“CNN’s on the line, and they’re asking about the stolen brains.”
That’s not exactly what you want to hear when you’re the spokesperson for a county government. However, it’s exactly what I heard eight years ago.
Government communications—whether you call it “public information” or “public affairs” has the virtue of being routine and predictable, until a crisis strikes. That crisis, when it comes, has the potential to disrupt government’s operations, engender lawsuits, or even cause an elected government to be swept to sea in the next election.
Crises in the business world aren’t that much different, except that most businesses can’t count on a partisan base of voters and voices willing to stand with them through thick and thin.
This was one of my first real experiences with Crisis Communications—the art of trying to put a genie back in a bottle before it can do any real damage. Oh, to be sure, I’d dealt with bad news days in the local press, and would deal with plenty more in a decade as a government spokesperson. But on that day in 2012, I had national news outlets asking me to comment on a mid-level elected government official’s appallingly bad judgment.
The short of the story was that a well-liked elected county coroner, who also was in the business of saving lives as an EMT, had happened upon a fatal motorcycle crash. After respectfully handling the bulk of the remains for transport to the hospital and then on to a mortuary, there were still some remaining body parts—which I referenced in the first paragraph. The coroner—out of what everyone who knew him would later insist was a misguided devotion to helping with police and rescue work—held onto some of the remaining brain matter, recovered from the accident site, with the intention of using it to train cadaver dogs.
He was, however, observed doing this, and the matter was reported to the Sheriff’s Office, where it was processed as a criminal matter. Once the details in question escaped into the wild of the new, nearly-instant online media, it began rapidly climbing out of local media and on to the national stage. Meanwhile, images of Igor in Frankenstein danced before my eyes, as I pondered whether the affair would land on Jay Leno’s opening monlogue.
As the county Public Information Officer, I did the only thing I reasonably could: I told the truth. Well, most of the truth. I readily admitted that the county coroner was, in fact, under criminal investigation for mishandling human remains. I stressed that this was at odds with the county government’s values. I pressed the chairman of the County Legislature’s Public Safety Committee into service condemning the act in no uncertain terms.
And, I assuredly dreaded every phone call that came in.
What I did not do, however, was every utter the word “brains.”
And neither did CNN or any other media outlet.
The crisis passed. The coroner resigned amicably. The damage was minor, because the single most salacious detail was kept out of the news cycle.
In a crisis, what you say, how you say, and how forthcoming you are able to be matters, whether you’re in government or industry.
At Excelsior Strategies, we understand the danger of bad press. We’ll do everything we can to help you prepare for it—and weather it when it hits.