April 25, 2019
There are times when acknowledging the elephant in the room is the hardest part, perhaps even more difficult than actually doing something about the creature. That is why the field of public relations is so important; someone has to deliver the tough-to-swallow pill.
Well, how exactly do we treat such delicate situations with the deft combination of tact and integrity? PRSA, Boston member Nancy Sterling APR, Fellow PRSA and Diane Davis Beacon Award Winner, has a lot to say on the subject. With years of experience working in the field of crisis communication, she carries with her a wealth of knowledge that only a seasoned veteran could have. I was fortunate enough to be able to interview her for this article to get some insight.
Q: Are there any general rules-of-thumb when it comes to crisis communication?
A: Every situation is different, but there are some basic mandates for crisis communication. You normally advise clients to say something even if it’s something not very detailed, but you never want to say “no comment.”
Q: When is the best time to say something?
A: In a 24-hour news cycle, you don’t really have a lot of time. Often, you need to give a holding statement, such as “we don’t have a lot of information” or alternatively, “we don’t know all the details right now.” You need to be as ready as possible to respond when the media contacts you.
Q: Is there ever a time you shouldn’t say something?
A: Those times are the anomaly, not the norm. Examples would be if you know that an organization or individual is going to be indicted, or if you are concerned about the ramifications of any comment.
Q: Who should relay these messages?
A: Generally, you use someone who is an expert in the field to communicate crises. Top leadership is only used in really significant situations.
Q: Where do you release these messages?
A: We usually do a written statement and send it to media outlets that have already contacted us about the story.
Q: What was the most challenging situation you had to speak on?
A: When Nancy Kerrigan’s brother killed her father, I represented Nancy and her family.
Q: Is there ever a time in crisis communications that you make “positive” statements?
A: Yes! You might have good news as part of a crisis; for example, there might have been a building explosion but no deaths, only minor injuries.
Q: What is the best part of working in crisis communications?
A: I love my job. Work is different every day, and you’re always learning new things.
By now it should be obvious that the world of PR is complex and nuanced. Every situation requires a unique approach. Learning to navigate them is a skill that we could spend our whole lives learning and striving to perfect.
To end, I’d like to throw my own hat in the ring and dare say that it’s always better to say it than to be sorry, and my interview with Ms. Sterling reinforced that. I believe in that age-old adage of honesty being the best policy, no matter how difficult it is, so that in a world permeated by mirages of reality, we can find our own glimmer of trut
Written by Janet Annika Sison, Faculty Forum Student Correspondent – Boston College.
March 26, 2019In Cannabis, Chapter Events, Crisis, Entrepreneur, Fast Five, Government, Media Relations, PRSA Member Feed, Public Affairs, Thought Leaders, Uncategorized on
Francy Wade owns Chatter Boss Communications, a boutique communications consultancy with clients in both the private, public and non-profit sectors. Some of her recent work been has been on behalf of new cannabis companies, including one of the state’s licensed dispensary pioneers, Cultivate. Her career is a convergence of public relations, research, politics and news experience. She recently sat down with Loring Barnes to chat about the unique experiences of launching Massachusetts into the new world of legalized marijuana.
Has serving clients in the marijuana sector in any way inhibited your PR consulting practice?
When I started Chatter Boss a little over a year ago, I had no idea how large the market was for what I was selling: High-touch, high-energy, low-process PR. I love to tell great stories to the right journalists and audiences and not get bogged down in process. I am so blessed that I’ve had an over abundance of clients retain me over over the past 15 months. Usually, my clients and prospects love to see the crazy mix of subject areas I work in. From higher education and education equity to healthcare, fashion technology and marijuana, it has been a wild ride.
I did, however, lose one piece of new business because of my work in the marijuana space. It was a controversial development project and the company CEO was staunchly against legal cannabis. I am absolutely respectful of people’s opinions and understood his perspective. But, before I walked away, I did want to make sure this individual knew I am the ultimate professional and one client’s point of view never impacts another’s.
