Crisis Communication: What Should You Say When the Press Calls?
When a construction jobsite crisis occurs, experts say that communicating, not cocooning, is the best strategy
It is a contractor’s worst nightmare: Despite months of project preparation, daily safety briefings and double- and triple-checking jobsite protocols, an incident has occurred. And the news is not good.
Amid the hectic scramble to respond and find answers, calls are coming in from local and perhaps even national media, all seeking information and comments. Now what?
In fact, “now” is not the time to be asking this question. As with every other aspect of the construction business, communicating with the media and the public—especially during a crisis—requires thoughtful planning. Contractors gain little by lying low and hoping that everything will just blow over. If anything, such a stance often does more to exacerbate, rather than prevent, the spread of rumors and distortions that, inaccurate though they may be, can quickly attach themselves to a contractor’s reputation.
“Ninety-nine percent of contractors are doing good work,” says Bo Calbert, president of McCarthy Building Cos.’ Southwest division, Phoenix. “But when something happens, your brand in the community is front and center.”
Crisis communication is particularly important for smaller contractors, since they may have more to lose than their larger counterparts. San Francisco-based communication strategist Sam Silver notes that general contractors often get their first impression about potential local subs and partners through internet searches.
“Seeing a slew of negative stories about a particular firm will make them wary about doing business with them,” says Silver, adding that many of those less-than-favorable stories arise when a contractor fails to respond to a media inquiry or provides the most minimal of responses.
“In the eyes of the public, saying ‘no comment’ means you’re guilty as charged,” he says.
Nor should a contractor assume that the press is an adversary, trying to put the worst possible spin on an incident.
“The media wants to get the story right,” says Stephanie McCay, manager, U.S. communications, PCL Construction Services Inc., Denver. “And a contractor should do what it can to help make sure they do get it right. Otherwise, reporters will write the story based on whatever other information they can find.”
For most contractors, a crisis communication plan can be relatively simple. A page or two may be all that’s needed to lay out the response protocol, including key functions and the people responsible for them.
To develop the plan, the contractor’s senior leadership should work with project managers, human-resources leaders and marketing personnel, suggests Susan Shelby, a Hamilton, Mass.-based public-relations expert and a Society for Marketing Professional Services fellow.
“Field people need to be involved because, if something happens, they’re going to be right there,” Shelby explains. “They need to know what to do and who to call.”
A contractor’s attorneys should also be consulted, even though they may be understandably hesitant to share any information in the event of an incident.
“You do need to find a middle ground between legal restrictions and communication, which makes it important to collaborate ahead of time,” says McCay.
Any crisis communication plan must have a designated spokesperson and up-to-date contact phone numbers and email addresses readily available on the firm’s jobsite signage, information materials and website. McCarthy’s policy calls for a communication protocol for every jobsite.
“Our managers carry that information wherever they go,” Calbert adds.
To ensure a smooth implementation of a crisis communication plan when the time comes, front-line employees who answer phones or check company email should be briefed on how to do a little journalism of their own, collecting the caller’s name, organization, deadline and the type of information being requested.
Likewise, other office and field employees should be briefed on what to say if contacted by reporters following an incident.
“They should be courteous and explain that, while they’re not authorized to speak for the company, they’ll pass along the reporter’s contact information to the right person,” Shelby says. As a reminder, the contractor may consider posting the media-response policy in jobsite trailers or providing employees with wallet-size cards that contain the company’s communication contacts.
But however the request arrives—phone, email or in person via an employee—McCay stresses, “It should receive a prompt and accurate response with whatever information can be made available.”
Sometimes, getting the message right is more easily planned than done. Most types of construction-site incidents have specific investigative protocols and may require the involvement of state and federal oversight agencies, insurance and bonding companies, law enforcement, local government or other entities.
Fortunately, says Shelby, most reporters know that it takes a while for a contractor to understand what has happened, and the key people involved will be busy. So, no contractor should feel obligated to respond immediately.
“It’s OK to say that you’re still gathering information and will follow up once as things unfold,” she says.
And at no time should a spokesperson speculate about the cause of an incident or the outcome.
“You may feel like you’re being helpful, but you could be actually be making things worse,” says Silver. “Respond only with what you know.”
Absent any details about the incident, the spokesperson can still provide or verify basic data about the project, such as specifications, schedule, the number of on-site employees, company history, other participants and so on.
The company’s good safety record should be mentioned, too. “That’s the first thing the media will look for if there’s an incident,” Silver adds.
Further, as facts become available, the spokesperson still should choose his or her words wisely, as few legitimate media outlets allow sources to preview their quotes or other content for news stories.
“You’re always on the record,” Calbert says.
For that reason, many contractors elect to issue statements that are carefully reviewed for accuracy. There may be only so much information that can be released, especially in the early stages following an incident, but what is presented should be accurate and straightforward.
“Make sure the statement includes a source for additional information, as reporters may want more information in the days and weeks following the incident,” Shelby says.
In cases in which a firm is contracturally forbidden to communicate directly with the media, reporters should be provided with contact information for the client or project team members authorized to respond, along with an explanation for the referral. In some situations, the contractor may receive permission to respond to press inquiries, albeit within certain limits.
“Even without this restriction, the contractor should still coordinate with the client and other project team members to ensure a consistent message is getting out,” Shelby says.
It isn’t just the media that must be kept up to date. The contractor’s employees should be informed about what’s happening, too.
“The message should be no different from what the media receives, but employees should be told first,” McCay says, citing PCL’s policy. “This helps to prevent rumors from spreading and preserves confidence in the company.”
And by being upfront with employees, Calbert adds, “they can, in turn, help get the right message out to subs, project partners, colleagues and their own networks.”
A crisis communication plan need not be totally reactive. Rather than waiting for reporters to call, a contractor can make use of social media to issue statements and updates on the incident, provide advisories on how the incident may affect travel or utilities, and other information.
“The contractor may not be on social media, but, after an incident, its name and reputation likely will be,” Shelby says. “It’s a good idea to have someone monitor Twitter, Facebook and other channels to keep track of what’s being said.”
Proactive engagement with the media also can help to ease the stress of managing a crisis and establish a line of communication for other needs, such as project-related street closures, utility interruptions or noise alerts.
“Be aware of news organizations as well as local bloggers,” advises Silver. “They may have as much influence, if not more, than mainstream news outlets.”
There’s also no reason for a contractor to go it alone when it comes to managing a crisis. A communication professional can help to craft a response plan, provide media advice and training, and even serve as an intermediary with reporters.
Don’t wait for an incident to happen to start looking for professional help. Says Shelby, “That’s not the time to be interviewing people for the job.”