The Biggest Mistakes in Crisis Communications

Sections of this topic

    Crisis Communications: Avoiding the Biggest Mistakes

    Part 1

    All organizations are vulnerable to crises. You can’t serve any population without being subjected to situations involving lawsuits, accusations of impropriety, sudden changes in ownership or management, and other volatile situations on which your stakeholders — and the media that serves them — often focus.

    The cheapest way to turn experience into future profits is to learn from other’s mistakes. With that in mind, I hope that the following examples of inappropriate crisis communications policies, culled from real-life situations, will provide a tongue-in-cheek guide about what NOT to do when your organization is faced with a crisis.

    To ensure that your crisis will flourish and grow, you should:

    1. Play Ostrich

    Hope that no one learns about it. Cater to whoever is advising you to say nothing, do nothing. Assume you’ll have time to react when and if necessary, with little or no preparation time. And while you’re playing ostrich, with your head buried firmly in the sand, don’t think about the part that’s still hanging out.

    2. Only Start Work on a Potential Crisis Situation after Its Public

    This is closely related to item 1, of course. Even if you have decided you won’t play ostrich, you can still foster your developing crisis by deciding not to do any advance preparation. Before the situation becomes public, you still have some proactive options available. You could, for example, thrash out and even test some planned key messages, but that would probably mean that you will communicate promptly and credibly when the crisis breaks publicly, and you don’t want to do that, do you? So, in order to allow your crisis to gain a strong foothold in the public’s mind, make sure you address all issues from a defensive posture — something much easier to do when you don’t plan ahead. Shoot from the hip, and give off-the-cuff, unrehearsed remarks.

    3. Let Your Reputation Speak for You

    Two words: Arthur Andersen.

    4. Treat the Media Like the Enemy

    By all means, tell a reporter that you think he/she has done such a bad job of reporting on you that you’ll never talk to him/her again. Or badmouth him/her in a public forum. Send nasty emails. Then sit back and have a good time while:

    * The reporter gets angry and directs that energy into REALLY going after your organization.

    * The reporter laughs at what he/she sees as validation that you’re really up to no good in some way.

    5. Get Stuck in Reaction Mode Versus Getting Proactive

    A negative story suddenly breaks about your organization, quoting various sources. You respond with a statement. There’s a follow-up story. You make another statement. Suddenly you have a public debate, a lose/lose situation. Good work! Instead of looking look at methods that could turn the situation into one where you initiate activity that precipitates news coverage, putting you in the driver’s seat and letting others react to what you say, you continue to look as if you’re the guilty party defending yourself.

    6. Use Language Your Audience Doesn’t Understand

    Jargon and arcane acronyms are but two of the ways you can be sure to confuse your audiences, a surefire way to make most crises worse. Let’s check out a few of these taken- from-real-situations gems::

    * I’m proud that my business is ISO 9000 certified.

    * The rate went up 10 basis points.

    * We’re considering the development of an SNFF or a CCRC.

    * We ask that you submit exculpatory evidence to the grand jury.

    * The material has less than 0.65 ppm benzene as measured by the TCLP.

    To the average member of the public, and to most of the media who serve them other than specialists in a particular subject, the general reaction to such statements is “HUH?”

    (to be continued)

    For more resources, see the Free Management Library topic: Crisis Management