feat. Jeff Hahn | Jeff Hahn, the owner and principal of Hahn Public, talks his new book, why universities tend to be slow to respond to a crisis, and his 5 step method to crisis communications.


Jeff Hahn is one of the nation’s top experts in crisis communications and recently published his first book, Breaking Bad News. His Austin-based integrated agency combines data analysis with time-proven and researched methods on how to best respond to crises in order to preserve brands’ reputations. In this episode, we talk about why crisis communications isn’t a “feeling thing”, but why it’s an acquired skill set necessary more than ever in the age of social media and cancel culture. We riff on why universities are so slow to respond adequately to crises even though they are at the epicenter of news headlines, from hazing incidents to activist professors! Join us as we dissect Jeff’s 5 step method to crisis response that ensures brands establish and maintain narrative control and hint — brands need to lose the apology!

Read the Transcript

Speaker 1 (00:07):

I’m Joanna Doven. This is On Crisis, bringing together PR experts, thought leaders, creatives, and CEOs here to start conversations and connect people with real life stories ins crisis communications.

Speaker 2 (00:20):

I’m really excited about this podcast taping with Jeff Hahn, who runs Hahn Public based in Austin, Texas, and owns three other agencies that feed into it. His focus is squarely in crisis communications, and he’s worked with some of the world’s top corporations in food and beverage and in energy and environment. And this is a real substantive conversation. We talk about Jeff’s new book, “How to Break Bad News,” great title, and really dig into what the biggest problems are for leaders when they’re faced with a crisis. Hint, hint, we have to lose that ego and we have to realize that crisis communications is strategic and there are matrixes and paradigms for how to do it, right. We have to combine the qualitative skill of, of speaking like a human and being emotional and relating to your audience with quantitative facts and data. And this podcast for me is something that I’m sending to my entire network.

Speaker 2 (01:27):

And any leaders that I’ve ever worked with everyone should listen to it because it just cuts to the chase of what you have to do now in order to prepare for the crisis. And one thing I want to leave you guys with before we start is you have two hours, that’s it. You have two hours to get your message out before the virality and social media, digital pitchforks come after you listen in. So happy to have Jeff Hahn on the, on crisis podcast today, Jeff and I go way back when he was doing some consulting work for marathons on crisis on how to handle crisis. I think this was after the Boston Marathon bombing and I was working of course with the Pittsburgh marathon and Jeff came to town and it’s funny. So our mutual friend, Patrice Matamoros she does a really, she really understands people.

Speaker 2 (02:22):

She’s a good people person. I mean, and she said to me, you have to meet Jeff. You’re going to love Jeff. And of course we hit it off right away, but we live in different cities. Austin and Pittsburgh, it’s funny. I almost ended up in Austin and I was just talking with somebody that said the city is completely open. It’s happened in there. There’s a bunch of live music and I’m thinking, “Oh, I need that right now.” but we rejoined forces today on the podcast because Jeff launched a new book called breaking bad news, which is the best title because it’s so, it’s so pithy. Right. It’s just right on point. And I want to talk about that with you today. Jeff. Welcome.

Speaker 3 (03:07):

Great to see you Joanna. Yeah. And our days in Pittsburgh were not without crisis themselves, so it’s nice to rejoin you in the conversation. And we might even go back to some of those marathon days and pull them into the conversation that we’re gonna have today.

Speaker 2 (03:24):

Let’s do it. Okay. So you’ve had a trajectory in the communication space that, you know, really dated back to, you know, being a child. When I, your family home, you were uprooted because of a tornado, right?

Speaker 3 (03:41):

That’s right. Yeah. 1975, a tornado just destroyed our family farm. Wow.

Speaker 2 (03:47):

Wow. And how so- Looking back on that time. Cause I, I know a lot of people myself included over the past two years, I think we’ve had more time on our hands too, because the world just slowed down. Right? Yeah. You still might have business. You know, I still mothering my children and that’s nonstop, but I don’t have to run to meetings. Like I used to, although that’s starting to pick up, so the world is so down and there’s more introspective thinking of, okay, how did I end up where I am now? Am I in the right space? How do you think that your childhood experiences have shaped your career path?

Speaker 3 (04:24):

I think they’ve given me a philosophy on, especially professionally of when a door closes start looking for windows and doors have closed on my career. Multiple times, I of course grew up thinking I was going to be a farmer and that would have been an amazing life. And I would have loved that so much, but that wasn’t my destiny, those doors, that door closed. It taught me that you got to start looking for windows. And even now I use that in difficult choices. If I’m given a choice between door number one and door, number two, I’m looking for a window it’s always been, or it’s become now ingrained in me to where I feel like it’s always been there, but no, it was a learned skill that was brought on by forces outside of my control, adapting to those forces and figuring out ways to take the next step forward. Even in the aftermath of difficult situations as become part of the philosophy. And it sort of influences the philosophy inside of breaking bad news that says, you know, even in a difficult crisis situation, there is a way to move forward.

Speaker 2 (05:49):

Love it. And what I believe to be true. And I’ve dealt with this in my personal life, unfortunately. And then, you know, in working with clients is anytime there’s a crisis, guess what? There’s an opportunity, right? There’s an opportunity there. And, and it’s, it’s really, we almost as crisis comms practitioners or whatever you want to call us. A lot of our job becomes almost playing psychiatrist or therapist and getting the client to see that window. That can be very difficult. Sometimes. Sometimes, sometimes it’s not. I can tell you, I recently worked with a university who was dealing with the I’ll do a case study on this one day, but I can’t now I’m dealing with a crisis related to the black lives matter movement. And somebody’s quite frankly, fanning the flames on a particular issue that they were looking to personally benefit from.

