GSA scandal shows importance of crisis communications

Friday - 4/6/2012, 8:52pm EDT

Rick Kiernan, vice president and partner, World Media Network

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When news broke of an internal investigation examining the General Services Administration's excessive spending on a 2010 regional training conference, some seized on it as the perfect example of wasteful government spending

But the way the news unfolded — broadcast far and wide via social media and 24-hour news — also provided a lesson in crisis communications, one expert says.

Rick Kiernan, vice president and partner at the World Media Network is a veteran of crisis management and public affairs — from the Defense Department, the 1996 Atlanta Olympics and the contracting community.

He told In Depth with Francis Rose in any big scandal, the communications and public affairs teams needs to be keyed in to all the details.

"There is sometimes the tendency, particularly in the government and higher up in the corporate world, not to tell the spokesperson all the information," Kiernan said.

But rather than keeping all the details close to the vest, officials should fully brief the public affairs team, he added. "The spokesperson must know the entire context and that will help him or her put together the right copy points so that they can respond to queries."

Specifics, speed helpful in crisis mode

Public affairs professionals are usually "generalists," Kiernan said, so they should have the proper experts or specialists lined up to provide empirical evidence, where necessary. "And be as specific as possible, not a lot of generalities, not a lot of platitudes," he added.

Speed is also important.

"The quicker you get your message out, the more transparent you are, the better it's going to be," Kiernan said. The "news hole," the total amount of coverage that can be dedicated to a particular story or topic is only so big, he said.

Communications teams that can fill the news hole with their own message have a better chance of heading off a media feeding frenzy.

"If you don't get it out right away, it'll linger and then there'll be two or three updates, and you'll stay in that hole longer than you want to," he added.

"It's like an oil spill, that's the metaphor," Kiernan said. "You've got to contain that thing or it'll ooze out."

Full coverage of the GSA shakeup

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GSA conference video pokes fun at spending, IG