The 10 Biggest Mistakes in Crisis Communications
By Jonathan Bernstein, President, Bernstein Crisis Management
All organizations are vulnerable to crises. Disasters, lawsuits, accusations of impropriety, sudden changes in ownership or management, and other volatile situations will happen. The threat of serious damage to people, property, reputation is real for virtually any organization, and many individuals as well.
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 to the mistakes you must avoid when your organization is faced with a crisis.
If you want your crisis to quickly spiral out of control you should employ any combination of these wrong-way tactics:
- Play Ostrich. What Lance Armstrong did for years. 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, 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. That worked out so well for the now-defunct Arthur Andersen, once one of the largest accounting firms in the world – before Enron.
- Treat Traditional or Social Media Like the Enemy. Like, say, the Trump White House. By all means, tell a reporter or social media activist that you think they have done such a bad job of reporting on you that you’ll never talk to them again. Or badmouth them in a public forum. Send nasty emails or texts. Then sit back and have a good time while:
- That individual gets angry and directs that energy into REALLY going after your organization.
- The individual laughs at what they see as validation that you’re really up to no good in some way.
Better yet – badmouth an entire media organization!
- Use Other People’s Forums to Tell Your Story. Because you’re quite eager to have other people write about you accurately, only tell your story to traditional media and social media influencers. They’ll get the facts right some of the time! Why bother setting up a website or other communications channels where you control the message 100%?
- 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 great way to make most crises worse. Let’s check out a few of these gems taken from actual announcements:
- I’m proud that my business is ISO 9000 certified.
- The rate went down 10 basis points.
- 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 feedback from your clients/customers, employees, referral sources, investors, industry leaders or other stakeholders 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 your stakeholders 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. Have you ever tried to resolve a significant issue with a loved one by using logic alone? Assuming the facts, as you presented them, would suffice to sway their perspective? Without any acknowledgement of their feelings? Since you know how well THAT works, just take the same approach to organizational communication.
- Be a Technophobe and Don’t Listen to Those Who Are Savvy About Tech or Online Communications. You don’t use or care about social media except to learn what your kids are doing via Facebook, and you still struggle to really understand how “all things Internet” really work. Who cares about Twitter except feuding politicians and celebrities, right? LinkedIn is just somewhere job-hunters can hit you up for work, right? And why would Instagram be important except to “kids”? Since all of your stakeholders feel exactly the same way, then optimized use of technology and online communications to prevent and respond to crises isn’t important.
While this list is tongue-in-cheek, the mistakes highlighted within are no laughing matter. They harm your bottom line, create long-term reputation damage, and in some cases could quite literally mean shutting your doors for good. It’s not hyperbole, we’ve seen it happen.
You can choose to feed your crisis, OR…you could learn from others’ mistakes! It’s a conscious choice that will have a direct impact, for better or worse, on the future of your organization.