I had mixed feelings about participating in a White House crisis simulation. While I wanted to get practice with crisis communication, I feared my lack of political experience would hinder my abilities. Fortunately, my role as White House Press Secretary mostly involved communicating the messages others created. My job was to help the public understand the decisions being made.
The simulation involved a Chicago pipeline incident and tense relations with another country. During the simulation, I quickly learned a few things about public relations in political crises:
Immediate action and communication are necessary. When a crisis hits, people start talking. With the current impact of social media, messages spread quickly. Our nation’s leaders must quickly take action and communicate their plans to the public.
In the case of the simulation, the public was pleased with how the crisis was handled, and the media said the response was transparent.
Never assume anything. The majority of my press statements and releases were well received. However, one statement was perceived as confusing and upsetting. I released information that the Secretary of State was meeting with Russian officials to cooperate with Russia to resolve the current dispute. It appeared the American people had not been informed of the accusations that were floating around Russia. I wrongly assumed Americans knew what was going on in the press of another country.
Communicators should never assume the audience has the same depth of knowledge as the communicator. They need to tell the full message. If people do know the context, they will still receive the updated news. If they do not know what is going on, they will be fully informed.
Know public opinion. As the Administration debated the construction of a new pipeline, I sent a request for statistics on public opinion. It turned out that the majority of the public favored a pipeline, as long as the plan was not immediately implemented. The Administration agreed to delay construction of the pipeline, with the intent to implement the plan after further research and evaluation of the crisis.
Organizations must consider all stakeholders as they make decisions. By valuing your stakeholders’ opinions, you show you have their best interests in mind.
Act with confidence. At first, I was timid to make decisions. I was afraid of making a mistake and appearing unqualified. As the simulation went on, I realized some of the others felt the same way. The difference was that they didn’t show it. I started issuing more news releases, most of which had positive results. The team loved my final decision to set-up media interviews with people who could sway the opinion of those against the pipeline. This decision had the desired result: It got more of those opposed to change their minds about the pipeline.
As I learned, communicators can’t be timid. They need to understand their position and act with confidence in their decisions.
The news feed from the political crisis simulation may be found here, with the final results at the top.