Marijuana isn’t legal nationwide, which has resulted in a prohibition or high restriction of social media usage by dispensaries and cultivation facilities. It’s almost a throwback to our pre-social communications era. How have you helped your cannabis clients to maintain a brand voice as more of these licensed companies have had to launch while being handcuffed in their use of social media?
I like to use social media as a storyline with media pitching for my marijuana clients. In the days after legalization in Massachusetts, all of my clients’ social accounts were shut down. On the surface, it might seem debilitating, but not for me. Facebook, which owns Instagram, never gave an exact reason for the move and I thought that was a GREAT storyline for TV and digital media. Interestingly enough, just last week, Facebook announced it was easing its ban on marijuana content, which provided a great pitch point for some stories you’ll see appear very soon. I’m such a tease!
You’re a parent and travel in other business and community circles. And you aren’t a pot user. Do you find that when people know that as a PR professional, you are a communications counselor to cannabis companies like Cultivate and Sira, that conversations abruptly shift from scouts and soccer to the curiosities of marijuana, and how do you navigate this?
I do a lot of work in my children’s schools and I am even a catechist for the kindergarten students at my church. So when it comes up that I also happen to work in the marijuana space, people’s jaws hit the floor. I’ve been a goody-goody my whole life, so having a shock factor in my mid-thirties is kind of fun!
I started out my career as a journalist, so I pride myself on always seeing things from all sides. Before talking about any of my clients, I tend to allow people to tell me how they feel about the industry instead of voicing any opinions. It makes people feel at ease with the subject. If people do have a differing opinion, I tend to share some stories that opened my eyes to the benefits of cannabis as a medicine for veterans. Then let the conversation transfer to the trouble with the illicit market and how many jobs and how much revenue we will get from the legal industry.
What do you read to keep on top of cannabis business trends, innovators and subject experts? How would you advise someone to steer clear of disinformation?
I have to say, my clients are the best source of information for me. They have a way of explaining nuanced regulations and trends better than anyone. I feel lucky to work with such smart innovators like Sam Barber of Cultivate and Mike Dundas of Sira. I tend to use them to help journalists understand the stories they are writing, even if they aren’t going to be quoted. The way I see it, we are all building this industry together. Storytelling and the reporting being done will help us document this for the history books in the future, so it is critical we get this right.
I really like the reporting the Boston Globe has done and the way they have dedicated reporters to this beat exclusively. I had a meeting with some of their staff, including Linda Henry, last year and encouraged them to create and entire Cannabis section of the paper. Similar to the Travel or Arts. It is complex, not only as a political and social issue, but the industry involves banking, scientific and marketing aspects too. It needs to be treated as the unique behemoth subject that it is.
You’ve had your consultancy, Chatter Boss Communications, for just over a year, after working in respected PR agencies, political campaigns and television news. Did opportunity create the impetus to strike out on your own, or did you decide to take the plunge and hope that the clients would follow? How has life as a solo practitioner surprised or rewarded you, and how would you counsel others who are considering to follow suit to think through this decision?
I have three children, a 13-year-old stepdaughter, a 5-year-old son and 4-year-old son. When I started taking care of my daughter when she was a toddler, I realized how fast time flies. After having my oldest son, I made a very easy decision to not go back to an agency. Instead, I networked my way into having a few clients and projects that kept me in the game. After my second son, I was approached to more formally work with a political polling firm and got involved with the campaign to regulate, tax and legalize marijuana. When the campaign came to a close, I had a series of fun lunch meetings with former colleagues and friends who kept asking me if they could get me to tell their stories and I gave birth to my fourth child which is Chatter Boss.
