Many years ago, a neighbor in my subdivision was named jury foreman in a grisly murder trial. The details were horrifyingly salacious, and everyone in the county was talking about them.
So too, unfortunately, was that neighbor.
When it came to light in court that he had regaled his friends with gory details about evidence – and even opined on the defendant’s guilt – the judge had no choice but to declare a mistrial.
And when my neighbor left the courtroom that day in utter disgrace, the news media had no choice but to ambush him.
With video rolling and lights ablaze, TV reporters shot footage of him being caught unaware – then clearly panicking, throwing both arms in front of his face, and running blindly into one courthouse wall after another before he mercifully launched himself into a men’s restroom stall and refused to come out.
That video was aired a LOT. And months later, when my neighbor faced a misdemeanor contempt of court charge, that video was aired some more. And when the second murder trial started, that video was aired again.
In the world of TV news, where good visuals mean everything, it doesn’t get much better than someone looking so obviously and ridiculously guilty. Appearance is everything.
Some PR people say the first rule of crisis communications is not to lie. But after watching my neighbor handle his personal communications crisis so very badly, I maintain that not lying is the third rule.
The first rule is not to panic. Take deep breaths and pause long enough to think.
The second rule is not to avoid communicating. Rather, you should embrace it. (This rule makes corporate lawyers blanch.) You almost always can be your best and most effective advocate.
The third rule, then, is never to lie – understanding that “not lying” doesn’t mean “reveal everything.”
How much more dignified my neighbor would have looked had he not panicked, and instead stopped long enough to make a non-comment comment such as, “I was surprised by the judge’s decision to declare a mistrial today. Thank you,” before calmly walking off.
Certainly, reporters would have shouted other questions, which he could have – and should have – ignored. But the resulting video would have shown a proud and calm man taking charge of his personal crisis instead of running around like a beheaded chicken. And while it would have been less entertaining for viewers and reporters alike, that is, after all, a key objective of effective crisis communications – minimize the negative attention.