Once a crisis occurs, the bloviating begins, mostly by PR people.
Most of these uninformed comments leave the erroneous impression that if you do maybe three things right, and quickly, the problem will be over before it begins.
It’s sort of like when you were a kid seeing, for the first time, a show on which people were shot. You’d think, “Why didn’t they just quickly jump out of the way the moment they heard gunfire?” The moment you know it’s a crisis, you have, in fact, been shot.
Let’s talk about how we really should prepare those we advise for what’s going to happen once the bullet arrives. What happens first is Mindless Crisis Management Commentary Errors, made mostly by PR people eager for the visibility that such commentary provides.
It seems many of our public relations brothers and sisters know a whole lot less about the patterns of crises than they let on, including many who write and blog about the subject.
Let’s start with the basic realities of a crisis that the instant critics seem to miss or fail to care about. Perhaps they are ignorant of what gives rise to crises. What we get instead is mindless commentary.
Mindless comment No. 1: “They didn’t act fast enough.”
Anyone with any serious crisis experience knows, a crisis erupts quickly, often defying easy, early response, realistic commentary and disclosure. If journalists and bloviators report something immediately, that doesn’t mean they are correct, nor even close. Early reports and criticism are almost always wrong, often fabricated and never corrected.
No one can act fast enough to respond with the power and effectiveness needed to instantly mitigate a crisis. The slowness comment is actually a cheap shot. Most first responses are weak and misdirected and must be fixed, sometimes repeatedly.
Mindless comment No. 2: “The company obviously did not have a plan to respond to an event of this magnitude, and they should have.”
Any military strategist will tell you—as will any experienced crisis responder or communicator—that whatever the scenario, however clever the strategy, once the first bullet is fired, all early bets on the first response approach are off and new strategies will be required. Crises are sloppy, random affairs that slowly reveal the extent of the damage and the proper response requirements.
Here again, those who have survived a crisis understand that crises tend to explode, but resolving them happens incrementally. In a crisis, nobody knows for sure what’s going on for quite a period of time, and sometimes never.
All crises take far longer to resolve than anyone ever assumes. On top of that, there is collateral damage that surfaces only after serious crisis resolution efforts begin.
Mindless comment No. 3: “The response should have been executed much more cleanly and with fewer hiccups than it was.”
Total nonsense. Crises are always messy, sloppy, stupidly expensive and miserable affairs to manage. Mistakes are frequently made in responding. My rule is that 50 percent of your energy and 25 percent of your resources in the early response to crises go to fixing the mistakes you made yesterday or just this morning.
In the early going of a crisis response, mistakes are more common than success. Sooner or later, after you have piled up sometimes millions of dollars in mistakes, suddenly a particular response works despite your having little knowledge of the underlying causes and circumstances. Honorable companies react, respond and risk public embarrassment and public condemnation.
Remember the complaint-scarred but hugely successful 10 percent discount weekend following the disclosure of the Target hacking incident.
This huge act of benevolence on the part of the retail chain was immediately converted into a media set-up for criticism—which always arrives late and is usually gratuitous.
Instead, most coverage comments, despite full and overflowing Target parking lots, criticized the CEO for “not having known that there were going to be exceptions.” Blanket responses and blanket attempts at doing good things always have their hitches, glitches and hiccups. As they say in the Marines, “No good deed goes unpunished.” So, what’s the point?
Accommodating mindless criticism
Mindless commentary has become part of crisis reporting. Get used to it; remain calm in spite of it. Here’s what you can expect:
1. In crises, media outlets always do and say the same things, make the same mistakes, and invent or get others to invent erroneous hypotheses. They then cover these hypotheses as though they were true. During the school shootings in Boston and Connecticut, the victims’ family members begged media outlets to stop making things up. In crises, more than 80 percent of the early coverage is fabricated. Breaking news is too often just plain broken news.
2. Mindless commentators come out of the woodwork, and many are PR people, because journalists know public relations pros will always bash the perpetrators. Beware the instantly created CNN panel of “experts” assembled to fabricate the news for you.
3. Even the best companies can become perpetrators. The truth comes out very slowly, no matter how loudly the complainers complain, the accusers accuse and the plaintiffs sue.
4. The perpetrator has to actively correct, clarify and comment on the ill-informed misinterpretations of others—intentional, unintentional, errors and stuff that was just made up. Otherwise crisis-related problems can and do live forever in the ether.
5. Silence is always the most toxic strategy; there is no rational excuse for silence by honorable companies, their leaders and individuals, even for the first hour or two. Silence becomes the focus of the coverage, regardless of how splendidly and perfectly a response is carried out. Speak immediately; 140 characters, offered now, are all it takes to save your reputation.
Lukaszewski’s law of bungled crisis communication: Even if your response was arguably perfect-and no matter how humanely you treat the victims and deal with the consequences of your situation-if you fumble, stumble, mumble and bungle the communications of a crisis, it will be characterized and remembered as a stumble, fumble, mumble and bungle.
A version of this article first appeared on LinkedIn.