What Target did wrong in its PR crisis

*This article originally appeared in the San Diego Daily Transcript on January 9, 2014

Until last month, I would have bet that Target would be on the short list of trustworthy companies. Target — where the bargains abound, quality and product diversity is deemed good to superior, and customer service is supreme.

Maybe that decades-long reputation had raised the company’s confidence to alarming heights? Maybe the company never needed to implement a crisis plan or they never had one?

If they had, they would have known the first rule of a crisis: Get ahead of the media.

When Target got caught in what the New York Times blared, “the cat-and-mouse game of credit theft,” such headlines ran before any company statement was issued, plunging Target into defensiveness — the worst possible media position.

Be certain that if you or your company face a crisis, you will have abundant media attention — strengthened and exploited in the Web world by the prevalence and speed of Twitter, Facebook,  YouTube and more — to say nothing of everyday Joe sadists who take supreme pleasure in distributing and deepening your troubles. Count on it.

When Target spokeswoman Molly Snyder failed to respond to a request for comment on the breach, she said it wasn’t immediately made public pending their own internal investigation.

Years ago, that statement would have been understandable. In today’s helter-skelter media world, the longer you wait, the more defensive your stance. A company today simply does not have the luxury of silence.

Ideally, a crisis announcement should come from the company in question – or at the least, concurrent with the first media report.

“Control” is the operative word. When a crisis hits you, hit this process, fast:

1. Identify your representative.

Target’s first mistake was allowing more than one representative to interact with the media. Your top executive is preferred, but if for some reason he or she cannot meet this challenge, assign the best informed, coolest and most authoritative head. Of course, an alternate should be assigned for emergencies.

2. Instruct staff and employees that all media inquiries on the situation will be handled by the designated representative.

3. Write your statement meticulously. Use declarative sentences with few or no clauses for less chance of being edited. This statement should be written so that it:

• can be read verbatim

• maintain consistency of your position

• prevent distorted quotes or quotes out of context

• prevent spontaneous comments

As you prepare this, consider other publics you need to communicate with, such as employees and shareholders, and craft specific statements for each as needed.

In the wake of the crisis, as you are being sought by the media, issue this statement in writing, to all, equally. This will decrease the possibility of interpretation. Update statements as needed, and keep media and personnel informed about new developments.

4. Don’t pick up that phone! No rapid response to emails! The representative should never accept calls from the media without this meticulous preparation. Instead, assign an assistant to first find out:

• the name of the reporter and media

• the reporter’s specific questions, if possible, and

• the reporter’s deadline

The assistant should promise the reporter a return call in time to meet a deadline.

In returning the call, the representative must read the answers to media questions verbatim from — or versions of — the prepared statement.

The result will be an adherence to the message.

5. Learn the art of deflection. If necessary, deflect from what the reporter asks in order to respond with the written statement. Deflection can be practiced and learned in media training.

In every case, move to the positive: Be prepared to say that you’re investigating the problem or that you’ll comment on a particular aspect at a specific time (after careful preparation). In a situation in which you or your company is at fault, be human! Express your regret, but always couple such acknowledgment with assurance of remedial action you intend to take.

Gregg Steinhafel, Target’s CEO, ultimately — albeit defensively — issued an apology. Good. In subsequent comments, replacement representative Molly Snyder addressed the crises. Bad.

Warning: “deflection” is the evil stepbrother of the lie. You must absolutely never lie. The goal is damage control, not deception. You will always be found out.

6. “No comment” is a no-no. It antagonizes the media and the public and creates suspicion. Retreats usually trigger a rash of negative news reports. In a fluid situation, conduct constant research and monitoring so you know every aspect of the problem before the media.

Finally, ask yourself these questions:

• How will our decisions and actions affect news coverage?

• How will our decisions and actions affect our reputation?

• How will news coverage affect our reputation?

Your reputation is at stake.

While Target ultimately managed the crisis more effectively, its initial errors — delayed media engagement and changing media representatives — caused consumer shock, no doubt contributing to their diminished holiday sales. How the second-worst data breach in U.S. history will affect or erode Target’s long-standing shopper confidence remains to be seen.

With or without a crisis, executives and representatives should undergo intensive media training. (Yes, you may hire us.) This will expand their strengths, reveal their weaknesses — and put them on the path to crisis control.

Laura Walcher is principal public relations counsel to J. Walcher