When 60 Minutes Calls
How to handle the media during a customer service crisis
There are times when being a manager can make you a media target. The larger your organization, the greater the odds of something embarrassing happening that ends up for the world to see on YouTube. Over and over. It could be a spill that causes environmental damage, a defective product that needs recalling, or an employee videotaped sleeping-on-the-job. If you are that manager being asked by a reporter to comment, here are a few tips to ensure that your company’s brand and your personal reputation withstand the barrage.
Silence may be the best option
Decide if you are the right person or the right company to make any comment at all. If you are not a senior manager in your organization, or a designated corporate spokesperson, you should refer media inquiries further up the chain of command. There may also be confidentiality issues that prevent you from commenting. If the issue in under legal investigation, if you are working on behalf of a client, or if it concerns your employee’s private life, then chances are, you are not the person or company who should be making a comment.
Don’t say “No comment”
You’ll sound like a mafia bookkeeper. And you’ll appear to be guilty in the court of public opinion. Instead, if there are indeed reasons why you shouldn’t comment, then explain, “It’s inappropriate for me to comment on this because. (give the reason).” Reporters can be relentless, so chances are they’ll ask another question in another way. When that happens, use their name and give them the broken record response. “David, as I just explained, it would be inappropriate for me to comment. I wish I could help you more.” Then sign off.
In my customer service seminars I encourage all employees to identify themselves as a matter of course every time they answer the phone. Otherwise, customers – especiallydissatisfied customers – perceive them to be hiding. Similarly, when disaster strikes, senior managers shouldn’t hide behind subordinates. There is a time for Presidents, CEOs, and Board Chairs to be front and center. You need to be perceived by everyone – including your own employees – as being visible and available when the heat is on. Go to the disaster site, talk to the accused employee personally. Get the facts first-hand. And speak using ‘I’ language.
Buy yourself time
You’ll need it to gather the facts. Explain to the reporter that you are looking into this, and that you’ll have a comment for them at such and such a time. Notice the positive wording. rather than saying, “I won’t comment until.”, instead state, “I’ll have a comment for you as early as….” You’ll be perceived to be upfront and cooperative rather than aloof and defensive.
Admit errors and apologize
This is perhaps the biggest mistake executives make when problems happen. They are afraid they’ll be sued if they admit a mistake. The fact is, the mistake has already been made whether they admit it or not, and they may get sued anyway. Learn a wonderful lesson from Johnson & Johnson when they had the tainted Tylenol disaster. They were so up-front about the problem and what they were going to do to fix it, that their brand ended-up even stronger than before the problems.
Avoid rationalizing or excuses
Think of a spouse trying to explain to their husband or wife why they were unfaithful. No matter what the reasons, stating them will only make it look like you’re trying to justify your actions. It makes things worse. Don’t go there.
Protect the underdog
If one of your employees messed-up don’t mention the individual by name. Everyone knows that person’s reputation has been ruined. Instead you can refer to ‘the individual concerned’. It shows that you are trying to protect them from more public humiliation. That doesn’t mean they won’t be held accountable. It just means you won’t kick a person when they’re down or embarrass their innocent family any more than they already are.
Refocus on the big picture
Explain that you are committed to doing better as an organization. Remind everyone how long you’ve been in operation and your organization’s mission to bring value and improve the lives of the people in your world. Explain how you want to re-earn their trust. Then describe what you’ll do immediately to help the people who were adversely affected. Finally, outline the steps you’ll take to prevent it from recurring.
Bottom line – in every organization there are human beings who will make mistakes and bad choices. No organization is immune. Those brands and individuals who earn the greatest respect are not those who avoid embarrassment: it’s those who learn the skills to best-handle these unfortunate events.