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Crisis communications lessons…

Get free weekly news by e-mailAri 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 Systems.

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 enterprise.

Question: In your years of public service, what was the most challenging media briefing and why?

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. 11 tragedy?

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 can.

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 shield himself.

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 Group Conference?

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 The conference is only open to Strohl Systems customers.

Date: 7th October 2004 •Region: N.America •Type: Article •Topic: Crisis communications
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