8 Tips On What To Do In A Communications Crisis And 9 Tips On What Not To Do

Last updated August 2017

17 tips for managing crisis communications

Every year I watch in amazement as a few organizations and a few celebrities stumble into a communications crisis in the media.  My amazement isn’t over the incidents that triggered the crisis’, though many of them would certainly give you pause, but rather over the way the crisis’ is managed.

The reaction from the train company, Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Canada Co. (MMA) after their runaway train caused a massive explosion that devastated the town of Lac-Megantic in 2013 was shocking in its ineptitude. As everyone from the Canadian Prime Minister to Quebec’s Premier rushed to the scene to express their condolences, the CEO from MMA was notably absent. Almost off the bat, the company started to point fingers of blame, particularly at the local fire department and although they softened their tone in subsequent communications, perceptions were set.  They followed through by being slow in providing financial support and to cap their self-destructive public relations campaign, the CEO suggested that he too was a victim of the disaster.

Right around the same time MMA was self-destructing, Paula Deen, a popular television chef, was accused of racism. She did an amazing job of illustrating why saying you’re sorry is easier and smarter than saying, “I am what I am.”

In a similar vein,  Anthony Weiner demonstrated how not to engage the press. At the risk of stating the obvious, if you’re in politics and your name is Weiner, don’t tweet pictures of your wiener. It’s like gold to the late night hosts and catnip to the press. If you do share your pictures of your wiener and you are later asked to identify it, be prepared to identify it or don’t, but be prepared to be asked.

These are just three stories, but the airlines, politicians and celebrities supply us with more on a regular basis. Given the number of stories that play out every year, it might be useful to share what to do, as well as, what not to do in a communications crisis. True crises have several elements in common, any one of which, if handled poorly, can disrupt or even destroy your best attempts at managing the situation effectively, not to mention the lasting damage that can be done to your reputation.

What to do

  1. Be Honest: If you are at fault, there needs to be an outward acknowledgement of the error. Excuses and self-serving messages will only further undermine public confidence.
  2. Be Coordinated: You need to be well organized during a crisis.  This means planning and identifying whom you want on your crisis team in advance. The bigger the crisis, the more senior the spokesperson.
  3. Provide Explanation: Explain what happened and why it happened, even if what happened is embarrassing. If you’re not sure, share what you can.
  4. Give Support: Everything said should be spoken from the perspective of those injured.  Language should be plain and easily understood.
  5. Be Apologetic: Don’t stop being apologetic for what happened.  This is the last place ego needs to show up. If you are not personally involved in the incident, act as though you are or that someone you know has been affected. This is not the time to introduce “but” to your language.
  6. Consult: Engage experts, victims and relevant stakeholders to help you resolve the problem.  Make sure there is no possibility of bias in the choices you have made. Make sure that victims are given a voice.
  7. Promise: Promise not to have the same or similar incidents happen in the future. Make sure that the public understands that you have set a zero tolerance policy internally.
  8. Restitution:  This is probably the most difficult to commit to because of economic restraints, nevertheless the cost of not putting victim’s needs first and foremost will be by far more costly.

What not to do

  1. Show condescension or arrogance.
  2. Demonstrate a lack of concern or consideration.
  3. Ignore or minimize the impact on victims or their needs.
  4. Blame others or not take responsibility.
  5. Use inconsiderate or thoughtless language.
  6. Be inconsistent.
  7. Be unprepared.
  8. Miss opportunities to communicate with victims or other stakeholders.
  9. Create victim confusion.

Have you ever had to manage through a crisis?  Do you think you would be good in one?

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0 responses to “8 Tips On What To Do In A Communications Crisis And 9 Tips On What Not To Do

  • Great tips! The ability to have good crisis communications is key for a company’s success in a crisis. It’s a huge part to accept responsibility, even if it is genuinely not your fault AND to respond ASAP with prep.

