What You’ll Learn

Nathalie Strickland, of the Tennessee Valley Public Power Association, discusses ways to recognize patterns of crises, the first mover advantage and other keys to being prepared to communicate when something goes really wrong.

Guest Speaker

Nathalie Strickland

Show Notes

Transcripts have been lightly edited for clarity and readability.


Intro: A production of Pioneer Utility Resources. StoryConnect, helping communicators discover ideas to shape their stories and connect with their customers.

Andy Johns: What can you do to be prepared for a crisis? That’s what we’ll be talking about on this episode of “StoryConnect: The Podcast.” My name is Andy Johns, your host with Pioneer, and I’m joined on this episode by Nathalie Strickland, who is the VP of Communications and Marketing with TVPPA, the Tennessee Valley Public Power Association. Nathalie, thanks so much for joining me.

Nathalie Strickland: Oh, I’m glad to be here. Thanks for inviting me.

Andy Johns: Sure. Now, I understand this is your first podcast, so we appreciate you diving on here and doing that. This is based off of a presentation that Nathalie did for TVPPA in November, where she talked about crisis communication. And while we’ve done episodes on crisis communications before, number one, you can never talk about it enough. But number two, I think Nathalie has some pretty good interesting takes on it, and some kind of a different way about thinking about some of it. So I wanted to just go ahead and dive in, Nathalie, because the very first thing in your presentation you talked about, your first step was recognizing the patterns, which I thought was a pretty good idea and something that I hadn’t heard a lot of folks talk about that. What do you mean when you talk about recognizing the patterns when it comes to crisis communications?

Nathalie Strickland: It means what are the events that are most likely to cause stress or fear or anxiety for the people you serve? And that can be, it can be customers, it can be members, it can be your staff. But what are the things that are most likely to cause them stress? They might be accidents, contact or otherwise. They might be natural disasters or weather events. They might be financial wrongdoing, widespread illness. I mean, who knew that we would truly have a pandemic and the chaos that would create, right? So they’re the kind of things that when they’re handled well, they can be classified more as a challenge. But without knowing how to intervene effectively – and that’s really what we’re here to talk about today – they can truly become a crisis.

Andy Johns: Sure. And some of those are cyclical. We know that ice storms pretty much only happen one time of year. That the tornado season, although that can be a little less regular. Of course, some parts of the country are wildfires or hurricanes. Thankfully, we don’t have a lot of that here in the Tennessee Valley. But some of that is cyclical. Some of it’s not. So I guess when you’re recognizing those patterns and you’re kind of identifying some of those, what’s the next step?

Nathalie Strickland: Yeah. So operational readiness, that’s a big part of our industry, right? So on blue sky days, utilities are focused on the response plans, long standing plans, and they are updating them and dusting them off. And if that hasn’t happened, you know, in your organization in a while now, it’s a really good time to get started on that. But the other piece of it really is mental readiness because that’s the second part of the equation. Really having the ability to have calm under stress, to have things not only under control, but to demonstrate humility while you have those things under control is really important. And so I always recommend studying crises as they’re unfolding. I mean, when news is happening, you can get a good sense of what to follow and getting a knowledge base that’ll help you make smart decisions when a crisis occurs in your world.

Andy Johns: Now part of that, the smart decision making – and this is something that folks who have been listening to the podcast for a long time know that it’s something that I – I don’t know if it’s a dead horse that I beat a lot – but it’s certainly something that is near and dear to me and important. And I’m probably preaching to the choir, but having the communicator at the decision making table. Both, I would imagine, beforehand and during the crisis. That’s such a key spot. It often gets overlooked. But that’s something that you pointed out in the presentation as well that I thought was important to highlight.

Nathalie Strickland: Right. It’s important because when trust is high, consumer loyalty is high, and the demand for new products and services increases. And that’s not just important for organizations that are adding new services, but for those who are looking to strengthen customer relationships and business relationships, the value in the community, those types of things. But it also is important because internally, when trust is high, morale is high and productivity is high. And so you really need someone who is focused on those things. While other leaders are focused on the operational response, there’s someone who is focused on really knowing how to build and maintain trust for those who matter most to us.