Speaker 2 (06:55):

And truth did not matter, right? It was just, let’s take advantage of this moment. There is one person trying to do it and the media didn’t want to cover the truth and you, we can get into that. They covered a little bit of it, but, and you know, and I talked to media people about this and local news because I still think the heart of news is always going to be local news. And you know, there’s a, there is a change in newsrooms lately in, in so many I can ramble on about that. But in this particular case, it was hard for me to connect with the leader of this institution. That here’s the path we need to take. Now we have to do it fast, right? What’s your perspective on that?

Speaker 3 (07:39):

Sure. The media has changed substantially. The essence of media coverage these days is in confrontation, cover the confrontation and exploit that confrontation in the headlines. That’s the [inaudible] of today’s media in the situation that you talk about too. One other really important component that it is at the heart of my thinking on crisis. Communication is speed. If you are not ready to respond and respond quickly to control narrative, you will lose narrative. And you’re going to become a punchline in a crisis story, probably a 50 50 shot, if you’re the victim or the villain,

Speaker 2 (08:26):

Right. It doesn’t matter what side you’re on. Okay. So first to that point, so the essence of news is to cover the confrontation and get the clickbait headline present that always been the case. Or do you think that is more of the case in 2021?

Speaker 3 (08:40):

I think it has been a long running orientation of media. You can go back into the early 19 hundreds in the age of yellow press and understand that’s been a role that they have played in this age, the, the definite, the differentiation amongst channels through social media. And now in electronic platforms just accelerates the entire process and creates virality that didn’t exist in the, in even 20 years ago. So it is different,

Speaker 2 (09:18):

Which is why speed matters. Right. And so, okay. Speed is different to some people like for me, speed, and for you, because this is what we do, speed is now for some people, it could be, let me talk with my board, let me get approval on this. Let me think about it. How do you counsel and in your, in your book, how do you talk about speed when there’s, so let’s, let’s give me, maybe give me a a case study that you’ve worked on relative to speed. And the importance

Speaker 3 (09:54):

For an answer is you have two hours. You have two hours when bad news breaks in order to respond and respond. Well, that’s the model that is at the center of breaking bad news. And there are only five steps you need to take inside of that two hour. What I refer to as the tech talk box, but inside that tech talk box, if you fail to move through the five decisions, you will lose the narrative. And that is something that I studied research pretty well and thoroughly in order to understand really what is the nature of the current news cycle? That’s it, you got two hours. If you decide that you need to go talk to your board, if you decide, you want to think about it for a few days or weeks okay, here’s the risks that you are now opening yourself and your brand to. And that’s really one of the more important things is that decision makers in these situations take them very personally. This is about me, someone attacking me. No, their responsibility is to protect the brand and they can do that simply by being a little bit more objective. And let’s take your example. A protester lodges, a complaint against a university university president is take that super personally and they dig in, they go up into their ivory tower. I have a university client. They literally have a tower that they sit in.

Speaker 2 (11:27):

Yeah, it’s not that far. I mean, the visualization is the reality there. Yeah.

Speaker 3 (11:31):

And I I often counsel them. I said, this isn’t an attack against you. So why don’t you with some objectivity turn shoulder to shoulder with that person and start asking questions, Oh, this is the allegation that you’ve made. How did you get there and make that interrogative a public event? What kinds of things are you experiencing? Why would you say those things about this university? Let the person who’s being charged with, or being talked about turn and ask the questions in public that everyone else is asking. It’s a simple technique, but it requires a depersonalization. And that’s the thing that is so hard for leaders to apply because inside of any crisis event is this situation called dissonance, psychological dissonance. There they’re honestly not able to make that kind of objective decision.

Speaker 2 (12:38):

Yes. I see that. And also they think saying nothing or, or waiting, they think they equate that to mitigating risk.

Speaker 3 (12:49):

And there is a that’s a, that’s an orientation that comes often from legal counsel. There is a, we’ll talk more about that because legal counsel will immediately default to a litigious situation and has the responsibility to limit liability. You limit liability best by not saying a word in order to have your day in court, what that dismiss is or completely overlooked is the court of public opinion and the loss of reputation and the value of that. And so that orientation of no comment is it is a fixture that honestly, every 20th time that I’m in a conversation with a client who’s in crisis might be the right move because they can’t help themselves because they’ll say too much because they’re not able to take guidance. Yeah. Maybe you just want to lay the no comment line on them so that they don’t hurt themselves even further, but in the vast majority of cases, establishing early control of the narrative and doing that in a way that feels non-personal is the trick.

Speaker 2 (14:09):

Okay. So and if you hear me typing it’s because I’m prepared your best quotes, I’m going to turn into social media posts. So I’m such a, I’m sure you, you type fast too. I type as I think, so this helps me because Hey, you know, time is like, you want to capture those moments. All right. So establishing early control of the narrative is so important. And oftentimes you do that by making sure that your viewpoint and perspective is in that very first story. Okay. So when you say in the book, you have two hours. Talk to me about the nuances behind that, because what I, what I, you know, oftentimes we’ll get the call after the first story has been written or the second, third, fourth, fifth, right. And then, then I’m like then it gets hard to contain. But how can leaders, whether you’re a nonprofit or food client, like you work with food and beverage client, understand that it’s that first story you need to, you need to call your crisis communications people, right? When you get that first media inquiry, because that first story, it becomes, it almost becomes the thing you have to defend, defend. What’s your take on that?