  • I agree there is an inclination to blame away responsibility Debra – and it’s sad – especially when someone has been hurt. Honesty and compassion truly are the best policy. I believe people will support people and companies who practice these attributes.

    • Catherine I agree. I’ve seen a few examples where a story went away because the the people involved took responsibility for the situation. Media sells conflict or perhaps, conflict sells media, in either case, when you remove that from the story, the story isn’t as interesting.

  • I admire people like Paula Deen who get ahead of the crisis. When I was in corporate America, a company I was with let down over 1,000 customers; good and big paying customers. That was management lesson 102: get ahead of the crisis. And we did and we weathered the calamity with much of the valuable ideas you are sharing in this post. Thanks Debra.

    Patricia Weber, LinkedIn Group BHB

    • Patricia we must have seen the Paula Deen situation from different angles. She seemed to cause the crisis to me, not get ahead of it. She did eventually grab the reins and manage to get the situation under control, but time will tell how well she recovers. Given the number of crisis situations that move there way in and out of the media on a weekly basis, she’s already old news.

  • Great checklist! Thanks for this post. Because of summer, I am behind in social media and haven’t been listening to much news so I’ve missed the Paula Deen fiasco. Too much negativity in the news for my liking. Happy wkend!

    • I keep trying to figure out if the reason we see so many unnecessary and communications crisis stories is because we want to or because the press thinks we want them. No one I talk to seems particularly interested so I wonder if its just one of those bad habits we haven’t gotten rid of yet.

  • At my last “office job,” I worked in a healthcare organization which had to deal with SARS. Apparently they’d had media helicopters landing on their front lawn, the works. Fortunately, that all happened before my time. But after that, they were beyond scrupulous with everything. In these days of social media, where everyone is scrambling to get the latest scoop, I think news organizations have to be particularly careful when putting information out there. Accuracy and honesty should be your best friends!

    • SARS was a nightmare scenario, but it did give the healthcare sector many valuable lessons. When H1N1 emerged a few years later the health care system was by far more responsive. My own organization made it our number one priority. My days started with a 7:00 AM meeting, followed by an 8:00 AM meeting etc., etc, We had daily newsletters, scripted national conference calls, posters, pins…it was one of the most intensive communications processes I’ve ever had to manage and implement.

  • Debra — all excellent suggestions. Most importantly, get all the bad news out right away. Don’t dribble it out a little at a time because that only keeps the story on the front page. State what happened, accept responsibility, state how sorry you are that it happened, and what you are going to do about it. Many organizations wait to accept blame. They try TOGDI (the other guy did it). It’s impossible to do a coverup in the Internet era.

    • Great point about the slow release of bad news. That process has always struck me as being both a little sadistic and masochistic which is generally, the furthest thing from what the people who do it intend.

  • Thank God I have never had to manage or crisis and I plan on not having one in the future. I agree with your suggestions. I remember when Bill Clinton looked straight into the camera and swore he was not having an affair. He finally starting to take your tips. What amazes me is that people have short memories and today he is wonderful. The response he got at the Democratic National Convention was better than that of Obama. I don’t think he managed his crisis very well but in the end he was able to smooth it over and now with his foundation he is a hero. What is bad is good.

    • Arleen part of me wonders if Jacquline didn’t really say it all in her recent post, The New Hang Out for Perverts. We appear to have such low expectations for our politicians that there is little that they do that we don’t eventually ignore. I hope that isn’t the case (despite the evidence to the contrary) because nothing good can come from citizen disengagement.

  • Susan Therien says:
    August 20, 2013 @ 08:19 pm

    Great piece Debra. The one thing I would add is do some prep work now. Preparing a communications crisis plan will provide some guidance when a crisis hits and you and everyone around you is in crisis management mode.

    • Alleluia to that suggestion. Having the game plan worked out in advance is the easiest way to avoid disaster later. If you write the plan when you’re calm, rational and have time, it allows you to be calm, rational and take your time when you are in the middle of a crisis.