Andy Johns: That’s perfect. And I know, like you said, this is your first podcast, but that’s a perfect segue right into the next thing I was going to ask you about. The quote that really stood out for me from your presentation, “A crisis is not the bad thing that happened. It’s the moment of trust lost.” And that was kind of a cool perspective that I hadn’t heard a lot when it comes to crisis communications. So you got into a little bit there, but tell me more about that idea that “a crisis is not the bad thing that happened. It’s the moment of trust lost.” Let’s unpack that.

Nathalie Strickland: Yeah. So when something bad happens, people are looking to us for assurance that we have the ability to control the crisis from the earliest moments that it’s occurring. And that’s why having good, strong decision making criteria and really following events that are happening and knowing how folks are handling things well or how they could do them better and really thinking through that within your own organization, a crisis really isn’t the bad thing that happened. But the moment that trust is on the line, and that we have the ability to make decisions. If we make great decisions, then we can enhance trust. And then when we don’t, trust is much harder to recover than it is to keep it.

Andy Johns: That’s true.

Nathalie Strickland: And I think that’s a really important point. Trust is really three related things. It’s the promise is fulfilled that we’ll be there for you in a crisis, right? The expectations that are met. So that might be a combination of what are you’re legally required to do. What does society expect us to do, and what do our customers or members expect us to do? And then the values lived. So trust is a natural outcome of all of those things together. So when an event occurs, the question really isn’t what should we do, or what should we say? The question really should be what would reasonable people expect a responsible organization to do in this situation? And that one question takes the focus off of us and onto the stakeholder audiences that are important to us and allows us to focus on what we need to do to maintain trust with them.

Andy Johns: Excellent. That’s well said. I will say, you mentioned reasonable people. Those aren’t always going to be the ones in the social media feed asking you questions. But, you know, I think that’s a great guideline there, is what would reasonable people expect? Folks online that they get unreasonable, it doesn’t mean you have to necessarily cater to everything there. But I did want to talk about part of the way that you can set those expectations and you call it the “first mover advantage.” Let’s talk a little bit about that because moving quickly. And part of the reason that you prepare and that you think through these things, you have a plan is so you can move quickly when something comes up because that really helps you kind of define the situation, right?

Nathalie Strickland: Right. So the question of when to ask is always a hard one to answer. And the first mover is typically the one that controls the way folks interpret the event. And that’s really powerful.

Andy Johns: That’s important.

Nathalie Strickland: Yeah, and that’s one of the reasons for being both operationally and mentally prepared is so that you’re ready to seize that opportunity when you know it’s right, and you’re doing it before the media, the public, your critics or others take the opportunity to define you. I think we all know that transparency is really critical, but at the same time, it’s important to move expeditiously, but also very thoughtfully.

Andy Johns: That’s good. One of the ways to move thoughtfully, you talked about the three steps of care, and I liked that. I thought that was a good approach. So the ones that you had outlined, the bullet points, three steps of care: You care. You still care. You care as long as the expectations exist. So unpack that for us a little bit, those three.

Nathalie Strickland: Sure. So I guess really a foundational strategy is timeliness in demonstrating that you care. Doing it from the very first moment, your very first message should be a message of caring, and then demonstrating that you’re caring as long as that crisis is taking place and sometimes even beyond that. That’s part of the burden of leadership through a crisis, is that you’re caring as long as your stakeholders expect you to care. One great example of this was the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. I don’t know, ten years, a dozen years ago when the crisis lasted so much longer than anyone expected. And the environmental impact was much greater than anyone expected, including BP and environmental responders and the folks who live down there. So the need to demonstrate care for a lengthy period of time may exist after a crisis depending on what happens. And so we need to demonstrate that we care from the earliest moments that we still care as long as it’s happening, and that we also care, as long as our stakeholders want us to to care about what’s happening.

Andy Johns: That’s an excellent point. Go ahead.

Nathalie Strickland: I was just going to add that you lose trust if you don’t care, as long as the stakeholders want you to care about an event. And the whole point here in our discussion is that trust is the foundation of a response in a crisis.

