A perfectly crafted message in a political or public campaign loses all value if it’s not being amplified to as wide an audience as possible. But what do you do when a crisis hits and the only thing switching on your target voters and influencers is noise that you or your cause or candidate never wanted to hear?
We’ve all been there. The perfectly planned grid of debates, town-hall meetings, campaign events, and media opportunities is blown apart by a single crisis event. The good news is that you can get right back on track provided your response is once which adapts your campaign. The bad news is that our instincts to keep fighting the fight, which serve campaigns so well during the good times, can be exactly what you need to avoid during a crisis event.
In my experience there are two types of crisis. The first are those which are self-inflicted through lack of planning or just plain stupidity. The second is an external shock over which your campaign had no control, but it’s now completely knocked you off course, is consuming all your energy and has stopped your campaign in its tracks. The relatively new phenomenon of Fake News falls into the second category—it’s harder and harder to anticipate what will be said and from where Fake News emanates.
Reacting to any crisis requires adjusting your campaign’s strategic goal and operationalising your tactics simultaneously. Do not think you can continue as normal—you must adapt quickly. Too often a campaign or candidate will continue to recite messages during a crisis which were drafted before the crisis took hold. If you're doing this, you’re basically speaking another language and will be greeted with bafflement or outright hostility by your target audience. It’s also vital that whatever change you make to your message is implemented across your campaign and teams. There’s no point coming up with the perfect response if those working at the coalface of your campaign don’t know about it and aren't sharing and reaching out.
It’s vital to admit it when you’re wrong. If “sorry” is the hardest word, then “I was wrong” seems to be the hardest phrase. By making it clear that information provided was incorrect, or something which took place shouldn’t have, then you’re drawing a line on your crisis and clearing the air. Everyone makes mistakes, and you’re stretching credibility if you think your candidate or campaign is infallible or if you try to portray them as such. People respect candidness and honesty, especially when someone who looks and acts flawless has actually made a mistake. We're all human.
Your campaign needs to be proactive by reaching out to stakeholders, voters, funders and media as soon as any crisis emerges. They need to hear from you before they hear from someone else or read about it in a newspaper. Formulate your response quickly and be open and honest with media in whatever way you choose as soon as you can. If your crisis is an ongoing series of events instead of a single event, then set out a timetable with media about when you’ll provide updates (up to three times per day—morning, lunch and before evening news).
Even if you’ve relatively little to update, make sure they’re kept updated on how the crisis is being managed, what you’re doing to make sure it won’t happen again and when it’s expected to end. One campaign I know even opened up a dedicated helpline specifically to answer queries – they received few calls, but the fact they created the helpline received widespread coverage.
All of the above assume that the crisis is largely self-inflicted. If you’re dealing with a Fake News scenario, where false allegations are being made, you have to double up on all your efforts and make sure your response is amplified loud and clear. That will probably mean taking time out to address the issue, and re-divert advertising and social media spend to re-assert the values and messages of what you’re doing. You can also resort to legal responses, but by the time they crank into gear your campaign may be wrapped up.
In a prolonged campaign scenario, you should always measure the impact of the crisis and your response, both internally and externally if budgets allow. How has the perception of your candidate or your issue changed? How have your key messages evolved? Numbers and data though will only tell you the ‘what’, it’s up to you and your team to interpret and adjust your strategy and tactics accordingly.
Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that a crisis has an irreversible impact on a campaign. You cannot settle back in to your former messaging and grid once the crisis has abated. Crises played out in public have a catalytic impact on your campaign which you need to respond to. By adapting and evolving, the crisis can become a footnote in your campaign. By not adapting and simply hoping for the best, the crisis becomes the title of your campaign instead.
Carl Wyhte is a partner at MWAdvocate, a public relations and advocacy firm based in Belfast.