory was expected to build and/or maintain the company’s image and explain the hotel’s position during his presentation to a room filled with hawkish reporters.

Approach

Very early on in his address, Gregory directed the audience’s attention to little Melissa who had fallen and was receiving critical medical attention. He was quick to express empathy and support for the little girl’s parents and was ever ready to share the remedial actions that the company was taking. Far from distancing the hotel from the accident or taking full responsibility for it, Gregory rightly expressed the hotel’s stand that investigations were ongoing and that “more information” would only be available after they were completed. After taking care of the “girl”, the topic of “ghosts” naturally took center stage and Greg tackled it by consistently dealing with it with “investigations” and the employment of a “spiritual guru”.

Why was the attempt good:

1. Empathy and Sincerity

Greg’s decision to tackle the key issue of “Melissa’s” injury at the very start was, in my opinion, a masterstroke. In issues of personal health and safety, taking immediate action to help address the issues at hand are of paramount importance and delayed responses or information could lead of fervent anxiety and/or keen interest/concern.

Its’ for that reason that I particularly like the Greg’s willingness to be open and transparent in sharing what has been done to help the girl and her parents, what is being done, and what will be done.

Being open during the Q&A, rather than being exceedingly defensive, helped to satisfy the notion that whatever could be done is being done or will be done and goes some way to satisfy the keen curiosity or sense of concern and justice embedded in the common man.

Empathizing with the people affected by the accident, showing concern for the injured and giving support helped to endear and foster trust and with that, half the battle was won.

Greg “saved the company” by showing that he cared for other people.

2. Hedging and Choice of Words

I particularly liked the manner in which he hedged his words to find common ground and avoid committing himself when things weren’t clear.

For example, the “investigations are ongoing and we’ll only be able to gain a clearer picture when all the necessary work’s completed” and “some people may be more sensitive to certain things” definitely beats “there could have been a ghost” or “there’s definitely no ghost”.

Absolute statements such as the latter leave room for debate and may make one appear to be defensive – which ironically, leaves one open to even more attacks.

Greg’s choice of words and skillful use of hedging played a big role in the speech’s success.

3. Preparation and Awareness

Another critical component of Greg’s success was the clarity in his message and knowing what he could say and what he could not. His points were consistent and relevant throughout. The use of hedging and choice of words played a big part in helping him navigate through the potential minefield. However, I also give him credit for knowing how to downplay speculation with facts and what was already known/provable ie.: the “hotel met building safety standards and no lapse had been found so far”.

At not time did Greg answer with “No Comment” – an important move as that statement will only lead to more speculation by the media, who may take silence as a sign of guilt. (see Pt 4: Losing the Media Battle under Leadership Fatalities )

In this case, being prepared on knowing what to say, and focused and aware of what can/cannot be said were crucial in crisis management to avoid inconsistency which may trigger even more intense interrogation and scrutiny from the media.

Areas for Better Management

1. Avoid repeating words with negative connotations excessively

People tend to remember things that are said first, last, and most. Repeating words that carry negative connotation may lead people to remember or veer towards remembering negative issues rather than focus on the positive image that you’re trying to build or maintain.

It would thus be prudent for the spokesperson to minimise repeating “negative” words as much possible.

Substituting or paraphrasing these words would help. If you’re not sure how to you can do that – a thesaurus is a good place to start! *winks*

2. Leverage on More Facts/Expert advice to counter speculation

“Rumours are destroyed when the truth comes to light”

“Truth” in the case of public relations exercise exists in the form of “facts” – numbers, statistics, experts’ point of view – anything that’s been published and “provable”.

In this case where the little girl “saw a ghost” – psychologists be called in to explain the possibility that the “ghost” that Melissa (and children in general) “saw” was a product of her imagination. It has happened before, and it’s possible that it happened again.

Leveraging on expert claims and/or information shared by credible third party can help reduce unbridled speculation which, uncontrolled, may lead to damaging claims.

3. Counter Emotion by Agreeing and Proposing

Where negative news breaks, there’s always a tendency by those in the hotseat to get defensive. Whilst it’s important for one to stay firm on one’s stance, being excessively defensiveness has several downsides.

For one, it may invite more attacks from the press and public. Two, it creates a line between you and “the rest”. Three, after awhile, especially when emotions get frayed (and there’s a tendency it will), you may be perceived as guilty.

It is therefore essential that the spokesperson learns to counter emotional attacks and keep emotions in check rather than being excessively defensive and run the risks of more attacks.

To do manage emotions effectively, I’d suggest the “Agree and Propose” technique – ie: Instead of denying that there’s no problem, agree that there’s a valid concern wherever possible and propose a remedy to the situation.

For example, one of the questions raised during the Q&A by the shareholder was, “I’m terribly dissapointed and disgusted by the management for allowing the accident to happen. How can you assure us that this will not happen again?”

To which, the spokes person may reply, “Yes Sir, you do have every right to be disappointed. We are disappointed too (Agreeing). Like I said, this has been a most unfortunate incident and we’re doing our best to investigate and identify (proposing) any lapses in security features to ensure that such incidents would not happen again.”

The agree and propose technique’s one of the most popular tools used by salespeople to counter emotional objections raised by customers. And for a good reason too. For one, it does not break rapport and cause further divide. Two, it allows the speaker to build common ground and yet move forward with his opponent. That’s killing two birds with one stone!

So there you have it! Here’re Six Lessons You Can Use For Crisis Management. I hope you’ll never need to use it – but if you need to, you know where to find it!

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