The Right Way To Do a Crisis Press Conference

People love watching media mistakes, and I’m as guilty as anyone of airing the worst media disasters on this blog.

But once in a while, someone gets it exactly right – and today’s blog story will highlight one of the best crisis press conferences I’ve seen this year.

During the early evening of September 9th, a natural gas pipeline exploded in San Bruno, California, killing eight people and injuring dozens. In total, 38 homes were completely destroyed.

Within a few hours, San Bruno Mayor Jim Ruane and Fire Chief Dennis Haag delivered the following press conference:

Communicating in the immediate aftermath of a crisis is rarely easy. Spokespersons have to speak without the benefit of full information during an emotional time, and speaking to the press is just one of dozens of tasks they have to fulfill.

But spokespersons don’t have to be perfect to succeed. They are judged positively for demonstrating their confidence and competence – something Mayor Ruane and Fire Chief Haag did quite well. Here are at least five reasons they succeeded:

1. Spelled N-A-M-E: The Mayor began the press conference by spelling his name for reporters and positioning himself correctly for the television cameras.

2. Prioritized the Victims: Mayor Ruane opened with a statement that prioritized the victims of the blast:

“All I have to say is a terrible, terrible tragedy has fallen on our city this afternoon. Our main concern as public officials here [is] making sure our citizens are safe. We’re trying to do that right now…I would ask anybody who sees this broadcast tonight to say a special prayer for those people.”

3. Appeared Genuinely Upset: In addition to getting the words right, Mayor Ruane got the tone right by delivering his words in a heartfelt manner that showed genuine concern for those affected by the explosion. That may sound like an obvious point, but too many spokespersons shed their humanity when speaking in an official role.

4. Defined Roles Well: Mayor Ruane and Fire Chief Haag both had clearly defined roles, preventing the awkward transitions that too often mar press conferences. Mr. Ruane’s job was to express sympathy for the victims and speak on behalf of the City’s commitment to help, while Mr. Haag’s job was to offer technical information regarding the blast.

San Bruno Explosion

Aftermath of the San Bruno Blast. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

5. Didn’t Speculate: Fire Chief Haag was a bit too technical at moments, but he did a lot of things right. When asked how many people had evacuated, he didn’t speculate but told reporters what he knew:

“All I know at this time is that there were 100 people in our evacuation center.”

When asked how long evacuees might have to stay away from their homes, he again refused to speculate – but explained why:

“I couldn’t venture to guess at this point until we really get down there to assess the situation.”

Fire Chief Haag should have identified himself at the beginning of the press conference. He could have explained certain terms better (what, precisely, does “containment” mean)? But in the context of this press conference, those were rather small and correctible problems.

In a crisis, the public wants to make sure their representatives “get it,” care, and are competent to fix the problem. Both men did that well, making this one of 2010’s best press conferences.

Editor’s note: I e-mailed Mayor Ruane yesterday. I asked him if he would be willing to share with my readers how he came to be such an effective spokesperson. I was curious whether he had attended media training sessions, and if so, what he took away from them. Mr. Ruane was kind to reply, and a portion of his response is below:

“What you witnessed that night was our sincere concern for our community and our desire to provide our residents with our latest information.
I am honestly uncomfortable discussing how we handled a news conference when our focus right now is solely on helping our community recover. 
In the future I believe I will be willing to share some of our lessons learned about crisis communications so that our experience may help other communities. I truly hope you understand.”

Mr. Mayor: Yes, I completely understand, and I admire your decision to remain focused on your constituents instead of basking in a personal recognition. When you’re ready to discuss lessons learned, I hope you’ll consider sharing them with us. May you and your constituents find greater peace in the New Year.

Related: Is a Written Statement Enough in a Crisis?

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