The Chinese symbol for crisis is danger and opportunity. A crisis carries an element of danger and is often unexpected. In crisis communication there is an underlying aura of bad news. Beware of these 7 deadly sins in Crisis Communication lest they affect the effectiveness of your crisis management plan.
1. Timing: (PR fail: Susan G Koman on Planned Parenthood, National Rifle Association Sandy Hook on shooting, RIM on Blackberry Outage) It is never too soon to make a simple meaningful statement. 24 hours to respond is an eternity. In today’s era of viral media communication damaging speculation, misinformation and misrepresentation spreads faster than wildfire. Procrastinating only makes it look worse. You want to own a key message right away. Craft a simple statement such as, “Our hearts and thoughts are with those in harm’s way and the affected families (customers, employees, community). We are gathering facts and information as quickly as we can and we will make it available as soon as possible.” Also when you do talk, do not select a time when emotions are still very raw, such as the one week anniversary of a tragedy. Crisis communication messages on such dates should be limited to conveying sympathy and an affirmation of support to those affected.
2. Delivery: (PR fail: American Apparel on Hurricane Sandy, GoDaddy on SOPA, RNC & Clint Eastwood, Mitt Romney on 47%, National Rifle Association on Sandy Hook shooting) The tone of your message is particularly important. Aloofness makes you look out of touch and lacking in empathy. Arrogance and aggressiveness make your entire organization appear cold, callous and unconcerned. Even when you have to take a controversial position it is important to convey genuine empathy to gain rapport with the public and more importantly your stakeholders because you are representing them. Your spokesperson should have media coaching on how to be firm yet convey compassion, calmness, confidence and reassurance. Try to incorporate the following three elements into your first public messages: Show concern for those affected; explain how the crisis will affect customers; and avoid attempts to exploit the situation for attention or further an agenda.
3. Restricted communication: (PR fail: National Rifle Association Sandy Hook shooting) Do not say that you want to have meaningful conversation about the crisis at hand and in the same breath decline to comment or take any questions. Do not go dark online and do not have a blanket media blackout. Communication is a two way street. You appear evasive and miss the opportunity to correct mistakes, ask for forgiveness and show goodwill.
4. Denial: (PR fail: Penn State on sexual abuse allegations,) Do not do it! Denial and dismissal are the twin evils which block responsible action. It is best to express candor – an outward recognition through promptly stated public acknowledgement that a problem exists; that people or the public’s trust is affected; and that something will be done to correct the situation. Furthermore be aware that a crisis situation may not directly stem from your organization but it is at your doorstep because the public and stakeholders consider you entwined or an authority on the subject matter. Denying accountability and distancing yourself only enhances negative perceptions.
Examples of statements on taking responsibility: “We are at fault.” “It shouldn’t have happened.” “It was wrong.”
5. Blaming others: (PR fail: BP on Oil Spill, National Rifle Association on Sandy Hook shooting, political campaigns) Deflecting blame further damages the level of trust and confidence people have in your organization. It also undercuts the seriousness of the situation and trivializes the respect an issue deserves. Additionally, do not attack your critics; this only reinforces any perceived wrongdoing.
6. Fueling outrage: (PR fail: Bob Person – GoDaddy’s CEO on elephant kill, Tony Hayward’s BP CEO’s behavior during BP oil spill) Starve off collateral damage and be less offensive. This means do not engage in feuds online or elsewhere with reporters, bloggers and others. Two major objectives in crisis communication are to calm things down and shorten negative exposure.
7. No real solutions: (PR fail: Papa Johns on Affordable Healthcare Act, National Rifle Association on Sandy Hook shooting) Attempting to portray your organization or its mission as a victim is not a solution in a crisis. Also, do not threaten or instill fear when the atmosphere is already saturated with negativity. Pledge to identifying the underlying factors that caused this situation to happen and addressing them. Do not propose measures which you do not have the authority or capability of implementing. Be prepared for scrutiny and commit to full transparency. Being transparent demonstrates confidence in your organization, your position on an issue and your methods. This may be an opportunity to raise awareness to an issue or educate the public on what you are doing right. After a crisis, it might be the only way to build or rebuild your reputation.
Poor crisis communication has been known to ruin entire organizations. Avoiding these 7 deadly sins of PR Crisis Communication can move you from crisis to opportunity. This an opportunity to build trust, reinforce ethical behavior and show integrity.