4 Battle-Tested Principles for Responding to PR ‘Meteor Strikes’

The moments of greatest anxiety in my career as a strategic communicator always have come when I couldn’t respond fast enough.

 I’m not alone, am I?

 Television images of US Airways Flight 1549 are vivid in nearly everyone’s mind. I also remember a response that US Airways CEO Doug Parker gave when asked if he had any regrets about how he communicated following the miraculous incident. Pausing and clearly becoming introspective, Mr. Parker said he wished he had been faster¾despite cautions by lawyers¾to acknowledge the heroic actions of the crew and passengers early on¾even before the company knew whether all passengers survived.

 A week hardly goes by when a company or its CEO isn’t being critiqued on the speed with which it reveals news and information.

  • Last week there was the gross image of a Taco Bell employee holding a giant stack of corn tortillas and licking them!?! So, do you remember the picture I’m talking about? Do you recall Taco Bell’s response?
  • Months after the “poop cruise” incident, Carnival Cruises still is struggling to convince customers to trust them and book their cruises with Carnival. The speed and quality of Carnival’s response has had direct and powerful long-term impacts on the brand’s reputation and bottom line.

 To a “military CEO,” speed is a formidable weapon when communicating publicly.

 “The best strategic communications organizations are staffed and organized and equipped for speed and agility,” said General John Allen at the 4th  National Summit on Strategic Communications in April. He recently returned from Afghanistan after leading US and coalition forces in combat there, and previously, in Bosnia and in Iraq.

 “I was sadly presented with multiple opportunities to have to deal with this,” he said.  “A cross-border firing incident with Pakistan resulted in the death of 24 Pakistani troops. A viral video on YouTube of ISAF forces urinating on dead Taliban created a major crisis and the basis for other insider attacks. Then there was the killing of 17 Afghan civilians in Kandahar by an ISAF soldier.”

 “We called these ‘meteor strikes’ because we hadn’t expected them and the impact was beyond our initial understanding.”

“Dealing with these required our ability to dominate the narrative and to dominate the information space as quickly as we possibly could to influence the outcome. Of all of these, the worst, the greatest challenge to the campaign and the most dire moment for us came in the phone call to me on the morning of the 22nd of February at about 0400.”

 “I learned that US troops had inadvertently and unintentionally disposed of and burnt a mass of Islamic religious materials including some number of perhaps 100 Holy Quran.  Now, having spent significant time in the Middle East and in the Islamic world, I knew instantly that this was a massive crisis.  Just a year before, solely on the basis of the burning of one Quran in Florida, the entire UN delegation had been dragged into the streets of Mazar-i-Sharif and killed in the most horrendous of manner.”

“So I judged this to be of sufficient crisis that I immediately called all the US and senior NATO leadership to inform them that we could be facing the end of this campaign.  My ISAF leadership and stratcom machines went up to full-speed immediately.”

“I sought to own the narrative as fast as I could or else our enemies would turn this into a crisis of strategic proportions.  We elected to use every media outlet possible to get our message out including carefully timed messaging on social media.”

“We had to be first with the truth and we had to move quickly.”

“I judged, literally, at 0400 that I had only minutes before Afghanistan awoke and we’d lose control of the information space.  And if we lost control, as I told my leadership in the emergency video teleconference that I called, that the streets of Afghanistan would likely run red with the blood of ISAF and Afghan National Security Force and Afghan civilian populations.”

“First we composed a contrite release that apologized and assured the Afghan people and through them the wider Muslim world that there was no disrespect intended to the faith of Islam and that this act had been an unintentional, not a willful desecration of the Holy Quran and the religious materials.”

“I immediately cut a video apology assuring the Afghan people this was not intentional.  I simultaneously recited the release that we had composed to a variety of Afghan radio and television stations which promised to broadcast that message immediately.  Afghans in Kabul and across Afghanistan awoke to the news of the burning of the Quran at the hands of western troops but they also simultaneously awoke to my public apology, Afghans could see my face, they could hear my voice and I leveraged the trust that they had in me at this greatest moment of crisis.”

“I also immediately energized my subordinate leadership to reach out to all of their key counterparts to communicate with them and engage them personally face-to-face using my key talking points. Then I went to see President Karzai.  This was potentially an earth-shaking crisis, and to his credit, President Karzai recognized that one misstep in our messaging could make this not just a crisis for the campaign and not just a crisis for ISAF, this could be a full blown crisis for Afghanistan and in the wider Muslim world.”

“From the beginning our messages were harmonized but the potential fury and the outrage, frankly, was difficult to contain. In the end, after six harrowing days of rioting, some 41 Afghan and ISAF forces and civilians were killed and more than 400 Afghans and my own forces were injured.”

“And while these numbers may seem high, I’m convinced they are only a fraction of what might have been had we not used strategic communications and our will to dominate the information space.”

“It was an information ‘knife fight’ because we were locked in close combat with the Taliban across all of the media, but we denied the Taliban and other elements the ability to defeat the campaign. The strength of our relationship with our Afghan partners absorbed the crisis, and the emergency was largely contained to Afghanistan and did not spread across the Muslim world, something we were deeply concerned about.”

“In the aftermath, many of my Afghan friends told me that if we had not handled this emergency in this manner, this could have been the end of the campaign. If I heard it from one, I heard it from many of my friends: This approach saved many lives!”

“This example and myriad others validate that the most effective strategic communications comes from teams that are purpose-built and organized and staffed with talent and empowered and equipped to move with speed and agility in accomplishing messaging objectives. Top-to-bottom commitment to mission and fundamental principles are essential touchstones in day-to-day communications and most importantly during those dire moments of emergency.”

“I saw the profound importance of strategic communications, the effectiveness of which was best supported by the four principles:”

  • immediacy,
  • proximity,
  • voice and
  • composition.

 “When I speak about immediacy, what I mean is that we have got to get out there fast!  Get out there with something if only a holding message, but always get out there with the truth as you understand it.”

“Immediacy of action was critical in this crisis.”

“Central to the credibility of the message is who’s deploying it?  Whose voice is at work? In the strategy of maneuvering information, the “who” is as important as the “when” of immediacy or the “where” of proximity.  These principles must be considered a system and inextricably linked.”

“The most powerful narrative will fall well short of the target if the message is late, it emanates from the wrong place or the voice deploying the message isn’t someone with credibility or possessing the gravitas to make the case.”

“This leads to the principle of composition. The content of each message must be formulated and crafted carefully crafted for each audience involved which, in turn, is a function of careful analysis.”

“This was ‘graduate level messaging.’ The stakes could not have been higher and the consequences of failure were unthinkable.”

“Every one of these points comes from hard service in war; in peace and in crisis, and sometimes, frankly, from heartbreaking and bloody lessons that we learn on the ground.”

“I hope these lessons can in some way prevent the heartbreak of failure for your organizations, and certainly I hope that it prevents the horrendous reality of limbs lost or young lives cut short.”

Well said, General.

# # #

About Robert Grupp

Robert Grupp is President of the Strategic Communications Leadership Initiative. Also, he leads an independent management consultancy offering a unique global network of experts in corporate strategic communications and public relations. His guidance assists in developing high-yield relationships with key influencers, engaging constituencies and building communities across multiple communication platforms, geographies and cultures. Bob invites you to connect with him on Twitter and LinkedIn.