Speaker 3 (15:32):

It sets the framework. Yeah, you’re absolutely right. And the trouble that most decision-makers have in the first moments is that they want to get the information and they want everything to be right. And that’s the problem is there’s a difference between good and being right. What we want to do in our first move is be good. And the way to do that is through the statements that not only orient people or audiences to your value, set, those things that you believe deeply in and their principles by which you operate. Those are fantastic things to be talking about in the first move. Not about us, not about a particular incident but you also want to stay in the present. We understand what’s happening. We understand what’s been said, we understand that this incident has occurred. And let me assure you, we are the ones who are most interested in resolving it, favorably for protecting this particular subject matter X, Y, Z. You know, you can any way that you cut it, the first quotes do help set the frame and you don’t have to get too far out into the future. You don’t have to have all the answers. You can simply say, we’re here, we’re on it. We’re working this. And we won’t rest until it’s resolved. That’s good. That’s good. It’s not right. It’s not perfect, but it’s good. And that’s what, and good is what we need.

Speaker 2 (17:02):

Awesome advice, awesome advice. And, you know, Hey, you should like be a national correspondent on issues of crisis, because I think you give great such great advice. One thing I tell clients, and I learned this when I worked for the mayor’s office as press secretary I learned from my old boss, there’s a, when the media calls you, most people hit fight or flight mode. Okay. And there’s a freeze mode in there too. So fight. I got to just, you know get all the information and again, analysis paralysis, and then I wait too long. And then I get, I fight. I get that V really personal it’s very personal TAC, egos, egos leading the conversation there you know, flight, you know, who do they think they are? Why do I have to respond to them? I don’t work for them. Right?

Speaker 2 (17:58):

You love that one. Right. You know, we’re busy, you know, this is, this is ridiculous. And then you have the freeze, which is like- like just do nothing. And one thing that I learned that I use often is if someone’s, if a media person is looking for specific information, you know, maybe it’s, it’s a database number. I’ve working with a couple of nursing home clients, and they’re in the news right now. And they’re not, they’re not used to being in the news at all. And I’ve reported looking for vaccination rates. He’s doing a statewide story on how many staff not wanting to get vaccinated staff in nursing homes. And it’s not something you can force staff to do. So there’s a very easy message point around that. But in particular, this nursing I’m working with has a much lower rate than, than the average.

Speaker 2 (18:46):

And you can look at Y right. You can look at where they’re located is what’s the area. Like, is it more conservative, all of that, but this reporter wanted information now and, you know, we’ll get it to him soon, but we want to make sure he knows where we’re getting him the information. So we have to respond to something. So all you have to say is, I’m looking into this, let me get right back to you. That’s it. And it’s, and it, and then it takes away that, that overwhelming pressure to figure out their response. Now you have a little time, of course, you want to make sure the report is not going to publish a story. And that’s what we do. We understand their, their deadlines and, and work with them. So that first story, I think, you know, one thing I, if there’s any message I could get to, you know, people that run anything that could be in the news, which is really everyone these days, given the digital pitchforks that exists is, you know, that first story is very important, right? You, you, you know, the fight or flight mode, you have to, like, as you said, take yourself out of it and protect, protect the brand. So the other thing I want to talk to you about is let’s talk a little bit about the kind of work you’re doing with your clients now and how you’re applying the principles of the book. So you’re, you’re working mostly in the food and beverage industry, correct?

Speaker 3 (20:14):

That’s a big chunk of our portfolio. Yes.

Speaker 2 (20:16):

And this is so Hahn Public is the company, but you have other subsidiaries that sort of feed into that. Right. Okay. Hahn, “H-a-h-n,” public for those who want to know how it’s spelled and, and why did you decide to niche in food and beverage?

Speaker 3 (20:35):

We really have two niches that we operate in. And then almost I’ve set up the company that, where it looks like a goalpost, the first niche area or vertical is, and environment climate change is is an arena that is going to be the defining conversation of the next generation. And so, as we think about the idea of crisis in really longer term, so you and I have talked before about issues management, which is a it’s sort of crisis communication, but stretched out over long periods of time. That energy and environment vertical is really important to me. I’ll make the connection here in a second. The second vertical or our post is food and beverage. And in between those two, connecting them, I have a digital business, digital marketing, also digital intelligence gathering, because this is the, the place where you have to create the tools necessary in order to predict what’s going to happen before it happens. And that kind of forecasting capability can only be done with lots of data. So that’s the way I’ve designed my business. And the reason those two have a commonality, energy, and environment and food is that they both exist at the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy. They are essential to life. And inside of that food business, by the way, we also include alcohol, which I put in the essentials to life category. Sometimes it can be a problem, but oftentimes you just need a beer.

Speaker 3 (22:19):

I’m a beer person. Well, mostly loggers this time of year. I’m enjoying the Mexican lagers more.

Speaker 2 (22:29):

All right. That was an aside. Go ahead.

