All organizations are vulnerable to crises.
Disasters, lawsuits, accusations of impropriety, sudden changes in ownership or management, and other volatile situations can and often do happen. The threat of serious damage to people, property and/or reputation is real for any organization, and for many individuals as well.
The cheapest way to turn experience into future success is to learn from others’ mistakes.
The following examples of inappropriate crisis communications policies, culled from real-life situations, should provide a tongue-in-cheek guide to the mistakes you must avoid. If you want your crisis to spiral out of control, employ any combination of these wrong-way tactics:
1. Play ostrich. Do what Lance Armstrong did for years: Hope that no one learns about it. Follow the advice to say nothing and do nothing. Assume you’ll have time to react when and if necessary, with little or no preparation time. While you’re playing ostrich, with your head buried firmly in the sand, don’t think about the part that’s still hanging out.
2. Don’t start work on a potential crisis until after it’s public. Even if you’ve decided you won’t play ostrich, you can still fuel a developing crisis by shunning advance preparation. Before the situation becomes public, you have proactive options available. You could, for example, flesh out and even test some planned key messages, but that would mean that you could communicate promptly and credibly should a crisis break publicly, and you don’t want 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. Shoot from the hip, and give off-the-cuff remarks.
3. 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.
4. Treat print and online journalists as the enemy. We see examples of this every day. 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. You might badmouth them in a public forum or send nasty emails or texts. (Better yet: Badmouth an entire news organization.)
Then sit back and have a good time while your target:
- Gets angry and directs that energy into intensively going after your organization
- Laughs at what they see as validation that you’re up to no good
5. Rely on outside forums to tell your story. Because you’re eager to have others write about you accurately, tell your story only to mainstream journalists and social media influencers. They’ll tell your story properly—some of the time. Why bother setting up a website or other communications channels where you control the message 100 percent?
6. Use language your audience doesn’t understand. Jargon and arcane acronyms are but two ways to confuse your audiences, ideal for making most crises worse. Here are a few 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.
For the average member of the public—and for journalists who don’t specialize in that particular subject—the general reaction to such statements is, “Huh?”
7. Don’t listen to your stakeholders. Make sure 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 useful in determining how to communicate with them?
8. 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 notion that perception is as damaging as reality—sometimes more so.
9. 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 sway their perspective, without any acknowledgement of their feelings? Given that you know how well that works, take the same approach to external communication.
10. Ignore those who are savvy about online channels. You neither use nor care about social media except to learn what your kids are doing via Facebook, and you still struggle to 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, of course. And why would Instagram be important except to “kids”? Because all your stakeholders feel exactly the same way, then optimized use of technology and online communication to prevent and respond to crises isn’t important.
You can choose to feed your crisis—or you can 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.
A version of this post first appeared on Bernstein Crisis Management.