Stay cool and calm: Lessons in crisis communication

By Angelina Mangiamelli

Most PR professionals will experience at least one communication crisis during their career. So, no better to learn tips on how to best handle a crisis from than Mr. Crisis Communication himself, Paul Critchlow.

Critchlow returned to his alma mater Oct. 26 to give a presentation on crisis communication. More than 70 students, alumni and community members attended the event, sponsored by PRSSA,

During Critchlow’s career, he led crisis teams for two national events: the terrorists’ attacks on Sept. 11, 2001 that killed more than 2,600 people when the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers collapsed and the nuclear disaster at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania.

Critchlow, senior vice president of communications and public affairs for Merrill Lynch, at the time, led his team away from the headquarters, adjacent to the World Trade

Center. They ran through the streets to Critchlow’s brownstone in Greenwich Village and set up a temporary command center in his home.

He relied on his combat experience with the U.S. Army in Vietnam in the immediate aftermath of evacuating the building.

“Our priorities first were to account for all of our employees and second, to get the business running,” Critchlow says. “We immediately needed communication; everything was down and we had nothing.”

Critchlow stressed the importance of staying calm when there is nothing but chaos.

”Everyone is panicking, crying and confused and you have to remain calm, because that’s your job.”

He outlined four key points in dealing with the crisis.

1. Preparation and planning makes a difference.

2. Your team is everything.

3. Get the facts/set messages/ communicate aggressively.

4. Count on people to do the right thing.

The stress in the aftermath of 9/11 took a toll on Critchlow’s personal and professional life. One of the most difficult aspects was dealing with the death of his 24-year- old media relations associate who was trapped in the Twin Towers.

Critchlow stayed with Merrill Lynch through the Wall Street crisis and merger with Bank of America. He retired in 2015 after a 30-year career as vice chairman of public markets.

Earlier in his career, Critchlow served as the press secretary to Pennsylvania Gov. Dick Thornburgh at the time of the Three Mile Island’s partial nuclear meltdown.

This was the most serious accident in U.S. commercial nuclear power plant history.

Although it was a small radioactive release with no ill health effects on the public, it completely changed emergency response planning, Critchlow says. T

Critchlow dealt with several major issues during this crisis—not from the power plant itself but from the media leaking untruthful information to the public.

He outlined four principles of crisis management to follow:

1. Implement – Assemble crisis management team – act under pressure like you haven’t experienced before.

2. Get the facts and get them out fast – Don’t jeopardize your credibility.

3. Make a plan and stick to it.

4. Tell the truth and be consistent.

Critchlow says they were successful in their plan, although it was difficult with the negativity and severity of the situation.

“Don’t feed into what the media is saying,” Critchlow says. “It is your job to get the facts out and be truthful.”

Critchlow also discussed another crisis that he was not personally involved in but provided perspective for what not to do: the BP oil spill known as Deepwater Horizon.

An uncontrollable blowout ignited an explosion on the rig, killing 11 crew members and spewing a fireball seen 40 miles away. The fire created the largest oil spill in U.S. history.

Critchlow gave insight on what BP should have done in its crisis response. At first, BP didn’t admit oil was leaking and denied the allegations. Instead, BP admitted to leaking

1,000 barrels then 5,000 and then 6,000 until it finally exploded. He also criticized

President Obama for a slow response to the incident, waiting several days before visiting the site.

“BP didn’t do what they needed. They should have admitted to leaking oil, how many barrels were leaking and fixed it,” Critchlow says. “This is a prime example of what not to do.”