The tough question: How to prepare before you’re asked 

The Q&A session is a staple of leadership, whether those questions come at you in employee meetings, community forums or an interview with a journalist. It can be challenging in any setting. But doing a Q&A amid a crisis or in the face of a serious issue at your company or organization ratchets up the degree of difficulty.

As with so many situations involving crisis management and crisis communications, the keys are preparation and practice. Make the practice real. Forget the easy questions. Prepare for the toughest questions — the ones you don’t want to answer. because those are the ones you’ll be asked, whether by nervous employees, community activists or a veteran reporter who’s spent a lifetime learning how to ask the toughest questions.

Here are three ways to anticipate and prepare for thorny questions before they’re asked.

Know your history. You need to know what’s happened in your company’s past and what similar situations your organization might have faced. And the questioner doesn’t care if you’ve been with that organization for three months or 30 years. You assume a leadership role, you inherit the history.

The International City/County Management Association published a worthwhile study called “Before, During, and After a Crisis” in April 2019. In it, the city manager of Sanford, Florida, Norton Bonaparte, reflected on handling the crisis that came with the Trayvon Martin shooting. Bonaparte had been city manager for about five months and said Sanford seemed to him — the new African-American city manager — to be a “community that seemed pretty harmonious and a real nice place to live.”

That was, until after the shooting, when longtime community members came to him with stories that reflected years of racial injustice, including the account of how Jackie Robinson, the athlete who broke Major League Baseball’s color line, came to Sanford with the Brooklyn Dodgers’ minor league team. The team was informed by city officials that they wouldn’t be allowed to take the field with a black player. Ancient history? No. It’s history that informs the present crisis.

Know your website. When a crisis hits, your website will be visited by the people who care about your organization, potential critics and the morbidly curious. If you have emblazoned across your homepage, “Safety is our No. 1 priority,” and you’ve just had a workplace accident or death, guess what you’re going to be asked?

Know social media. See what people are saying about you on Twitter, Facebook and other social media sites. Arming yourself with that information ahead of time will help you anticipate questions, give you a feel for the narrative that’s being built about your crisis and prepare you to correct any misstatements of fact that are already out there.

Along with “tell the truth, tell it first and tell it fast,” we tell clients facing a crisis that if it’s legal, moral and ethical to answer the question, then answer the question. But knowing the question before it’s asked is always the best answer.

Thomas Fladung is vice president at Hennes Communications.