Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Futility of Holding Statements

Holding statements are a staple of most crisis comms plans. But it's time for an update. Like crisis plans at Japanese nuclear plants that called for emergency statements issued via fax, technology has moved on. It seems silly to use a tool of the Television Age in our Social Media times.

When holding statements came about, they worked well. Something bad would happen somewhere. Media would show up. Companies that offered nothing watched reporters get their information elsewhere. The holding statement provided minimal information quickly and came with a promise to provide more. The world moved slower then.

To the extent that holding statements put a company in the frame of mind to communicate, that’s great.

The reality I’ve seen is they provide a false sense of comfort during a crisis because the templates trap spokespeople with statements that are both generic and inflexible. Even the name “holding statement” infers a measure of control over the media that doesn’t exist.

Social media means journalists no longer come to you first. When I was a reporter and a call came over the scanner, we’d head to the van and race to the scene. Now reporters head to Twitter and see who’s talking about it and better yet, who might have pictures. No van required.

In many cases, reporters know more than you do when/if they arrive at your site or reach you on the phone. Focusing on getting the holding statement keeps you from getting the incident-specific facts that are available and can truly establish your credibility early on.

A asked a journalist I know (who prefers to remain anonymous) about holding statements and he said he thinks they are dangerous and can easily backfire.
“I think it is much better to respond to events as they occur, with the truth and using people who know the information and are free to provide the information to the public in a complete and honest way.”
Complete information is impossible in a crisis, but honesty is a requirement. If holding statements are no longer useful, what is the way ahead?

There are five essential pieces of information people and the media need in a crisis. Here they are:
  • What happened? (Keep it simple) 
  • Is there a danger to the community? (Yes or no, play it straight)
  • What is your primary concern? (Think people!) 
  • What actions are you taking to solve the problem? (Think response)
  • When/where can I get more information? (Set expectations for media and the audience)
I’ve used this set of questions to prepare for real interviews as have many of my clients. This works. The best part of this set of questions is that it is scalable so as the event unfolds you can give more complete answers.

I first realized this was going to be a problem back in 2009 when US Airways ditched into the Hudson River. People started tweeting about it immediately. We watched the plane floating down the river on one side of the screen as US Airways President Doug Parker used a template to "confirm there has been an incident." The statement was delivered 96 minutes after the plane hit the river. It seemed it took forever to get that statement and that was three years ago.

In the Social Media Age, crisis response is measured in Tweets Per Second. By that standard all a holding statement does is hold you back.

Bill Salvin


  1. Hello Bill ...I couldn't agree more. Mobile devices and social networks now demand instantaneous response, a meaningful engagement. Basically, you move at the speed of your audiences and use the tools they use (mobile and SM) or you are irrelevant and your rep is mortally wounded. See more here: http://www.ptsc-online.ca/blogs/crisisemergencycommunications/you-no-longer-have-the-luxury-of-time-to-communica

  2. Hi Patrice-Thanks for the great thoughts and the link. Communicating at the speed of your audience is a great phrase. I think the whole concept of "getting out front of the story" is harder today than ever.

  3. Here is my .o2.... I think that most communicators are ready to respond quickly but the reality of the situation is that in organizations there is much needed coordination behind the scenes that the reporters don't see (or care) about. While people are tweeting, communicators are coordinating with legal, senior leaders, coordianting with investor relations, coorinating with an interal talking points PRIOR to going to the public (lest someone get caught off guard and say something counter).

    While 96 minutes seems like an eternity to the instant media world, consider the mechanisms that need to be greased prior to a formal response--hence the need for a holding statement. I'm not sure what media damage is truely done (here we are now, entertain me?)by issuing a holding statement for 96 minutes while coordinating but there would be huge complications if the instant media beast was fed without proper due diligence.

    The media goes home when the fire is extinguished, but a rushed response is a business firestorm for weeks.

    Thanks for listening!

  4. It's not so much damage that is done as time passes it's relevance. You are most relevant in the immediate aftermath of the crisis. It's hard to get that back once the reporters have moved on.

    I understand the coordination part, but it simply has to be done faster. Lawyers who proofread instead of giving a legal opinion are but one example of time vampires who do more harm than good. Procedures have to keep pace with the rest of the world. You don't fly helos from the 70s, why do you use communications procedures from the 70s?

    As for the talk to internal audience first, these days internal and external are one and the same. In fact, an incident at your facility is more likely to end up on the news because one of your employees sent a picture to the media or posted it to their own social media site. If you think about it, do you really tell employees anything different than you tell the outside world? If you're a public company probably not.

    It's really less complicated than you make it out to be. Don't know the answer to a question? Say you don't know. Nobody is going to sue you for responding to an incident. They'll sue you for HAVING an incident. So, talk about your response. The people who will sue you will do it no matter what you say, you may as well get communicating.

    Thanks for writing, Bill. Always a good discussion.