Online Reputation Management Blog

Interview with Crisis Communications Expert Susan Tellem

This week, I am very excited to invite Susan Tellem to share her thoughts and experience with visitors to our online reputation management blog.  Susan is a senior partner at Tellem Grody Public Relations, Inc. where she leads the crisis team.  She also has served on crisis management teams at Burson-Marsteller and the Rowland Company.  Follow her on Twitter @susantellem.

What is crisis communications? 

Crisis communications is the art of managing an unexpected event or a challenge to the reputation of a company, government or nonprofit organization, individual or any entity so affected.  Recent high profile crises include Penn State sexual abuse charges; an insured’s claim against Progressive Insurance; the California Department of Motor Vehicle computer meltdown; and wildfires in several states.

What are the biggest mistakes you see people and companies make when dealing with the media? 

Classic inappropriate responses include saying “no comment,” stonewalling by not answering the phone or emails, running away from a camera and reporter and being unprepared thinking it will never happen to them. The TV show “60 Minutes” is very good at catching people running away by jumping into cars or elevators.  I suggest that you stop and say something like,” I appreciate your desire to speak with me, but I am needed elsewhere.  Please give me your card, and I will get in touch when I return to my office.”

How important is social media to your reputation management strategy?

It’s very important.  Don’t be anti-social in a crisis. The average American spends almost eight hours a month using social media.  The social networking statistics are incredible.

Being unaware of what people are saying about your product or company in social media is risky business. Online communities are changing the way businesses research and communicate with their target audiences.

What are some of the most important reasons social media and community management are essential during crisis management?

  1. Engage your target audiences beforehand so trust is built and communications channels are open before a crisis hits.
  2. Communicate during a crisis to make sure that positive messages, dispelling rumors and updating media continues.
  3. Regain trust because no matter how much they loved you before a crisis, there will be some who do not trust you afterwards.  Keep followers engaged and tell the truth. Use it to change opinions and counter opposing arguments.
  4. Monitor; keep a close eye on what people are saying about your brand.

Mobile devices are changing the way people handle “downtime” and more and more people are using this time to communicate and share with their communities.  This is just another opportunity for reaching followers during a crisis. You can buy time to text updates.

What is the first thing a company should do when there is a PR disaster?

Take a deep breath.  Gather key people to discuss strategy.  Develop a temporary message for callers.  Remember, the first few hours will decide how the crisis evolves.  Don’t be rash.  Draft a short statement to help focus your thoughts. Bring in legal counsel (though PR pros do not always agree with their advice, it’s best to have an attorney on your team.)

When we saw the disastrous press conference the Santa Barbara attorney’s office did with the police department after the Michael Jackson molestation charges came to light, we immediately contacted them and met to regroup to repair the damage their hilarity during the conference did to their departments.  By encouraging the key district attorney to go back out and do press briefings on a regular basis in a professional manner, most reporters and citizens forgot that original debacle.

How can CEOs help build and repair corporate reputation?

Honesty, transparency and communication.  Use social media and traditional media to tell your story.

Be creative.  Maybe it’s time for a fun viral video to tell your story in a humorous way – funny makes us seem more approachable.  Maybe it’s a brand new Facebook page or ads, free offers, 15 minutes on twitter to ask anything.

What can employees do to help their company during and after a PR crisis?

Employees are the face of your brand.  They feel hurt, like they’ve personally been attacked and embarrassed.  They need some TLC.  Maybe it’s a special retreat or company lunch, some alone time with their manager or the boss, or a special day at Disneyland.  But even though they want to help, it’s important to do two things in a crisis:

1.       Keep them in the loop because rumor mills start fast and spread like fire – employees need to know just enough to keep them satisfied that they are in the know.

2.       Issue a directive that they are not to speak to media under any circumstances.  You want to control the message, and people love to speculate.  A harsh penalty must be communicated to employees for a violation of your rules.  But also give them certain things they can say, tweet or post that help them feel they are part of the team.

What can companies do to better prepare for a public relations crisis?

Take this handy vulnerability survey.  It’s surprising how many companies flunk.

  1. Who is on your crisis team? (Pick people who can think on their feet and have related experience.)
  2. Do you have friends in your court if you need them?  This would include reporters/regulators/inspectors/politicians/police, etc.
  3. Do you honestly monitor possible problems that could lead to a crisis like employee relationships, safety issues, confidentiality issues or termination problems?
  4. Do you have a written book of company policies?
  5. Do you have a list of emergency numbers/cell phones to be able to reach managers/owners at a second’s notice?
  6. Who is your spokesperson if something negative happens?
  7. How do you handle belligerent employees?
  8. How do you handle sexual harassment accusations?
  9. Are you familiar with emergency response teams in your area?
  10. When was the last time that you had an emergency evacuation drill?


About Todd William

Foodie. Bruce Springsteen fan. Citizen of Red Sox Nation. Online reputation management strategist. Founder of Reputation Rhino. For more, follow us @reputationrhino


  1. […] is crisis management (follow her on Twitter @susantellem). Her recent interview published on the Online Reputation Management Blog  explores how companies big and small can excel at the art of managing a […]

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