Speaker 3 (22:33):

Yeah. And so that’s how I’ve designed the business and the way I think about it, those essential for daily life. It’s just to, to a great extent, it mirrors my own upbringing on the farm that that’s the work we did. We fed people. The energy environment component of it is, would keep people warm. And those are important to me that we don’t do in our business. We don’t do anything that has to do with luxury trips or sports, or that’s where cool people hang out. And I don’t get invited those parties anymore. Marathons was a really interesting exception and it became a fascinating offshoot for crisis because in endurance racing things go wrong, people die, and it becomes a microcosm of crisis communication in those moments. And so for whatever reason, I was always attracted to that. And that’s how I made that one exception to the direction of my agency.

Speaker 2 (23:39):

That’s such an interesting it feels like you run a very authentic agency and that you, you take on what you feel is, you know, where your skill sets can be used and used in a way that really helps companies. And that feels like authentic to you. And, and I think that’s a challenge. I mean, it’s just speaking business owner to business owner. That’s a challenge that I’ve had personally. It’s like, okay, what, you know, when you first start an agency, you know, the flashy big clients are exciting to you. Right, right, right. And then, then you kind of get a good dose of reality and you, you realize, you know, here’s what matters. The bottom line will always matter. And then that’s how you run a business. And it’s funny, the big flashy clients, sometimes their bottom line is no different than the client that is you know, the crisis shelter next door, you know, from a output input standpoint. And then you get to think about what feels good, what kind of, what clients feel, what does it, what clients feel good for your brand to service, and you start to find your own brand voice. It sounds like you’ve found it. And what I really like about what you do is you that having that digital intelligence is it’s just having the data and having the analysis combined with the emotional aspect of communications. Not many firms have both.

Speaker 3 (25:09):

It’s a really interesting balancing act. What we have found though, is that decision-makers, today are very reluctant to pull the trigger on any ideas, without a ream of data to support that direction. And we can do that through our digital listening tools the social listening tools. Also there’s just troves of data in places like U gov. I mean data.world. They’re just amazing data sources for th that we can access now through our digital business. And it makes all the difference in the world when you can help people see the trajectory of an issue where it’s headed and what are the possibilities it’s kind of like hurricane forecasting these days, I have like three or four spaghetti lines. I like that you can feel that now in crisis work as well. And there’s enough data to show you, well, it could be one of three or four directions.

Speaker 2 (26:10):

You know, we’re living in an interesting time where corporate leaders are feeling that if they don’t comment on highly political issues they could lose some customers. So you saw what the Georgia election laws, you saw, the Coca-Cola CEO commenting. And I don’t, I’m wondering your personal opinion on that. And, and it seems to me like these, these executives were doing digital listening and said, we have to say something right. And what we say needs to be more about where public opinions going less, maybe about my personal belief, what are your thoughts on that? I think they forget their audience.

Speaker 3 (26:53):

They should in fact have a position on these important issues, but their audiences, their employees, not the public. And so where as you,

Speaker 2 (27:03):

But why, but I mean, it’s the, it’s the consumers buying their product. Why it’s not an audience. Yeah.

Speaker 3 (27:09):

Consumers though, if you think about, let’s just take Coke. When’s the last time you bought a Coke product of any kind, did you think about their position on Georgia voting laws?

Speaker 2 (27:19):

No, but I think people are afraid of, and I don’t have data to back this up, but they’re afraid of the generation that’s ahead of me, the 20 something year old, that is all about when they invest their parents’ money, they’re going to do responsible investing ESG that they’re, they’re following that the woke culture religiously on Tik Tok. And I better relate to them because they’re my, they’re my future. They’re my current consumer. And they’re my future consumer.

Speaker 3 (27:51):

Well, I won’t disagree with that. I think that’s a really important factor to weigh. The reason I would start with the internal audience employees is because they’re your best brand ambassadors. They’re you have an army of evangelists for what the brand believes in and what it stands for. I like the idea of starting there. If you’re going to come out with a particular stance on a public or political issue, imagine first the employee population and what it means to them in Georgia voting laws. For example, I might’ve said that, you know, the most important thing for my company, whether it’s Coke or home Depot, whoever is that my employees feel like they have the opportunity to exercise their constitutional right to vote. And if there are barriers, how can I help reduce those barriers as an employer? Once I do that, now I have something to reflect to the outside.

Speaker 2 (28:52):

Smart, you create your you’re communicating your values as you,

Speaker 3 (28:56):

Instead of just joining the political fray, I’m going to live a a value set and then reflect that out and allow it to speak versus having platitudes to deliver out into the ether.

Speaker 2 (29:12):

Wow. I think a lot of corporations could have used your advice recently, right. Did you read the Wall Street Journal? Op-Ed by Ted Cruz. I’ll send that to you. It was like maybe yesterday, two days ago, he said, he’s going to not take any more money from corporate PACS at all. And he took, I think, 3 million last cycle because of them responding, what he felt to be blindly to the woke culture and ignoring facts. And it was, it was interesting. I liked to read both sides and I know Ted’s gotten into some trouble recently, so maybe he was more bold than he would have been two years ago, but

Speaker 3 (29:53):

True. Yeah. And it goes to show that truth is a negotiated reality. Isn’t it? He’s got his version of the truth and the corporations are facing a different truth. Each of those truths has to be negotiated, oftentimes it’s done in the public space.