  • I find it so unbelievable when a company immediately points blame to lesson the impact of their responsibility. Honesty is the best policy and will get you much more respect. 🙂

  • I haven’t had to manage a large-scale crisis, other than rewriting my former school’s media policy at one point when a very conservative parent tried to crack down on any and all video in the classroom. So from limited experience, I would say I did okay, but I really prefer not to be in those situations. Your list of what do do makes complete sense. Then there’s the short story I wrote, “Not Terribly Important.” That is how I imagined the crisis of firing a teacher over publishing stories with sex and bad language would go in this day and age. Just the other day, I read about a male middle school teacher who pulled his shirt up on a reality show, and that lead to his dismissal from the classroom. So, in a lot of ways, the media will create crisis when one doesn’t really exist.

    • The story of the teacher who lost his job for pulling up his shirt seems so ludicrous to me. I don’t know what the context was, but clearly when you start wandering down the road of unreasonable, there is not a whole lot that can help. What a challenging tight rope teachers have to walk, every day presents the potential for crisis and from the sounds of it, all from the least expected places.

  • More of less the same advice I gave in the article I wrote about crisis communication, Debra:-)

    If the press is asking you questions you don’t know the answers to, admit that you don’t know but will find out and call another press conference for say the next day at 15.00 hours.

    And be very careful with promising anything. A Swedish prime minister had to resign becasue he did. It’s impossible to promise that something will not happen in the future. If someone on behalf of a company makes such a promise and it still happens, the CEO may have to resign.

    Be careful with what you say since the smallest mistake can make the press go for your throat and start digging.

    But the most important thing is to be honest. If you lie or look dishonest the press will definitely start looking into the company. And they may find something that can be made into even bigger headline news:-)

    • Giving a specific follow up time is an excellent idea. It puts some parameters around expectations both inside the organization and out.

      As to the promises, I was thinking along the lines of promises to investigate carefully what happened, promises to strengthen processes/security etc. If the accident is something that is not manageable, like a freak of nature incident that couldn’t be avoided, then no, there’s not a lot that can be done. In those instances where the incident is a reflection of bad practice, then I think not promising change can be very problematic. I think qualifying the advice to be, promise what’s reasonable makes good sense.

      • winnercat says:
        August 25, 2013 @ 08:03 am

        There is a difference between promising change and promise that something will be done. When a ferry collapsed somewhere in the Baltic sea the Swedish prime minister in question promised it would be salvaged. Turned out it wasn’t possible to do so and he had to resign. Everything was done to salvage it, but it simply wasn’t possible. If he had said we will try, maybe he would have been fine? But not necessarily since when people’s lives are involved emotions run high.

        • Good point and great example. Emotions are so high during a crisis that everything said carries a lot of weight, whether its an apology or promise. The qualifier of promising change versus no repeats is a good one.

  • The amazing thing to me is how mismanaged so many of these events are, yet there are expert crisis management people and companies everywhere! So it occurs to me, how subjective is the art or science of crisis management? How much social psychology is employed in the management of a crisis? Because, the ones you have mentioned were disasters!

    • I used to wonder how much crisis management was art and how much was process. Often the advice given looks like convenient rear view commentary, but over the years it seems clear that the basics processes are successful ones. I think they do reflect some best practices in social psychology, but my background is sociology so I won’t swear to it. 🙂

      A few years ago Maple Leaf Foods, producers of popular cold cuts had a break down in the processes that resulted in the poisoning and deaths of several people. Their president was immediately front and centre with apologies, promises of change and a plan of action. He reported to the public frequently and never stopped apologising and expressing sympathy. In the middle of the crisis he was being lauded for doing the right thing. The Minister of Agriculture, who held no responsibility for the poisoning made a thoughtless comment about the political pitfalls of the situation and ended by saying, “It’s like death from a thousand cuts, cold cuts that is.”

      No one thought it was funny and he ended up being scorned and calls for his resignation followed, all this while people were praising the president of the company that had caused the problem.

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