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Friday, October 26, 2012

Be first, be right, be credible: Major Mike Lagace and crisis communications

Earlier this week, my friend Amy Tuckett and I headed down to a CPRS (Canadian Public Relations Society) luncheon and workshop between classes. We had the opportunity to listen to Major Mike Lagace, public affairs officer for the Canadian Armed Forces, speak about his experiences in crisis communications.

Major Lagace has extensive experience working both for the Winnipeg Police Service and the armed forces, so to say he's had his fair share of crises to deal with would be an understatement.

He was there when J.J. Harper was killed. He was there for the flood of '97.

The flood of '97 hits the Red River Valley. Picture from

While we've covered crisis communications pretty extensively in school, it was great to hear to a PR veteran share some of his personal stories and advice.

His main message was: Be first. Be right. Be credible.

If your organization has been hit with a crisis, you need to respond immediately to the media and your audiences. Even if you don't have the exact details of the situation, any comment will help.

And the more empathetic you are, the better. 

Major Lagace emphasized that messages of empathy should come before messages of sympathy. In other words, it's better to say "We've all been affected by this flood and we will get through it together," than "I feel sorry for the people who've been affected by the flood."

And, obviously, you should be genuine in what you're saying.

While it's important to be first, that still means you have to be credible. Major Lagace showed us a video clip of former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, discussing his first reactions to September 11. Giuliani said the media wouldn't quit until he gave an exact number of those who died that morning, which of course, no one knew quite yet.

Giuliani's response was, "The number of casualties will be more than any of us can bear, ultimately."

Rudy Giuliani on Sept. 11, 2001. Picture from

 Giuliani was simultaneously first, right, credible, empathetic, and genuine.

If you don't know all the facts of a crisis, give facts in increments. Communicate your messages as you know them. But remember that the first message you communicate is the one your audiences will remember most. That's why you always want to be right.

If, in your first interview with the media, you say, "We think around a million people died in this flood," but during your next interview you say, "You know what, I was wrong. Only a thousand people died," guess which quote will stick in peoples' minds?

Major Lagace also told us that statistics carry more weight than anecdotes. You'll be more convincing if you include statistics in your key messages.

Above all, Major Lagace told us that, during times of crisis, we should allow people the right to feel fear. Don't be patronizing or dismissive. We can empower our audiences and promote action - let them know what they can do to feel safe, while letting them know it's natural to feel afraid.

 Explosions in the Sky - It's Natural to Be Afraid

While I hope I never have to deal with crises on the same scale as those Major Lagace has handled, I now feel a bit more prepared.

What do you think? Do these ideas make sense, or is this all a bunch of PR spin-doctor mumbo-jumbo? Let me know!


  1. Great post, Laina.

    Another key benefit of empathy in these situation: not just saying that you understand and can identify with your publics, but using that understanding to get the information and resources you know those publics will need and want.

  2. Thanks for that wonderful write-up. I am now working on our next flood operation- Op Lentus 2014 in Portage La Prairie.

    Mike Lagace