By Jonathan Bernstein
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 others’ 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:
- 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.
- Only Start Work on a Potential Crisis Situation after It’s 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.
- Let Your Reputation Speak for You. Two words: Arthur Andersen.
- 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.
- 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 which 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.
- 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 development of a 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?”
- Don’t Listen to Your Stakeholders. Make sure that all your decisions are based on your best thinking alone. After all, how would your clients/customers, employees, referral sources, investors, industry leaders or other stakeholders feedback be at all useful to determining how to communicate with them?
- Assume That Truth Will Triumph over All. You have the facts on your side, by golly, and you know the American public will eventually come around and realize that. Disregard the proven concept that perception is as damaging as reality — sometimes more so.
- Address Only Issues and Ignore Feelings
- The green goo which spilled on our property is absolutely harmless to humans.
- Our development plans are all in accordance with appropriate regulations.
- The lawsuit is totally without merit.
So what if people are scared? Angry? You’re not a psychologist…right?
- Make Only Written Statements. Face it, it’s a lot easier to communicate via written statements only. No fear of looking or sounding foolish. Less chance of being misquoted. Sure, it’s impersonal and some people think it means you’re hiding and afraid, but you know they’re wrong and that’s what’s important.
- Use “Best Guess” Methods of Assessing Damage. “Oh my God, we’re the front page (negative) story, we’re ruined!” Congratulations — you may have just made a mountain out of a molehill….OK, maybe you only made a small building out of a molehill. See item 7, above, for the best source of information on the real impact of a crisis.
- Do the Same Thing Over and Over Again Expecting Different Results. The last time you had negative news coverage you just ignored media calls, perhaps at the advice of legal counsel or simply because you felt that no matter what you said, the media would get it wrong. The result was a lot of concern amongst all of your audiences, internal and external, and the aftermath took quite a while to fade away. So, the next time you have a crisis, you’re going to do the same thing, right? Because “stuff happens” and you can’t improve the situation by attempting to improve communications… can you?
Jonathan Bernstein is president of Bernstein Crisis Management, Inc., author of Keeping the Wolves at Bay: A Media Training Manual and editor of the free email newsletter, Crisis Manager.