In today’s media environment, news travels fast and customers can communicate their feedback and complaints instantly and publicly. This means that organizations like irrigation districts need to prepare for possible crisis situations in advance, by identifying spokespeople, preparing media plans, and proactively communicating with their customers and employees.
In this interview, Keith Yaskin, president of The Flip Side Communications, speaks with Irrigation Leader Managing Editor Joshua Dill about how irrigation districts should handle the stressful and ever-evolving landscape of digital media.
Joshua Dill: Please tell us about your background and how you came to be in your current position.
Keith Yaskin: My background is in broadcast journalism. I was a TV reporter for about 17 years. Most of that time, I was an investigative reporter. In 2011, I left broadcast journalism to join my wife, who 2 years previously had founded a media company, The Flip Side Communications. Her background is in public relations and employee communications. Our company is based in Scottsdale, Arizona. We focus on public relations, video production, media training, and employee communications. Our clients include a wide range of companies, from Fortune 500 companies to small businesses. We have clients both in the government and private sector.
Joshua Dill: Tell us about the importance of messaging and having a media plan.
Keith Yaskin: Let me give you an example of something we just experienced. Last week, I received a phone call from an irrigation district. The caller played me a recording of one of the district’s customers calling a local morning radio show. The customer had some questions about where the irrigation district got its water. This led to some additional questions about the irrigation district’s new office headquarters. The district felt that the entire discussion on the radio program would reflect on it negatively. The caller wanted to know what to do. I think they were also frustrated because the district had purchased advertising with this radio station.
I recommended that the district identify an appropriate spokesperson and ask the radio station for an opportunity to have that person be interviewed to respond and to address some of the questions that were brought up in this conversation. The district was able to get an interview time, and staff prepared some messages ahead of time that they wanted to communicate. They decided to stay positive and not to be defensive or negative in any way. Someone from the irrigation district went on the air and, in a positive, professional way, addressed some of the questions that had been previously brought up by the customer. I listened to that interview. I thought it was excellent. It was a great example of how an organization can take a negative situation and turn it around to make it a positive educational opportunity for its customers. The district also contacted the customer and, to my understanding, has offered to set up a meeting with him to address any concerns or questions he might have.
The moral of the story is, even if you’re not interested in proactively reaching out to the news media, you should prepare for unexpected situations in which the news media starts talking about your organization. The worst time to start coming up with a plan on how to handle that unexpected situation is on the spot.
Joshua Dill: How should an organization like an irrigation district prepare for that kind of situation?
Keith Yaskin: The organization should put together a plan. That plan should start with the key messages the organization would want to share during any given situation and should indicate who on the team will deliver those messages.There needs to be a process in place to enable the organization to respond quickly. In today’s environment, it’s not only important to respond to a crisis, it’s important to do so quickly. Failing to do that can compound the problem. I recommend that irrigation districts have a conversation with their attorneys today. The steps you’ll want to take from a public relations perspective to protect your organization’s reputation do not always align with an attorney’s responsibilities. Everybody should be on the same page to avoid a conflict later on. Another important thing to consider is who your backup spokesperson is. You can’t afford not to respond in a crisis situation simply because your point person is out of town or on vacation or otherwise unavailable.
Joshua Dill: Would you explain a little bit more about why an irrigation district should speak with its attorney?
Keith Yaskin: If you’re handling a crisis, and you feel that there are negative comments being made by the news media or the public about your organization, from a public relations perspective, you want to protect your reputation and go out there to explain what the genuine facts are. An attorney’s job, on the other hand, is to limit your liability. They don’t want you to have to write a check for a large amount of money, so a lot of attorneys will recommend that you say nothing. I’ve seensituations in which an attorney advises an organization to say nothing and the public relations team is urging the opposite. The public relations team is saying, “You’ve got to speak in common language in a way that everybody’s going to understand,” and the attorney is saying, “You’ve got to use these words that no one knows, because they are important from a legal point of view.” Your public relations team and your attorney are at loggerheads, and the clock is ticking. My advice is to have that conversation now. Sit down with your attorney and your spokesperson and decide on what you will do if there is a crisis.
Joshua Dill: What kind of media training do you recommend that people undergo?
Keith Yaskin: I think the best type of media training is actually getting in front of a camera and being interviewed by
somebody who has experience reporting. Our media training, for example, includes a portion where we give a presentation, but I think what people learn from the most is when we put them in front of a camera and ask them the toughest questions they may ever face. Then we watch the video and analyze it. We discuss what worked and what needs improvement. Getting in front of a camera and having the lights on you is an excellent exercise. I would recommend it to people even if they never expect to be on camera. More and more journalists who write for newspapers or websites bring video cameras to their interviews because they are expected to shoot some video for their websites.
Joshua Dill: How should an organization handle bad news?
Keith Yaskin: If there is bad news on TV, in a newspaper, or online, many organizations immediately attempt to call up a reporter to address the question. What they don’t do is explain the situation to their own employees. I think that is the first thing they should do. Experience shows us that if there is bad news and employees don’t hear from their organization’s leadership team, they rely on rumor and speculation. Sometimes they start to fill in the blanks with incorrect information. It is important to have a plan in place to communicate your response to this bad news to your employees, to your customers, to your board of directors, and to any other stakeholders you believe will want to hear directly from you. If they’re not hearing directly from you, they may be getting misinformation from the news media or from rumors. It also shows respect.
Joshua Dill: How should irrigation districts communicate with their ratepayers?
Keith Yaskin: You want to make sure that you’re communicating with a consistent voice. While we were doing some training with one of the irrigation districts, we learned that one of its top customer questions regarded a fee for a certain service, and that different people at the irrigation district were providing different answers as to why the fee existed. Giving customers different answers to the same question is a fast way to lose credibility.
You want to speak with your ratepayers in a language that they’re going to understand. Not everyone understands the technical jargon that irrigation districts use. Today, irrigation districts have a lot of customers who are accustomed to living in large cities and are now moving out to rural areas. Here in Arizona, developers are building like crazy in formerly rural areas. An irrigation district may have to dramatically simplify its language to make sure it is successfully communicating with ratepayers who have never worked with irrigated water before.
Joshua Dill: Do you have any other advice for irrigation districts?
Keith Yaskin: My advice is pretty simple: Actually begin to take some of these steps. When I speak with irrigation districts, I do infer that there is a portion of the industry that still has an old school mentality. They don’t talk to the news media very much. They certainly don’t proactively share positive stories with the news media. In some cases, they don’t have the best lines of communication with customers, because that’s the way it’s been done for decades, and in many cases, customers don’t have options. In a lot of cases, customers only have one place to get their water, so there hasn’t been a lot of pressure to deliver responsive customer service. I would encourage irrigation districts to proactively communicate with customers, especially younger customers, on social media. I would encourage them to start taking baby steps toward doing more of all that we have discussed. You can’t expect to change the way you do things in the process overnight, but go out there, take a risk, try something new.