Crisis Communications 101 for Government Contractors

July 10, 2013


In: The Buzz

You can’t help but notice the front page and lead newscasts about Edward Snowden, a former employee of government contractor, Booz Allen Hamilton, who is on the loose, seeking political asylum for allegedly leaking details of top-secret Government surveillance programs to the media.  Then, another government contractor, USIS, the company that allegedly screened Snowden for his top-secret clearance, reportedly misled the government about the thoroughness of its background checks.

These serious allegations prompted vast attention by the government, Congress and the international community and as a result, placed these two companies under the spotlight for their policies, procedures, processes and codes of conduct. The legal implications and risks of these allegations have required Booz Allen Hamilton and USIS to fully cooperate with its government clients and in essence, turn over much of the communications and messaging about the status of these cases to government authorities.

For senior company leadership, there aren’t too many things worse than managing a crisis of this magnitude.  Literally, it can consume every waking moment and dominate just about everything else going on at the office and at home. With these types of incidents, a great deal of tension develops between senior management, legal counsel and communications who often offer conflicting opinions about who, what, when, how and why to disclose, share and reveal information.  It requires an enormous amount of patience and fortitude to keep the team together and stay focused on what matters most:  putting your company’s interests in proper perspective with your government customer’s interests.

When a crisis hits your company or organization, it affects a multitude of different people – your employees, customers, investors, the media – who all want to know – at the same time – what happened, why it happened, what you’re doing about it, and what you will do to make sure it never happens again.

With social media blogs and 140 character messages driving information at a lightning speed, government contractors must respond quickly, appropriately and thoughtfully to minimize the impact of threats to their  company’s reputation and bottom line.  This is balanced against a government customer’s directives and the need to protect their interests and reputation.  Every moment counts while your every action is being watched.

I would like to share some insights, lessons learned and recommendations from my experiences leading crisis communications for several government contracting companies which hopefully can serve as a guide for those of you who haven’t yet had the pleasure of managing a game-changing crisis.

Leadership Must “Own” the Crisis:  While the corporate communications organization plays a critical role in managing the flow, distribution, tone and messaging of the information going in and out of your company, it is essential your leadership “own” the crisis.  Your company’s leadership can demonstrate it owns the crisis through actions – not just in carefully worded statements issued by your company spokesperson – but by taking decisive, impactful and corrective movements which are aggressively implemented, promoted and reported.  The probability of your company – and your brand –withstanding a major crisis is much greater if your leadership demonstrably shows control and ownership, from beginning to end.

My former employer, Pearson Government Solutions, which became Vangent in 2007, and was subsequently acquired by General Dynamics in 2011, took ownership of a crisis which confronted the company in 2005 when federal investigators examined a contract with the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).  Over several months of intense scrutiny and front-page news stories in the Washington Post, the company’s ownership led by former President and CEO Mac Curtis aggressively defended its position while fully cooperating with investigators.  In the end, the company was vindicated when its government customer, TSA, could not explain why it chose a different and more expensive model to recruit and hire federal airline passenger screeners in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

Talk Directly to Your Key Audiences:  One size does not fit all when it comes to crisis communications.  While each audience needs (and wants) to know the basics about the crisis, each audience also needs to know how it impacts them – specifically.  Depending on the crisis, whether it’s a security breach, an incident which compromised the privacy of a government program, the announcement of a revealing government investigation impacting your customer, or the loss of a major contract, each stakeholder will interpret the impact of the crisis differently.

As an employee, you want to know how the crisis impacts the stability of their job and how the crisis affects their employer’s brand and reputation.  As a customer, you want to know if your contractor’s attention to your project will be diverted and the likelihood of a repeat incident involving their agency or department.  As an investor, you want to know the financial impact, in the short and long-terms.  And the media wants to know everything to be able to construct and write an attention-getting story.

Throughout the Edward Snowden crisis, Booz Allen continues to keep its audiences informed about the status of the case with a statement accessible on the home page of its web site.  The statement is short and too-the-point, acknowledging Snowden’s termination on the grounds of violating the firm’s code of ethics, policy and core values.

Your Employees Are Essential:  Make no mistake, the most important audience is your employees.  When employees hear the news about your company’s crisis for the first time, it better be from their own company as opposed to reading or hearing about it when they turn on the TV, listen to the radio or read a news feed on their iPhone.  If they first hear about it from the outside, employees can feel like helpless victims and begin to harbor resentment and anger toward their employer. No one likes to be surprised, especially when it comes to their job.  Make sure you communicate FIRST with your employees.  Arm them with facts and talking points to use when they have conversations with industry peers, neighbors or their own family.

Going back to Booz Allen, its company leadership conducted a “town hall” meeting last, as reported by the Washington Post, where CEO and President Ralph Shrader told his employees not to “hang our heads” and “not let Snowden define us.”  This type of engagement is critical to maintaining employee morale and providing employees an outlet to voice their questions and concerns.

Keep Fighting:  Your brand and reputation are on the top of the list of your company’s most valuable assets. Don’t roll over and play dead when a crisis confronts your company.  You may not think you’re really rolling over and playing dead, but it may appear that your company is throwing its hands up in the air and giving up.  Some members of the media live for these moments to report salacious details, use out-of-context sound bites and insert erroneous information into news stories.

It’s up to your company to paint an accurate picture of events, including the context in which they occurred, and to correct any false information being misreported – continuously until it’s over.  Your stakeholders want to see you fight for the truth. They want you to work tirelessly and let the world know you take the situation seriously.  Don’t disappoint them.  You’ll never regret the energy and effort you put into managing a crisis. It’s the ultimate test.

CACI’s handling of the Abu Ghraib prison crisis in 2003-04 involving its employees in Iraq is a prime example of a government contractor fighting for its reputation to the end.  In 2008, J. Phillip “JacK” London, CACI’s executive chairman, published a book titled, “Our Good Name:  A Company’s Fight to Defend Its Honor and Get the Truth Told About Abu Ghraib.” Their persistence paid off.  Recently, on June 26, 2013, a federal court dismissed a lawsuit alleging CACI’s employees directed mistreatment of detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison.  All in all, it took ten years for the ordeal to come to a close. However, it was CACI’s long-term view toward sustained business success that prevailed.

Article originally published in Washington Exec on July 10, 2013.


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