Four Ways to Make a Crisis Worse
Updated: Oct 17, 2022
I used to assume that crisis communications consisted of running around cloak and dagger, killing stories and cutting deals. Sometimes this happens (but ooh boy it can backfire), but much, much more often you are either trying to prevent a crisis by issue-spotting and influencing internal policies, or attempting to minimize the impact of a situation that is already unfolding.
But this whole business of minimizing impact is hard. Here’s four ways you could mismanage a crisis, and what you should do instead.
Misspeak, even by accident
My favorite example of this is the Amazon bottle peeing controversy. Basically, Amazon workers said they had to pee in bottles to keep up with demanding schedules, Amazon said no way that was happening, but it actually was happening, and Amazon says whoops yeah I guess it was.
Now, this was always going to break bad. But sometimes it’s less obvious when you’re misspeaking. You may think you know the answer to something, but are you absolutely, 100%, beyond-a-reasonable-doubt certain? Is there any circumstance or chance that this information may be inaccurate? If you claim, for example, that your technology doesn’t do something, are you sure it truly NEVER does under any circumstance or configuration? Have you validated this with the engineers who worked on this part of the technology? Have you asked them the same question in three or four different ways just to make sure? Do you even fully understand the issue you’re talking about?
You need to make sure every word you put out is 100% verifiably accurate. Sometimes this means your statements will be vaguer than you’d like, but it’s better than saying something untrue.
If you need to get back to a reporter while you’re doing your due diligence, you can provide a holding statement along the lines of, “We’re aware of these reports. We take this very seriously and are looking into this matter right now.” Now get digging!
Go straight to proactive, mass communications
Think of communications in two buckets: mass communications and targeted communications. Mass communications is social media, press releases, blog posts, statements to all your beat reporters, etc. It’s the things that get proactively pushed out to a large audience; the things that anyone can see.
On the other hand, targeted communications are targeted to certain people with the intention that they will stay with those people – although NEVER assume! Examples include intranet posts, talking points for customer interactions, or an email sent to your channel partners.
Jumping straight to mass communications is a classic mistake. You’re thinking, “Hey, if we can just let everyone know our point of view on this, they’ll get it and settle down.” Wrong. It’s wrong for two reasons:
Not everyone even knows about this problem. It may seem like a big deal to you because everyone who cares about it is coming to you, but in reality much of your user base and the general public doesn’t even know about it. Except now you’ve told them with your tweet.
Not everyone will agree with your point of view. One example of this is corporate taxes (or lack thereof). From time to time, a bunch of people get mad at a Fortune 500 company for not paying much in taxes. If the company were to Tweet that they pay all the taxes they’re legally obligated and if people don’t like it they should go bug their congressperson, how do you think that would go? Hint: not well!
So, instead, it is often best to target your communications and/or communicate reactively (aka respond on a 1-1 basis to direct asks). In this case, you might write up a brief statement to use only if a journalist specifically inquires, a template email and talking points for customer-facing employees to use if a customer asks, and perhaps an internal chat to provide some context for the customer materials and dispel any misconceptions going around internally.
Then you wait. Most often the issue will die out and you live to fight another day. Sometimes it will spiral even bigger and force you into mass comms. But the point is, often it's best to start with targeted comms.
Providing context and correcting misinformation: good. Coming off as defensive: bad. There are a few types of mistakes I see here:
Downplay – Maybe it really isn’t that big of a deal, but if people think it is big deal, you can’t come out and say “Guys, this doesn’t matter.” Instead, you should, with non-defensive language, try to put the issue into context (for a security vulnerability, for example, it might be how hard it is to exploit) . You can also explain what you're doing to fix it, if applicable.
Blame users – Yes, the customer isn’t always right. So while you don’t have to say “we messed up,” you can’t come right out and say “you messed up.” It’s better to say that you’re sorry this happened and then plainly remind users of best practices.
Woe is me – The general public does not empathize with corporations or the people who work in them. Again, you can provide context on why something happened the way it did, but don’t explicitly say how hard you have it. See the BP CEO during the 2010 oil spill.
In short, you can and should provide context in your statements as to why something happened or mitigating factors, but be very careful that the language doesn’t come off as you minimizing, abdicating responsibility, or being self-focused.
What I’ve laid out so far in this blog are actually pretty easy mistakes to make. In a crisis, you’re walking a fine line, having to make tricky, borderline-impossible judgment calls, weighing second- and third-order consequences and a variety of competing stakeholder interests.
And here is where winging it as a crisis amateur does not pay. Even experienced communications professionals who have spent years doing media relations are not necessarily crisis veterans. So, get an expert. You can call me, and if it's even too major for me, I can personally recommend some big guns. The point is, if something looks like it could be really big, if it’s spiraling out of control, it’s worth a quick chat with an expert. We can, at the very least, make sure you don’t turn a molehill into a mountain.
One more thing: the best crisis is one that never happens. Sure, it's comfortable to stay in your lane. But the best comms leaders push back, dig in, stick their nose where it doesn’t belong. Raise a flag when you see something questionable going on, whether it’s with an employee, a product, or a policy. You don’t have to wait for sunshine to disinfect, you can be that sunshine.
Good luck out there!