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

Posted on August 20, 2013

Over the last several weeks I have watched with some amazement as various communications crisis’ have unfolded 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’ were 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, was shocking in its ineptitude. As everyone from the 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, notably at the local fire department and although they softened their tone in subsequent communications, perceptions were set.  To cap their public relations campaign they were slow in their financial response. Things haven’t gone well since then.

Right around the same time MMA was self-destructing, Paula Deen was doing her best to show us why just saying your sorry is easier and smarter than saying just about anything, particularly if what you have to say is, “I am what I am.” I could go into the details, but they were so pervasive in the news that I’ll pass.

In a similar vein, we had Anthony Weiner demonstrating 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 weiner. It’s like gold to the late night hosts and catnip to the press. If you do share your pictures of your weiner and you are later asked to identify it, be prepared to identify it or NOT but be prepared to be asked.

The three stories gave me pause and made me wonder if perhaps  it might be useful to share what to do, as well as, what not to do in a communications crisis. True crises have several critical dimensions 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?