Andy Johns: Right. It all goes back to that trust, for sure. One of the things that you hear any crisis planning, crisis communications planning, is developing some standby statements, you called them. Working on some things ahead of time so you’re not scrambling whether it’s a press release or whatever it is, completely flat footed, to go ahead and have some of that developed. Obviously, it’s impossible to plan for every possible thing that could go weird. But what are some ways that you guide people or that you would suggest for folks to kind of get some of those standby statements started? And how do you know what kind of to have on standby, and what’s too far fetched? Or what advice you give for folks when they’re working on having some of those statements ready to go?

Nathalie Strickland: Sure. So let’s talk about when to respond and that helps us build that standby statement. There’s really four great questions to ask to give you some decision making criteria on when to speak or when to make a statement. The first one is, will those who matter most expect us to do or say something? The second one is, will silence be seen as indifference or harm or an affirmation of guilt? The third one is, are others already shaping perceptions of those who matter most to us? And the fourth is, if we wait, will we lose the ability to influence the outcome? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then it’s important to respond as effectively as one can in that moment and then provide more information later. Because trust is built on commitments made and fulfilled. And therefore, if you don’t have the amount of information you need to be fully transparent from the get go, you can still have a great solid standby statement and follow that up with a promise for more information at a future point in time.

Andy Johns: So I think those criteria are great. Sorry. Go ahead. You were going to say something else.

Nathalie Strickland: I was just going to address your initial question more directly, and that is that a well-structured standby statement involves acknowledging the event. So expressing awareness of the event or the issue, then expressing empathy related to the victims and sometimes potential victims.

Andy Johns: Get to that caring you talked about earlier.

Nathalie Strickland: Right. And then expressing what the organization cares about. So, for so many who are listening to this, it might be a message of our first concern is with the safety of our employees and our customers. Then you want to actually address how you are handling the crisis and give the specific steps you’ve taken so far. And then finally, you outline the next steps for the business and the stakeholders. And that can be substantial at the time, or it can be a promise to give an update at another point in time.

Andy Johns: All important elements, for sure. Nathalie, we’ve been through a lot already to talk through it all. But what advice – kind of to wrap up here – what advice would you have for somebody who is a little overwhelmed? Maybe they’re new to their job, maybe they’re not, but they’re trying to say, “Okay, we need to be prepared for some of this stuff that comes up.” But they’re starting kind of from square one. What advice would you have for somebody who wants to get better at preparing for a crisis and prepping crisis communications, but is just getting started?

Nathalie Strickland: Yeah, So I think going back to the basics of does your organization have an operational readiness plan. If you aren’t certain of it, sit down with company leaders and get a strong understanding of what exists and perhaps be part of developing something if it doesn’t already exist. Also, taking a strong look at crises that have happened over time. There’s some really amazing case studies that can just be found by Googling online. That BP oil spill has a lot of information that you can find about what they did and didn’t handle well and the public perception that came from that. The car industry, the automotive industry also has some really great examples. There was a time period that Toyota had a sticky pedal issue that was causing safety concerns in cars. That’s a great case study to look into as well. So I always like to look at what other companies have done really well and what they haven’t done so well to really get a sense of how to create a great response within your own organization.

Andy Johns: Absolutely no reason to reinvent the wheel when other folks have already done it. So, excellent.

Nathalie Strickland: Really going back to that initial question in your response to anything of what would a reasonable person, or reasonable people, expect a responsible organization to do in this situation? That’s really the basis of providing solid crisis response and managing through a crisis.

Andy Johns: Absolutely. She is Nathalie Strickland, the VP of Communications and Marketing over at TVPPA. TVPPA has all sorts of great resources for folks in the Tennessee Valley. They’ve got a tool kit that’s out. They’ve got all kinds of training scheduled throughout the year. Nathalie, y’all are busy folks. Thanks for taking the time to join us.

Nathalie Strickland: Oh, it’s an honor to be here today. Thank you so much.

Andy Johns: I am Andy Johns, your host with Pioneer. And until we talk again, keep telling your story.

Outro: StoryConnect is produced by Pioneer Utility Resources, a communications cooperative that is built to share your story. StoryConnect is engineered by Lucas Smith of Lucky Sound Studio.