5 crisis comms tips from the FBI

Be first with information, says former FBI spokesman Jeff Lanza. Know the three things the public wants in a crisis. And never compare the boss’s wife to an Incan mummy.


Editor’s note: This story is taken from Ragan Communications’ distance-learning portal Ragan Training. The site contains hundreds of hours of case studies, video presentations and interactive courses.

When Jeff Lanza—now a communications consultant—was a fledgling FBI agent, his boss assigned him to listen in on the wiretaps of a pair of Kansas City goodfellas named Tony and Joe.

In one conversation, Lanza recalls, Tony warned his fellow mobster that he had a hunch the FBI was tapping his phone. Quick-thinking Tony, though, had outsmarted the feds: He’d gotten a new phone number.

“I better not give it to you over the phone,” Tony said. “I’ll meet you for lunch.”

“I can’t,” Joe replied.

“OK, I’ll give it to you over the phone right now,” Tony said, “but I’ll give it to you backward.”

If you’re tired of crisis communications plans that read like they’ve been drafted by Tony and Joe, slip on your headphones and click on a Ragan Training session with the founder of The Lanza Group. A former chief communicator in the FBI’s Kansas City division, Lanza also authored the book “Pistols to Press.”

In a session titled, “Hackers to Attack Journalists: How to defend against today’s mostcommon crises,” Lanza lays out a plan for handling crises of the sort engineered by today’s Tonys and Joes: cyber criminals. His tips will help with just about any reputational crisis that could kneecap your organization.

Here are a few of his tips:

1. Address the public’s three main concerns.

Lanza’s most important case, he says, came in 1998 when a Missouri couple kidnapped a newborn from her room in the maternity ward while her mother dozed nearby. The ending was a happy one—FBI got the baby back—but Lanza recalls the shock of the hospital’s CEO and board members when he first met with them.

They asked what they should do.

The advice he offers holds for crises in general. He told them that people would want to know:

  • What happened
  • How you will fix it so it doesn’t happen again
  • That you care about the harm your crisis had caused in their lives—empathy, in other words

“If you do that,” he says, “you’re going to be able to recover from almost any crisis.”

2. Be the first and most credible source of info.

If you have bad news, don’t sit on it, he says. Break the story yourself, because at least you’ll get it right.

A few years back, an executive was flying to a secret meeting to discuss a takeover by another company. Air traffic control asked for the plane’s destination. The pilot said, “I can’t tell you that. We’re in a takeover situation.”

He then shut off his radio. The FAA assumed someone had taken over the cockpit, and the Air Force scrambled F-16s to force the corporate plane to land at a military base. (No word on whether Tony was piloting the aircraft.)

Lanza knew the story would leak and be blown out of proportion, forcing him to spend days winding it back. So he called all the reporters he knew and explained the situation. None of the TV stations ran the story. A Kansas City newspaper just ran a brief.

“Breaking the story myself helped quell a situation that could have been out of control,” he says.

3. Don’t ask your mother how you looked on TV. Do this instead.

Never ask Mom how you did on TV, Lanza says. He speaks from experience. When he sought his mother’s opinion about an appearance on “Good Morning America,” she shrugged it off.

“My hairdresser saw it,” Ma Lanza said. “She said your mustache was too bushy, and I thought you were blinking too much.”

Oh. Well, how can you present yourself a way that will wow mom and the gals at the beauty salon?

First, look at the camera—particularly when the interview begins. If you’re looking around or glancing at your notes when they cut to you, you’ll look unreliable.

Second, never ask the producer or interviewer for specific questions in advance. Topic areas? Fine, ask about those. Also, have your key points ready to make right off the bat.

4. Remember the adage, ‘An ounce of prevention…’

Back in the 1930s, when kidnapping people for ransom was more common, crooks would have to write a ransom note to get the loot. Today, with the rise of cybercrime and ransomware, extortion through bitcoins is the norm. One California hospital paid $17,000 to get back the data that crooks had locked away.

Yet so many cybercrimes begin with low-tech phishing, as in the case of the hacked email account of John Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s former campaign chairman.

“Sometimes it’s just training people,” Lanza says. “Establishing a culture of security. Making [sure] people don’t click in the wrong place, so that these crises don’t happen to begin with.”

A simple phishing scheme in 2013 temporarily wiped billions off the stock market after hackers posted this false tweet appeared on the Associated Press’ Twitter account: “Breaking: Two Explosions in the White House and Barack Obama is Injured.”

5. Build relationships with journalists.

If you have a strong working relationship with members of the press, you can build capital. Sometimes they’ll cut you some slack, Lanza says.

Case in point: that time Mike McCurry, President Bill Clinton’s press secretary, got a free pass for a hideous gaffe.

Clinton was backstage with McCurry in a hotel after delivering a speech in Connecticut, and a TV spot reported on the discovery of 500-year-old frozen mummy, known as the Ice Princess.

Clinton joked that the mummy was good-looking and that if he were single he might ask her out. “That mummy looks better than I do on my worst days,” he said.

(Oof. Bill, Bill…)

That comment made the papers. What did not end up in print was McCurry’s remark on the plane when he chatted with reporters over drinks on the way home. (Never drink with reporters, by the way.) One of them asked what he thought about Clinton’s remark.

According to Lanza, McCurry reportedly compared the mummy’s appearance to the boss’s wife—and the first lady placed an unflattering second. None of the reporters quoted the press secretary’s remarks, however. They didn’t want to get him fired.

“The reason why,” Lanza says, “is that reporters liked him. … They had a relationship with him.”

As for the wiretapped goodfellas, their days were numbered once Tony read his new phone number backward to Joe.

“What did the FBI do? We got our best cryptologists on it right there,” Lanza jokes. “We had that number decoded in about six months. That’s all it took.”

There’s lots more to this session. Subscribe to Ragan Training.

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