This two-part briefing is intended to help public sector communications professionals, and their counselors, reflect on the optimal structural characteristics of a written, public statement issued in response to a breaking crisis. Many of the same lessons apply equally as well to the private sector, of course.
For purposes of this exercise, we’re talking primarily about the structural characteristics, rather than the content. The content, of course, matters immensely too – but we’ll cover that another time.
The briefing title notwithstanding, I’m not entirely sure there is such as a thing as the perfectly structured written statement when it comes to a crisis. And that’s probably okay and completely understandable, considering the situational urgency and the limited resources and info you may have at your disposal.
That said, getting the initial statement you issue in response to a crisis as close to perfect as possible is so critical, that you at least need to make your very best effort.
Of course, aiming for the perfect statement is somewhat at odds with another critical objective, which is to get something out very quickly.
Finding the right balance between moving fast, and writing perfectly, is more art than science. In most cases, you must move rapidly in order to take control of the crisis narrative as much as possible.
Fortunately, you can use some conditional language in the statement (“At this time, this is what we know…” or “We will be evaluating this issue further and sharing more information as we can…”). But the less you can resort to this crutch, the better, as it will somewhat weaken your statement.
So, with all that in mind, what are some key structural characteristics of a well-crafted crisis statement?
Although there are likely many others, six come immediately to mind: (1) Keeping it Short and Sweet, (2) Proper Ordering of Clauses in Compound Sentences, (3) Putting First Things First, (4) Structuring the Statement Like an Award-Winning Essay, (5) Including a Call to Action, and (6) Standing Up to Rigorous Review.
We’ll touch on the first three in this briefing, and the final three in a companion piece soon. And if you have others to suggest, shoot me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’d love to hear from you!
(1) Keeping It Short and Sweet (But Not So Short That You Leave Out Something Essential)
This one is probably self-evident, but it deserves major emphasis. There’s no specific word limit, as the complexity of the issue will affect this. Always remember, though, the less you say, the more likely it is that the part you want quoted – in the media, by public stakeholders, by your colleagues who are tasked with reinforcing your message – will actually be quoted.
Also be mindful that you’re writing a statement both for the media, where you need to exert control over what gets quoted, and for other audiences. The statement you issue to the press may get used only in part, but it may also need to go on your organization’s website and/or social media channels, where stakeholders have a chance to study and benefit from the entire thing. So do what you need to, in order to satisfy all your audiences, as briefly as you can.
And don’t make it so short that you leave some key questions begging, either. If you haven’t answered an obvious question (see the “rigorous editing” discussion in part two of this blog for some examples of these), then you need to add something more.
(2) Proper Ordering of Clauses in Compound Sentences
Sometimes you may find it necessary to acknowledge one viewpoint, while also stating a contrary position as your primary point. For instance: “We did the wrong thing, although we were trying to do the right thing.” Alternatively: “While we were trying to do the right thing, what we did in fact was wrong.”
Both sentences essentially say the same thing. But are they equally good?
Sometimes the ordering of the clauses in a compound sentence really matters, and in this case, the latter statement is much stronger. Why? Because where you end up matters. In the latter statement, you’ve seemingly made a feint towards absolving yourself, but then you come to the conclusion that what you did was, in fact, wrong.
Conversely, the first statement starts out well, by acknowledging wrongdoing, but then by backtracking, it leaves the reader thinking you’re not so sure it was wrong, after all.
While it’s a truism that, in general, we want to put the most important thoughts first within the statement as a whole, in the case of a smaller structural element such as a compound sentence, you need to be sure you haven’t inadvertently undone your apology with improper clause ordering!
(3) Putting First Things First
As discussed above, in smaller structural elements (like a compound sentence), it may be better to put the stronger statement last, rather than first. However, this is the exception to the rule! In most cases, say the most important thing – what your audiences most need to hear – first.
If you have a two-paragraph (or longer) media statement, the first paragraph needs to contain virtually all the quotable bits. If you’re going to acknowledge wrongdoing, put it first. If you are going to condemn something, do that right up front. The first part of the statement needs to clearly elucidate what your spokesperson or organization thinks or feels about the issue at hand. If you’re “concerned” about something, or “deeply sad” about something, that feeling should be expressed early on. If something was “wrong,” that must be said right up front.
Of course, in many statements, you need to include some background information that provides a context for your expression of remorse, or concern, or whatever the viewpoint is that you’re taking. But the sooner you can get to the human-sounding expression, the better, as pure recitations of cold, hard facts don’t play well in the public during a time of crisis.
For part two of this briefing, please monitor the Cooksey website Blogs page….