Crisis Communications: Five Common Mistakes to Avoid

Crisis: a time of intense difficulty, trouble, or danger or a time when a difficult or important decision must be made.

Every crisis is different, but any CEO or company who has been through one can attest to the fact that their situation was difficult, troubling, and put their future in danger.  Most importantly, all can look back at the decisions they made, and pinpoint exactly how each one either contributed to their survival or demise.

Despite all of the factors that make each brand’s plight unique, many end up making the same poor decisions when it comes to crisis communications. Here are the five most common, excluding “repeating the mistakes of others.”

1.) Playing Ostrich

According to a Pew Research study conducted this year, 77% of Americans own a smartphone — meaning social media blunders almost never fly under the radar and a brand’s poorly-timed social media post becomes a Buzzfeed headline faster than you can say “oops.” Regardless of how quickly something is deleted, someone has most likely already taken a screenshot.

Offline transgressions are not exempt either. You could say, “What happens in Vegas, no longer stays in Vegas,” because chances are, one of the 250,789,000 Americans in possession of a smartphone was there to film it and share it with their Facebook friends. Last night’s amusing viral video is now the next morning’s headlines, and the hangover isn’t even over before the ensuing crisis begins.  

There is only one way forward here, and it’s absolutely not pretending “the situation” never happened. Will it eventually just blow over? Most likely. However, whether or not you’re still standing if or when it does depends largely on taking action.

What action taken depends largely on a variety of factors, but the first step in every crisis is to resist the urge to bury your head in the sand. Instead, acknowledge that it is not just a “situation” but a crisis before it is too late.

2.) Not Taking Personal Responsibility

Personal responsibility is something the majority of us were taught at a young age. For instance, not blaming that lackluster test score on the teacher, but acknowledging that you could have studied more. However, when poor test scores become the norm, it’s usually parents who must answer to the teacher for not impressing their child with better study habits. The parent didn’t take the tests, but they are partially on the hook for the results. The lesson? Personal responsibility does not just apply to your own actions, but also to those who answer to you.

Similarly, as a CEO or managing executive, just because you weren’t the one who approved that offensive tweet or did not officially sanction the “happy hour” that ended with an employee punching their Uber driver, it still reflects upon you.

At the end of the day, it’s likely your company’s name in the headlines because that’s what people will recognize. Not taking ownership of the situation, is averting the responsibilities of a good leader, and will simply make matters worse.  

When a customer was filmed being forcibly removed from a United Airlines flight, rather than serving up a swift apology, United CEO, Oscar Munoz, instead apologized for “having to re-accommodate these customers.”

Rather than the cold and impersonal response above, the original statement should have included a clear and unwavering apology directly to the passenger, and an outline of how the company would prevent these circumstances going forward. Instead, the statement comes across as an unsympathetic affirmation of corporate apathy.

When another, more sincere apology followed from United, the damage had already been done.

Apologize and publicly take responsibility for a mistake.  Do not forget to detail the measures you are going to take to ensure it never happens again. An apology is worthless without a promise of changed behavior moving forward. If executed properly, a sincere apology statement, taking full responsibility for the mistake, just might be a company’s salvation.  

3.) Addressing the Wrong Audience

Crafting an effective statement is easier said than done. If you are ready to apologize and accept your share of the responsibility, you’re on the right track. The next step is to ensure you are addressing the correct audience.

If you’re a startup that depends largely on investor funding, directing your statement toward consumers is the wrong move. Yes, you need customers to purchase whatever it is that you’re selling, but you cannot sell it to them if you no longer have a source of funding. Whoever keeps you in business — whether it be 3 investors or 3 million consumers — is the audience you need to convince that you deserve a second chance.

If your audience is millions of consumers, social media is the best way to reach them. Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are where your fans will go to air their grievances, and it’s important that they feel like they are being heard. It’s a lot of work, but it will make a world of difference.

The stakes might even be higher for a brand that relies on a small number of investors. Losing just one could mean losing everything. Your existing relationship with your investors will dictate how to best reach them.

No matter your audience, speaking to the wrong one has about the same effect as not saying anything at all.

4.) Deviating from Your Statement

This is probably the easiest mistake to unwittingly make. You acknowledge you had a crisis on your hands, wrote an eloquent statement apologizing and taking responsibility, and directed it toward appropriate audience. Do not throw all of that hard work away by deviating from that statement!

Do not get so wrapped up in your crisis that you forget to brief your employees — hopefully reassuring your team is one of the first things you did when you realized your “situation” was a full-fledged crisis. An NDA is no match for a well-intentioned employee trying to “clear the air” for their company on social media.

If your audience is large and you need extra help responding to the barrage of comments and tweets, ensure that your social media team has a copy of the statement. You need to make it clear just how important it is that they stick to it, no matter what.  

Most importantly, the media is almost never your friend in these situations! Let offers to “clear the air” or “tell your side of the story” fall on deaf ears unless you have done rigorous media training with a professional. In the immortal words of Admiral Ackbar, “It’s a trap!”

Do not get me wrong, journalists are not bad people, nor are they “out to get you.” They are simply doing their job. On top of bearing the burden of keeping the public properly informed, journalists need to write stories that are engaging, and generate “clicks” and “shares.” This is most assuredly done by appealing to our negativity bias. So, before you blame them, they are only giving us the news in our subconscious’ preferred format. Also, wouldn’t you want to know if your favorite lotion was causing people to break out in hives, and why no one at the company has done anything about it until now?

“But so long as I tell the truth, I’ll be fine, right?” Wrong! You are not in control of what that journalist writes down, and only you have your best interest at heart. Honesty is the best policy, but the truth is only as effective as the way it’s delivered.

5.) Not Already Having a Plan in Place

If you avoid this crisis communications mistake, avoiding the others listed above is pretty easy. It’s inevitable that at some point, your company will be affected by a crisis. What that crisis looks like depends on a variety of factors, but all crises are stressful and unpleasant.  

It’s difficult to make rational decisions, let alone remember those crisis communications mistakes you are not supposed to make, while you are being bombarded from all sides by people expecting you to have all of the answers. What if the majority of the answers already existed?  

While not everyone can predict exactly what a crisis might look like for your company, you should come up with some hypothetical scenarios and work with a professional to help you get a plan of action in place.

As Benjamin Franklin once said, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

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