Speaker 2 (30:11):

Yep. Definitely. So, okay. So you’re, so, so talk to me about, you know, we have a little more time, I kind of want to dive into a, something let’s talk about the book. Now in, in your book, do you have an, I didn’t get to read it yet because by the way, I need a copy. You need to send me a copy. I was going to get it on Amazon, but it was, I don’t think it’s available yet on Amazon. Okay.

Speaker 3 (30:36):

We’re still in I’ve got about 500 copies that I’m using for promotional giveaway purposes. After those are exhausted, then we’ll go to Amazon, but I’m giving them out at no charge right now.

Speaker 2 (30:48):

All right. Well, I’ll, I’m going to email Holly. So what kind of, cause you know, all of, all of everything you say makes complete sense, but really selling this position in order to get people to listen and figure out how to break bad news, tell us some stories about how you’ve helped some clients do this, or maybe how you’ve seen people do it wrong.

Speaker 3 (31:16):

Yeah. And let’s talk a little bit about what’s right and wrong first. And then we can apply some examples to that. Inside the book, I create this model with the tick talk box around it, and really it takes you down through these five steps. As you negotiate through a challenging or a crisis situation, these are the five steps you have to activate your rapid response team. Number one, you have to issue. You have to have one, you have to have one. So there’s the first answer to your question. What are, if, if we were to pinpoint the one things brands do the worst, when it comes to crisis is to activate a rapid response team. They’re terrible at it. It’s the CEO and the attorney, and now you’ve got yourself a real problem because he law’s perspective.

Speaker 2 (32:04):

All right, here’s what we’re going to do. And I’m sorry, I’m taking you off your thought. Let’s talk about the legal attorney stuff, because that’s such a real, we can’t gloss over that. I’ve in the university client. I mentioned I was on zoom with the attorney and the head of the university and the head of the board. And I was the only female and I was going toe to toe with him on what we have to do. And I, you know, I wasn’t able to, I was not able to sway how I wanted to. How, how have you seen success in being on the collaborative spectrum with these attorneys? Sometimes you can’t be, sometimes you can be

Speaker 3 (32:46):

Great question. And I think the way I have succeeded in that is by acknowledging there are two courts, there’s a court of law that the attorney has to be thinking about and provide guidance in the context of what will be in the future. A court of law conversation. The second court is the court of public opinion, and this is your domain. This is where you’re the expert court of public opinion has different rules and certainly a very different timer on it. The success I’ve had working with attorneys is by acknowledging at the table with the decision-makers, Hey attorney is arguing in a court of law reference and they’re trained to be contentious, right? They’re trained to argue and reduce risk in court of a public opinion. We’re trained in a completely different way. And that is to control the narrative by proper and authentic means ethical and authentic means.

Speaker 3 (33:51):

But controlling the narrative might mean that in the early moments of a particular situation that you have to accept some responsibility. A classic example, I was reading in Washington and Washington post this morning that a freshmen at Bowling Green University died from a hazing incident where alcohol poisoning involved this hazing incident was, you know, it’s been played out on tragically dozens and hundreds of times. But here we go. We’re going to a fraternity hazing party. The incoming pledges are quote unquote, forced to drink large volumes of alcohol pass out. They take them home and they end up in the hospital and die from alcohol poisoning, bowling green university wasn’t even present in that article, nothing on the university side of this. And it may be that you would say, Hey, that’s a win for Bowling Green. I would say missed opportunity. The missed opportunity in the court of public opinion is let me tell you bowling greens position on hazing, absolutely forbidden, no tolerance. What came out of that though, was the parents of the deceased saying universities should have policies against hazing implying that Bowling Green didn’t… Missed opportunity; court of public opinion versus court of law.

Speaker 2 (35:22):

Yeah, exactly. You can. I guarantee you the decision makers there were, okay. Someone died and we’re going into a suit. Everyone clamped down here come on in the court of law is, I mean, you really going to be damaged by a statement that communicates, you know, your, your distress about the situation, your current policy, and, you know, that gives, pays respect to the victim and the victim’s family and friends know

Speaker 3 (35:52):

Not at all, man, I tell you what, one of the most challenging cases that I’ve ever been involved in was with a natural gas client. They distributed natural gas to homes. Well, a particular home on a particular morning. This is more than 10 years ago. There was a leak in the area, a leak in the home, a gentlemen who owned that home, turns on the lights at 6:00 AM. His house blows to the moon, he’s dead. And the attorneys immediately put a gag order on everyone involved. And one of the best, best examples of the work we do came from the head of corporate communications. He and I were on the call before the attorneys came in and he said to me, Jeff, how much more of a check are we going to have to write? If we admit that this is a tragedy, that it is we’re suffering as a provider of natural gas we’re absolutely heartbroken that has happened.

Speaker 3 (36:59):

How much bigger is the check going to be? And I said, I said to him I think it’ll be less bingo. In fact, that one conversation swayed the entire pen, swung the pendulum back to a much more human, a much more empathetic response on the part of the corporation. It’s still a tragedy. It happened, it, you can’t unring that bell, the toothpaste is out of the tube. However you want to say it, but it created at least in the public, in the court of public opinion, an empathetic orientation towards the brand. Wow, brilliant stroke of genius and the perfect way to say it. How much more is the check going to be? And right then, and there, he took the high ground away from the attorneys.

