Crisis communications tips from The West Wing

Guest post by Brit Mockler

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Crisis communications is one of the most stressful jobs around. And while there's no shortage of great courses, textbooks and videos out there to help you hone your crisis communications skills, there's no teacher like good old experience. Well, that and television, of course. While you're working away getting all that hard-earned life experience, don't overlook those teachable moments your favourite TV shows can offer up from time to time. With that in mind, here are three crisis communications insights from that classic series, The West Wing: 

Lesson #1: You can’t always predict where your next crisis will come from

Season 2, Episode 9: When a small state newspaper writes about President Bartlett disliking green beans, press secretary CJ shrugs it off as a petty, non-starter of a story -- to the firm disagreement of Communications Director Toby. Two hours and a well-researched topic later, the non-story has turned into an election-deciding crisis. Throughout the episode, the 'green bean concern' is discussed extensively and, in the end, a number of well-orchestrated press opportunities later (including quotes and photo ops), the raging debate is resolved. 

The Lesson: You never know when a seemingly benign or insignificant issue or event can take on a life of its own and turn into a serious PR debacle. Once you have identified something as a possible crisis, the first step is research and the second step is preparation. While you should have a contingency plan in place for these types of situations, each one will be different and will require case-by-case review. Appearing in front of reporters, internal or external stakeholders or even your employees without a good grasp on the entire situation is a mistake.

Lesson #2: Stay informed, take charge and never let them see you sweat

Season 3, Episode 2: As CJ enters the briefing room (right after President Bartlett reveals that he has been living with multiple sclerosis and concealing it from the nation), she is visibly frazzled. This immediately alerts the reporters that all is not well in the Bartlett camp. For her second briefing, CJ has regrouped and taken the opportunity to process the information and she comes back prepared and ready to take charge. She remains on message and tight-lipped about subjects that stray from the task at hand.

The Lesson: In a crisis situation, the spokesperson for your organization must be (and appear to be) well-informed, calm and have the ability to field a wide range of questions tactfully and professionally. We all deal with situations like these differently, but it is your role as the communications representative to present the issue, respond and get out there. Deep breaths are strongly encouraged.

Lesson #3: Stay visible

Season 5, Episode 2: When President Bartlett’s daughter Zoey gets kidnapped by terrorists, a constitutional amendment allows the president to step down and temporarily hand the reins over to the top-seated Republican. Despite the information overload, we repeatedly see CJ taking to the podium to keep the reporters and the nation in the loop. This continues throughout the crisis until Zoey is found and the president regains his title (what's the statute of limitations on spoiler alerts?).

The Lesson: As much as you may think staying out of the limelight might soften the blow to your organization, you’re probably wrong. It's crucial for the organization's leaders to maintain visibility while the crisis plays out. Keeping customers, stakeholders (and/or the citizens of an entire nation) up to date on what’s being done to correct the issue will help convey confidence and hopefully pave the way for a swift recovery.

Obviously, there's a lot more to crisis communications than a few lessons from a classic TV series. But this are a few decent tips to add to your crisis communications toolbox. And with that, we'd like to leave you with a great laugh from The West Wing, this one courtesy of CJ Cregg: