Fleischer, who served as press secretary for the Bush Administration
for over two years, offers a unique view of crisis communications.
This article has been provided by Strohl
Ari Fleischer has a unique view of crisis communications.
During his time at the White House, he worked through the September
11th attacks, two wars, and economic turbulence. These days, he’s
leading Ari Fleischer Communications, a firm that supplies advice
to clients on how to handle the press and how to strategically develop
communication ideas. Fleischer will be the keynote speaker at the
Strohl Systems International User Group Conference in Atlanta, October
17th to 20th.
During an interview he granted to Recovery
Chronicles (Strohl’s monthly newsletter), Fleischer discussed
topics such as how he handled the important job of speaking for
President Bush, to how he went about reassuring the public after
the 9/11 attacks, to cooperation between the government and private
Question: In your years of
public service, what was the most challenging media briefing and
Ari Fleischer: No question
about it, and this surprises most people, the anthrax briefings.
The reason for this is because I didn’t know the answers to
the questions. Even on 9/11 and when we went to war with Iraq, I
knew what I was going to say. For anthrax, we didn’t know
what was going on, and that’s the hardest briefing to handle…one
where you don’t know the answers.
Question: What was the most
challenging aspect of communications during and after the Sept.
AF: Calmly trying to reassure
the public that everything that could be done to help people was
being done, and to politely handle the press’s questions regarding
when we’ll be going to war, how we’ll be going to war,
and what troops will be used. In other words, to not answer their
questions about military issues as military plans are being made.
Question: Do you think that
an important role of a spokesperson is to reassure the public?
AF: In this case, absolutely.
It’s one of the realities of being a spokesperson at the White
House. It’s not typical that a briefing be held live on the
networks, so when the entire country is watching after a crisis,
the briefing takes on a different role.
Question: What guidance on
handling a disaster would you give to organisational leaders?
AF: Dig in deep, learn the
facts, find out what the truth is, and share everything you possibly
Question: So would you say
it’s a maximum disclosure and minimum delay?
AF: That’s not a bad
way of putting it, but minimum delay is not always the best way
to go. I put doing one’s homework and learning all the facts
before speaking over being timely. There were times when the press
needed me on the air faster to give something. But unless I was
certain of what I was going to say, I wasn’t going to speak.
This can cause tension for a spokesperson or anyone involved in
a crisis in the public. You’ve got to find that line between
how much you can say and how quickly you can say it. It’s
an important balance.
Question: What one piece of
advice regarding communications would you give to continuity planners
whether they are in the public or private sector?
AF: Take good care of the
press’s logistics and needs. It’s important to make
the press’s life easy and that you’re cognizant of their
deadlines and technological needs, like whether they need to get
phone lines installed or be certain they have wireless technology
available so they can transmit or download anything they have to.
No matter what’s going on, the press has a hard job to do.
The more people that can help with all the nuts and bolts, the better
it will be for those who’ll have to communicate a message
to the press. Reporters are human, and they need a good work environment
just like anybody else.
Question: In this day and
age of instant news (i.e. the Internet and e-mail) how can a company
get its message out in the wake of a disaster? What is the best
way to combat rumours and speculation?
AF: Number one, be prepared
before it happens. Have you performed drills? Have you practiced
enough? Have you done a mock scenario of a worst-case scenario?
By far, the best way to deal with a crisis is to be prepared for
it. That means deciding who your spokesperson is, whether it be
your President, CEO, Senior Vice President of Communications, or
whomever. Then you have to prepare that person with lots of practice
by firing hard questions at him or her. That’s the best way
to be ready at any moment’s notice. I always recommend for
every company to be prepared for their worst-case scenario, whether
that be an explosion, a flood, or in the case of a pharmaceutical
company, a recall. The good news is that they’re very predictable
questions, so it’s possible to be prepared with the right
answers if and when the worst occurs.
Question: Do you see any trends
in crisis communications between the private and public sectors?
Are they coordinating more?
AF: I think the press’s
abilities have forced business, government, and even sports figures
all into the same position: that the press is beneficial, tough,
and aggressive. Because of this, there is more coordination. Today
it’s the government on the front page, tomorrow it could be
a business caught in a scandal. So there are a lot of similarities,
and the best way to handle them is to anticipate what can go wrong,
practice, and drill.
Question: What is the strangest
question you have ever been asked as a press conference?
AF: It was during the lead
up to the war in Iraq and people were going to Baghdad to act as
human shields. A reporter asked me what the President’s reaction
would be if the Pope were to travel to Baghdad to become a human
Question: What was your answer?
AF: I was on live TV and didn’t
even dignify it. I went to the next reporter very quickly!
Question: What topics do you
plan to discuss in Atlanta at Strohl Systems International User
AF: Crisis communications
will be my focus. Everything from how to plan for a crisis, to how
to react to crises when they hit.
Fleischer’s address, ‘Crisis communications:
practical applications for unpredictable times,’ will take
place at the Strohl Systems International User Group Conference
on October 18 in the Grand Ballroom of the Atlanta Hilton. For more
information or to register, visit http://www.strohlsystems.com/Community/UGC/2004/index.asp.
The conference is only open to Strohl Systems customers.
7th October 2004 •Region: N.America •Type:
Article •Topic: Crisis
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