Speaker 2 (37:47):

I love it. I think I’m going to I’m making a note of that. I might, hopefully I don’t have to use that one day, but because that’s something that gets into, because you know, I’m not a lawyer and I don’t think you are either, so- Nope, but I also have common sets and I’m like, okay, how is this really going to change? You know, the, the case. All right. So great advice on how to deal with lawyers and on that, I just want to talk quickly about universities and, and sort of get your take on why most universities are so horrible at crisis communications.

Speaker 3 (38:25):

The short answer is because they don’t do it very often. It is a practice skill and their mentality is to gather all information. I mean, every scintilla of facts and figures and information and context before they make any kind of statement that is an academically trained mindset, they don’t do crisis communication. That’s why they’re so bad at it. And their willingness or unwillingness to practice the craft, determines who in fact navigates situations successfully and who doesn’t. And it’s as simple as that, if a brand and a rapid response team refuse to practice is very unique and weird craft of crisis communication. They’re not going to be any good at it. So having drills tabletop exercises periodically twice a year for the best clients that I serve they’re really quite good at responding in an appropriate fashion and timeframe.

Speaker 2 (39:38):

Yep. And okay, so do you see commonalities between brands and this brands is broad. It could be, adversities could be, corporations

Speaker 3 (39:50):

Could be those

Speaker 2 (39:51):

Who, if they have a good crisis communications system set up in order to respond quickly and effectively, do you also see that they are also better at proactive communications too? Is it those who invest in proactive or also willing to invest to invest in crisis or, or do you not see that? Because in my experience, what I’ve seen recently with some university clients is they typically don’t have either acts together.

Speaker 3 (40:23):

I think there’s, you make a really good point. And I hadn’t really thought about the correlation, but they’re not good at communications in general, likely because they’re afraid of negative fallout or crisis situations. And so the safest course is often to not communicate about anything. So I suspect you’re right. I’ll I’ll bet there is a correlation that’s pretty high amongst those who actively communicate, work themselves or work issues in the, in, in, amongst their publics and stakeholders pretty well. And their ability to manage crisises. Yeah, I think you’re onto something there.

Speaker 2 (41:03):

Maybe we’ll look at some data there. We’ll, we’ll do a little data project, right. Okay. So, okay. Number one is activate active responses, five steps to deal, to, to break bad news, how to do it, right? Number one, activate your active response team. Hey brands, you have to have one and you have to invest in it. And this is what drives me crazy. Nobody wants to invest until after the crisis. And I mean, how, how I’m getting off on a tangent, how do you convince brands to invest? I mean, are you able to believe to sign clients after you’ve worked on a crisis, but how, how often do they do want to do it before the crisis?

Speaker 3 (41:44):

Yeah, it’s unfortunately rare. It’s hard. There is a really interesting, and I make it a quick, a side in the book about it. This is called the Cassandra effect and it is around the psychology of warnings. The Cassandra was a prophetess and ancient Greek. She foretold of the Trojan horse coming in and the Greek speeding the Trojans. She, she warned everybody, no one listened to her. Why? Well, there’s really interesting attributes to the Cassandra effect that explain that. But one of the things that we have to do as crisis communicators is pay attention to that psychology of warnings. Because oftentimes when we talk about crisis, they’re too far away, there are possibilities, not probabilities. Oftentimes we’re not the experts either. You need expertise to help warn clients. Hey, you’ve got an issue. It’s not a matter of if, but when that’s going to come on you.

Speaker 3 (42:43):

And so we’ve got to pay more attention about making the case for crisis communication, proactivity, by making the probabilities of potential issues more real, and doing a really good job of benchmarking. Like let’s just take universities, everything bad that can possibly happen to a brand happens at a university kids. You have fatalities amongst teenagers. Bowling green is a great example right now. You have crime, you have cheating scandals, you have rogue faculty, you have all of the white supremacy coming onto these open campuses and holding protests and inflaming student groups. You’ve got all the, every issue that’s in society gets concentrated down into a campus. And so they’re amongst the most vulnerable, in my opinion about what can go wrong and what they’re going to be needing to talk about. So with universities, you’ve got to create almost a library to show your clients, Hey, here’s what’s happening at bowling green today. Here’s what happened at university of Texas yesterday. Here’s what happened at North Dakota state three weeks ago. This cumulative library of information really helps make it real that these are probabilities, not possibilities.

Speaker 2 (44:08):

Very good. Very good. Yes. And even then, slow tortoise.

Speaker 3 (44:16):

Absolutely. Well, interestingly enough I, I was in front of a room of decision makers and talking about the probabilities of particular issues affecting that brand. And this was now, Oh, probably 25 years ago. And I remember very clearly the general counsel sitting at the table saying I want none of this conversation to continue. I want no documentation that we ever had this discussion. Anybody with any notes needs to give them to me right now, there will be no record that we even thought about this and knew that it was possible.

Speaker 2 (44:53):

What, what are you referring to thinking? Like, what were you thinking about?

Speaker 3 (44:56):

Well, in this particular company’s case, Hey, they handle a lot of hazardous materials. And so there’s not only the emissions of those, but catastrophic release the probabilities of those release. How many people on the neighborhood fence lines would die as a result, et cetera. And the general council wanted no record of any kind of risk management conversation would take place because it demonstrated a knowledge or for knowledge of potential liability. That’s how tough it is to sometimes crack the code on these dug in types of mentalities. Yes.

Speaker 2 (45:35):

And I think we could have an entire, another podcast episode around the issue advocacy situation in how brands respond to calls to be more welcome, right. How to respond to it. Universities are getting these questions too. Where’s your black leadership. And you know, gosh, forbid if you’re branded as a racist corporation on social media and the digital pitchforks come out and there’s, there’s so much there, I don’t have all the answers for it, but let’s get through this. So activate active response team is number one. Okay. Have to have one. Okay. What’s number two,

Speaker 3 (46:21):

Issue. A holding statement where we understand the issue is happening. This incident has occurred. We’re on it, we’re working. It it’s less than a hundred words. And it needs to be put out in the first 15 minutes of rapid response team activation. What did we say? When we say use a holding statement, we’re here, we’re working it. We didn’t admit anything where there’s no liability, which is, yeah. What’s your coming. What’s your helping, especially news media understand is that there is a voice that is prepared to speak. We will control this narrative. And then after that, it’s the 3m message messenger. And then the method of delivery. What’s your message. What’s your Mo who’s your messenger. Oftentimes we default to CEOs or presidents of universities, bad idea in many cases, why do that? Right?

Speaker 2 (47:15):

Just because, well, okay. There’s, there’s, there’s schools of thought on that. And I, I would like to hear so, so message, I mean, you know, okay. So when you’re the problem I see with number three, message is maybe this is just me, but you need, I know you have a couple of minutes. You need to have somebody that’s going to sign off on this and do it fast. Okay. And if you have to be fast, I like the idea of a Jeff Hahn or Joanna Doven crafting it fast were the crafters. And then we get approval from whatever, right. Is that what you suggest to, because if you have, first of all, you need to have the expert craft, the holding statement. It can’t have the CEO do it,

Speaker 3 (48:01):

Correct? Yep. We are the crafters of message. And there is a particular way to do that. The frame or the phrase that I use often is the employment of strategic ambiguity. Don’t say too much. It’s just saying enough to establish control then with message. You have all kinds of options. There’s 16 different options that are detailed in the book including the withholding of apology. Be really careful about apologies. Oftentimes people think that’s the first thing that needs to happen. It may in fact be a thing that needs to happen, but I wouldn’t say it’s the last option in your toolkit from a message standpoint. Well, apology can in fact indicate liability. So you don’t want to use it as an automatic default. You have a number of other tools at your disposal. So my encouragement simply is it may be that we’re going to issue an apology, but let’s walk through your other options first.

Speaker 2 (49:11):

Got it, got it. Is there an option that sticks out to you as being the most commonly a valid option? Yep.

Speaker 3 (49:17):

It’s the scapegoat option and in scapegoating we blame anybody or anything else, including my favorite scapegoat of all time is circumstance. I mean, think about the Volkswagen emissions scandal. Oh, that was a good one. The company ultimately chose a scapegoating message. It was quote a, “A group of rogue engineers, making decisions outside of the value set of the company.” So they scapegoated that and that allowed the brand to live on and Volkswagen as a brand is still quite viable. They’re still in business.

Speaker 2 (49:57):

Well, I’d love it. If anyone hasn’t seen their sort of, I think it was last year or two years ago, the super bowl they’re sort of coming out commercial. It was in the dark it’s like, it was like from the, from the darkness, we saw the light and it was great. That was a great way to come out. Love it. Okay. So messenger. So, okay. Maybe this is my background is press secretary where obviously I’d have to go on camera, but ultimately the public wants to hear from the leader, the mayor, right.

Speaker 3 (50:28):

And you said there, you said the the right work, ultimately, but not PRI not first. First is your train spokesperson. Second. It might be a subject matter expert. And the, the X Y graph on this as it could be a technical expert, a subject matter expert on a peculiar thing a technical capability, or it might be an expert that has more orientation towards things like ethics. So experts are your second.

Speaker 2 (51:02):

Are you saying a lawyer should be the messenger sometimes?

Speaker 3 (51:05):

Possibly. but not the first one may be the second one. Then we’ll pull in CEO or president.

Speaker 2 (51:15):

When do you do that? When you think you have everything gathered and you have the strategy of the strategy, ready, how we’re going to get through this.

Speaker 3 (51:23):

Yeah. And typically it’s when the, you feel that either the character of the brand or the competency of the brand is being sufficiently challenged, character and competency are the two grading scales that you use. And once those are sufficiently questioned, that’s when you need a higher level spokesperson.

Speaker 2 (51:46):

So what I find is, and I know that you’ve worked on more large scales crises than me. So this is why I feel like I’m going to school a little bit here, but what I find is, and not in all cases, and maybe this is more with local media, that if the leader of the organization, isn’t the one speaking, you know, the pitchforks start to get raised. You know, where’s the president on this? Why isn’t he here? Why isn’t he speaking? And then, and then you, you are on your own. You’re, you’re on double defense. What’s your perspective on that. But then again, the other 10, another angle of that is if it’s a very large scale crisis where there’s national news media, the reality is they just want someone, they want somebody to give them something.

Speaker 3 (52:32):

Yeah. In fact, what the president or CEO he, or she can do is establish presence. I have appointed this person to do this, this person to do that, this person to do other things and let those experts then take the center stage, be CEO, delegate, those responsibilities, don’t become spokesperson.

Speaker 2 (52:53):

Got it, got it. Okay. Method of, I mean, then we can get into that more because you know what, if the corporation doesn’t have a strong spokesperson and then, you know, I don’t know if you’ve been in a situation where your client’s like, Hey, Hey Joanna, Hey, Jeff, we want you to give this interview. And I’m like, that looks horrible. Have you done it?

Speaker 3 (53:13):

I have done it. Only as a last resort, because it would have been worse for the client for them to be present, to be the spokespeople. Right,

Speaker 2 (53:22):

Right, right. I hear ya. Okay. So I know you have a minute; method of delivery. So this is sort of, are we doing it an email statement, a phone interview, or are we giving a press conference? Talk to me about that.

Speaker 3 (53:37):

Yeah. In fact, okay. Think about a bad situation. And here’s the default. We need the CEO to go in front of a press conference to apologize the three worst ideas ever in crisis communication. Now they are options. But again, in method of delivery, I think about here’s your options. And by the way, one of the most interesting options these days is do your own press work. A brand can set up a camera and interview a spokesperson and send that video out on social channels and the amplification channels, just as easy as the press can.

Speaker 2 (54:15):

And I think that’s something that’s more acceptable today since the virus. Yes. Yes.

Speaker 3 (54:22):

You can edit that video. You can do take twos. You can do a lot of controlling activity there. And you can provide that to amplification outlets. Media they’ll use it because you’re not going to give them anything else.

Speaker 2 (54:37):

And, you know, I think that there might be, and maybe this is me. I don’t know. Could there be situations where you have such a rockstar CEO that you want them to nip it in the bud right away with the press conference?

Speaker 3 (54:56):

Sure. The nice part about the tools and breaking bad news, it’s, they’re all about providing options and you might have a situation where all of those things are true. I got a great CEO. We’ve got a great story. Let’s get the press around right now and hammer this out. And you’ll do that because you have a sense that we can get this out of the news cycle in the next 24 hours, because we’ve got the right guy, the right spokesperson, the right story. And if we broadcast this out the to its maximum it’ll people will move on. And that’s the stratagem that you would use if you had all of those assets line,

Speaker 2 (55:40):

Love it, love it. Well, I know we are out of time and I want to, I want to just encourage everyone to check out your website, which is breaking bad news.com,

Speaker 3 (55:52):

Breaking bad news book.com,

Speaker 2 (55:55):

Breaking bad news book.com and soon to be available widely on Amazon and perhaps other places too. And you know, I love again, I love your, your, your quantitative approach to what many people think is very qualitative and that is responding during a crisis. You have to blend the emotional and the human aspect with what, with data, right? Absolutely.

Speaker 3 (56:24):

Yeah. I think that’s really my orientation crisis. Communication is a system, not a dark art. Anybody can learn the system, right?

Speaker 1 (56:32):

Well, I’m going to be sharing this far and wide and encouraging people to learn this system. So we will talk again soon. I’d love to have you back on, and maybe we’ll talk about the woke culture next time.

Speaker 3 (56:43):

Sounds great.

Speaker 1 (56:45):

Okay. Thanks Jeff. Take care.


  • How to establish early control of narrative
  • Top decisions brands must make within two hours made to protect reputation
  • Real stories on how Jeff has successfully worked with legal teams in order to ensure court of public opinion is not lost
  • How to activate a crisis response team
  • Best methods of message delivery in crisis


On Crisis: Episode 11

On Crisis: Episode 11

feat. Michael Marr | Former NY Governor Press Secretary Michael Marr joins Joanna Doven to talk about his experience working through crises in corporate America and on Capitol Hill.THE "ON CRISIS" PODCAST: EPISODE 11Michael Marr serves as the Director of Government...

On Crisis: Episode 10

On Crisis: Episode 10

Joanna Doven is joined by renowned author and Wall Street Journal reporter Kris Maher to hear about his new book on a West Virginia water crisis and to learn about his mindset when reporting on crises.

On Crisis: Episode 8

On Crisis: Episode 8

Reporter Sean Hamill talks about major COVID-19 outbreaks in senior care facilities and how many of them have mishandled the situation, as well as the future of local newspapers, and the key role Facebook and Google can play in their comeback.

On Crisis: Episode 7

On Crisis: Episode 7

Billie Jo Weyant, the Executive Director of a small nonprofit, discusses the soaring need for abuse and sexual assault victim services during COVID-19, despite limited resources and diminishing public funding.



Pittsburgh Public Information Officer Chris Togneri talks about how he transformed his office’s social media channels into a newsroom, social media’s potential to allow people to make their own news, and more.



Aurora’s leadership talks about the company’s work with self-driving vehicles, the long-term communications mindset, and why aggressive communications on the company’s “safety first” commitment is paramount.



Allison Bentley talks about applying her lessons-learned at an international retail company to help differentiate a new startup in an evolving industry from its many competitors.



Top legal mind who represents dozens of school districts, Ira Weiss, discusses the importance of having a robust school district communications plan, especially right now.



Senior Managing Director of a large independent advisory firm, Mike Shebak, shares how they pivoted daily client communications during the COVID-19 crisis.



Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Rich Lord talks about the changing media landscape and what that means for managing news media during crises.

Crisis Communications Podcast Art Joanna Doven


Hosted by Joanna Doven, Premo CEO and one of the youngest big city mayoral press secretaries in the United States, On Crisis is a podcast that delves into a daunting challenge that all sectors inevitably face: how to skillfully navigate a crisis. Joined by guest speakers of all industries, Doven takes you “inside the crisis,” discussing real-time decision-making and providing helpful takeaways that can be applied to any business plan.

New episodes airing regularly. Check back soon! 


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