I was meant to be an entrepreneur. It’s in my DNA. My dad owns his own business and he, like me, does some of his best work from places other than a desk and office. My mom, a teacher, stayed home with me until I was in high school, before going back to work and getting her masters. I am trying to take a page from both of my amazing parents and be the best mother and businesswoman I can be. None of this would be possible without my husband’s support. He is, by far, the most talented storyteller I’ve ever met. We don’t have a nanny or full-time help. We work as a team to make sure we are at the top of our parenting and professional games at all times.
I don’t think agency life is for everyone and I certainly don’t think the solo practitioner road is one that most people find attractive. It is uncertain, exhausting but ultimately exhilarating. I’ve been called naturally caffeinated, which is the highest compliment, and what I think has been the secret to my success in this most recent chapter of my communications career.
Meet Francy Wade on Thursday, April 4th (@chatterbosscomm) and hear about the landmines and victories on the cannabis industry’s journey in Massachusetts. She joins an A-lister panel of marijuana business experts and policy influencers. The lively discussion will be lead by Jess Bartlett (@BOSBIZJess), veteran cannabis and craft beer beat journalist for the Boston Business Journal. Click on this LINK to get your ticket. Special rates for students, young professionals and members.
October 28, 2018In Crisis on
It has been one month since gas lines across the Merrimack Valley blew causing one death, and dozens of fires. Hundreds of homes and businesses are still without gas service, and it will likely be another month before everything is fixed. A new poll from UMass Lowell and the Boston Globe found that only 27 percent of voters are satisfied with Columbia Gas’s response. Who could blame them? From the beginning Columbia Gas has been unresponsive and uncommunicative with the public. Here are the ways Columbia Gas could have changed the narrative, and helped win over the public.
First and foremost, say something!
No one wants to be on live television with nothing to say, ever. This is only amplified when you are covering a major news story and you have hours of airtime to fill. If you go back and watch coverage of that day you will hear one thing over and over again, “We reached out to Columbia Gas, but haven’t heard anything yet.” Our reporters mentioned it at least every five minutes for seven hours straight. Columbia Gas didn’t bother to communicate until late into the night after the accident. If there is one thing everyone in crisis PR should know, it is that we don’t need much. All Columbia Gas had to do to change the narrative was release a short statement that read something as simple as, “We are working with local police and firefighters to figure out the cause of the problem.” That would be enough for the initial response. Instead 1.4 million households watching that night heard every reporter, on every local station, say Columbia Gas didn’t bother to release a public statement.
Your crews are working hard, give them credit for it.
There was a point just before midnight on the night of the explosion when dozens of trucks began lining up near the media staging area. The trucks were out of sight of crews on the ground, but all of the choppers could see them. We didn’t know what was going on. We would later piece together that these crews were preparing to go door-to-door to make sure the gas was off. We didn’t hear that from Columbia Gas, we heard it from Governor Baker during the first news conference at 12:15 AM.
This is an example of a huge missed opportunity. If you give me numbers about how many of trucks are in the field or employees are on the ground, I can turn that into a full screen and you earned 30 seconds every 10 minutes reminding people that you are working to fix the problem. If you send me a generic statement that reads, “We are working to make sure everything is safe before people can return home” I will ignore it, because no one wants to report a generic statement.
As time goes on Columbia Gas and its parent company continue to rely on government officials to provide updates to the public. Information is hard to come by, and people are reminded of that often in the countless stories about the company’s shortcomings. If you want to fight the notion that you aren’t doing enough, then you need to come out and say so. Daily updates give you a chance to talk about any and all progress you are making. It doesn’t have to be much. You could just show a map each day highlighting the streets your crews are working on. Set up a time and a place to get updates. If you call the news conference you don’t even have to take questions. This is the biggest disaster to hit your company. What else do you have going on that is more important?
These major missteps could have easily been avoided. There is still time for Columbia Gas to improve their response and earn back some favorable public opinion. Putting a face to the company’s response and increasing how frequently information is disseminated may sway a few more than 27 percent of voters.
Joe Chambers is an Emmy-nominated journalist with more than 10 years of experience working in television newsrooms across the country. He currently lives and works in Boston