Bombs, Baghdad, and Crisis Communications

by Tyler Yee

Whew. What a grueling quarter. Taking 20-credits was quite a handful, and it took me a while to recover from the beast that is University of Washington finals week (and the holidays). That said, I’m back in the game, and I’m very excited for a few blogs I have lined up to release throughout the next few weeks. Let’s get started with one of my favorites.

I recently had a crisis communications exercise at the School of Visual Concepts. It was a great experience. I’ve already learned a lot of the do’s and don’ts of crisis communications from various public relations professionals in Seattle and from a UW course solely dedicated to the subject, but it was nice to actually act out a pseudo live exercise. Our class was given a cruise-related crisis, and each of us had 15 minutes to release a statement that would go out to the media/public. After this initial statement, we then had a maximum of up to an hour to craft a press release regarding the crisis.

This exercise tested our ability to write under pressure while at the same time our knack for dealing with the issue at hand. In a crisis communications setting, a PR professional’s primary goal is to be authentic, refrain from speculation, know the facts (if possible), and to demonstrate that they’re immediately addressing the issue. Moreover, your organization needs to be the first to get the information out to the public. In a crisis, it’s wise to be proactive, not reactive.

During the exercise, sighs were audible, the scratching of pens filled the air, and there was a continuous rhythm of clicking keyboards. One by one, we all finished and headed out, eager to learn how we did. During our next class we reviewed our work and writing under the time constraint was the most frustrating hurdle of the exercise. Now, working under pressure or with a deadline isn’t an anomaly, especially in the PR field. Even more, it’s going to be a huge factor in every future crisis communications situation you might encounter.

So, with the spirit of writing, or working under pressure in mind, I thought I could share how I learned to deal with it while serving in the Army, specifically my tour in Iraq.

Among other tasks, a major part of my job within the Army was to write intelligence reports. These basically consisted of everything and anything that might be useful for military intelligence – bombs, bad dudes, devious plans, guns, etc. Most of the time intelligence reports had a somewhat flexible deadline, but there were also some reports that were extremely time sensitive. I ran into more than a few of these, one of which had me sprinting to the office in a makeshift uniform, contacting different channels to alert them to the situation, and type-up a report as quickly as possible in order to broadcast the threat to the entire Baghdad operating theatre. As a result of such escapades, I’ve picked up a few useful tips that I narrowed down into four main bullets that can be applied to writing under a tight deadline, such as an initial crisis communications press release.

1. Relax

Having a clear mind is one of the most useful things you can do while working under a tight schedule. This tip sounds obvious, I know, but being in the right mental state can go a long way under pressure. You can stress about the ticking clock (or bomb) all you want, but that’s not going to help you. The deadline isn’t going to change, the crisis isn’t going to change, but you can change how you work and approach a situation, such as writing under pressure. So next time you have an approaching deadline, take a breather, relax, and focus on the task at hand. Don’t psyche yourself out and just put words to paper.

2. Lists are your Friends

When you’re gathering all the information you need to send out, write it out in bullet format. While you’re doing so, you’ll be able to recognize the natural flow of how you should format your content in the release, which should also help you prioritize the information. Furthermore, you can cross out what you’ve already covered so that you aren’t redundant. This will also help you visually see your progress, which might help you feel like you have a chance of beating that ever-approaching deadline. 

3. Be Concise and Direct

When you’re writing for a crisis and under a deadline, there’s no time to be cute or clever. Leave the fluff to a minimum – especially during an initial crisis press release. If you find yourself finishing up before you need to send it off, sure, add some fluff here and there, such as a quote. But don’t spend your precious time thinking of a crafty alliteration or metaphor.  Instead, spend that time relaying all the appropriate information. Make it clear and make it direct. It’s a crisis after all.

4. Proofread, Proofread, and Proofread

Just because you’re under a severe time constraint doesn’t mean your content can be less than perfect. Writing under a limited time constraint is a recipe for grammatical errors and poor sentence structure. The easiest way to fix this is to simply read your press release, or material, out loud. This only takes a few minutes, but you’ll be sure to catch anything that is wrong – be it a sentence that just doesn’t sound right or “they’re” instead of “there”. The last thing you want is to send something out that is riddled with errors that detracts from your content, your message, and your professionalism.

Hopefully, these tips help you, as they’ve certainly helped me from the desert to the classroom. Writing under pressure can be a bit scary, but once you’ve done it a few times, you’ll realize it’s not the end of the world. Cheers.