Crisis Communication, or How to Stay Alert and Dancing

May 16, 2017

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Musicians, especially solo acts and “front men” who need to keep the audience amused while they change a broken string or the band argues about what song to play next, can become quite adept at distracting the audience from noticing that the train is running off the tracks.  As a notoriously disorganized folksinger friend used to say when things looked particularly unrehearsed, “Life is a series of humorous pitfalls designed to keep us alert and dancing.”

Unfortunately for the corporations they run, a recent series of self-inflicted wounds left CEOs anything but amused, and the only ones who were kept alert and dancing were the crisis communication firms trying to put out the fires.

United Airlines drags a ticketed, seated passenger off a plane against his will, badly injuring him in the process. A murder is live streamed on Facebook. Pepsi is universally mocked for a TV spot it thought would generate goodwill. Wells Fargo is still trying to rebuild trust a year after finally admitting it was caught lying to its customers. Each of these crises could have been avoided. Instead, because of the way these companies responded or failed to respond, they’ve become crisis communications case studies.

According to the Institute for Crisis Management (ICM), a business crisis is anything that can trigger negative reactions from stakeholders and impact an organization’s reputation or finances. A crisis can lead to a loss of trust or a loss of life. It could be discrimination, workplace violence, terrorist attacks, cybercrime, whistleblowers, lawsuits, recalls, environmental damage, natural disasters, or mismanagement.   

Regardless of the situation, every crisis has several things in common:

  • Insufficient information: It takes time to gather the facts and determine the severity of the problem.
  • Loss of control: Things happen quickly. The Harvard Business Review said that what happened with United and Pepsi unfolded “at the speed of corporate shame…as fast and as ruthless as the internet.”
  • Escalating flow of events: By the time you figure out your response, someone is spreading the story on social media and people have already formed an opinion about you.
  • Intense public scrutiny: We’ve all seen the United videos.  

Nobody said that communicating in a crisis would be easy. When you feel attacked, it’s natural to become defensive. And when corporations allow themselves to be guided by legal counsel instead of PR, it’s understandable that the organization’s initial statements might sound guarded, maybe even cold hearted.  

Instead, an organization’s communication during a crisis should be guided by the answer to these questions:

What would a reasonable person expect a responsible organization to do?

Would silence be seen as a lack of caring or a sign of guilt?

Is someone else already framing the story?

ICM notes that the biggest impediment to effective crisis communication is management denial, and points out that half of all organizations worldwide don’t have a crisis communications plan. If they did, they would know that an effective response to a crisis depends on: 

  • Showing you care: A reasonable person would expect a responsible organization to show compassion.
  • Responding quickly: The more you deliberate or hope for the best, the more things escalate and the less control you have over the story.
  • Sticking to the facts: Organizations get in trouble when they speculate. Stick to what is known, and if you don’t have all the information, get it before you answer with something misleading.
  • Frequent updates: Use websites, social media, and media briefings to update information quickly. This will help keep rumors and speculation to a minimum.

United was roundly criticized for it’s initial response, which blamed the passenger and quoted corporate policy. It seemed they didn’t care, and the result was a loss of trust. By the time the CEO said he was horrified, nobody believed him. Pepsi, on the other hand, quickly admitted their blunder and pulled the offensive spot. They were even able to laugh at themselves, and the damage to their reputation was minimized.

How your organization responds to a crisis can impact your reputation and your bottom line for years to come. Crisis communication firms like Pushkin PR can help you develop a crisis plan and provide training to help you communicate during a crisis. If you’d like to know more, contact us to set up a free consultation.  

 



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Jon Pushkin

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Jon Pushkin is the president and founder of Pushkin Public Relations, a full service Denver PR firm. He likes dogs, baseball and swing, in that order.


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