How to survive a scandal

Follow this guidance to assess the situation, mitigate the damage, and evaluate how well you survived the heat of the moment.

How to survive scandal

In the corporate world, just like in life, the good, the bad and the ugly shine through the cracks.

There will be times when specific comments, past behavior and opinions may cause chaos among co-workers, customers or the public eye. Left unattended, those incidents times may turn into a scandal, leaving businesspeople to survive independently and use whatever resources they may have at hand. The truth is, the key to surviving scandal is a good communication strategy. It is crucial to have a plan in place with steps to handle these sorts of difficult situations.

Well-intentioned leaders are often ill-equipped to handle the communication complexities hidden beneath a scandal. What seems like the right move typically backfires, and lost ground cannot be recovered. Emotions may come into play during this time, and they are your worst enemy. When we are emotional, we cannot think clearly, and if we succumb to our emotions at any point, we will be forced to do damage control. That is when you need to stick to this golden rule: Ignore your feelings, and do what’s right. For example:

  • If somebody sends you a nasty message, cool your heels before responding.
  • When name-calling commences, be positive, or at least neutral, about the person in question.
  • If you are hurt, write a message to the offending party. But before you send it, revise it until it is a message you would want to receive if the tables were turned.

To survive a scandal, you need a plan. Ideally, you would foresee when a crisis could occur and have a plan in the waiting. But usually, you have to spring into action as soon as you know an issue arises. In those situations, there is a strategy you can follow. This strategy includes immediate steps, planning steps, implementation steps and the final steps. All of these guarantee you will be able to survive the scandal.

Immediate steps

When a scandal hits you or your company, there are a few steps you can follow to assess the situation, know how to react, and decide what to do:

  • Gather your team to assess the situation as soon as possible. This means legal counsel should be included when needed.
  • Collect information and confirm as many facts as you can.
  • Assess risks and opportunities, and consider every audience group that could be affected or not.
  • Author an initial holding statement indicating you understand what is happening and are gathering the facts to make a more informed statement.
  • Temporarily halt all advertising campaigns.
  • Determine the level of response and how to respond. The worse the news, the more in-person you should be.

Planning steps

Once you have assessed the situation and gathered the facts, it’s time to act:

  • Develop a communications plan targeting what you want each audience to know and do.
  • Assign resources and establish deadlines and guidelines to measure the plan’s effectiveness.
  • Author key messages based on facts, not speculation.
  • Shape your comments to clearly demonstrate how you are positively affecting your customers, patients or community members.

Implementation steps

You have planned how you will handle the situation, and now it’s time to get started:

  • Activate your communication plan, using outside consultants if needed.
  • Monitor the media, including all channels, websites and social media platforms.
  • Use your prepared key messages, acknowledging any questions you are asked. Always bridge back to your key messages during an interview or conversation. For example, say, “If that turns out to be the case, we will take action,” or “I can’t speak to all that. Here’s what I can tell you.”
  • Maintain control of the interview by rephrasing any negative or misleading questions to create a positive and accurate understanding of the issue.

Final steps

Once the scandal is over and things go back to normal, you should assess the outcome:

  • Debrief after the crisis passes to see how well you responded.
  • Determine if you got the outcome you wanted.
  • Create a positive publicity campaign to run after the scandal is smoothed over.

We all want to avoid scandal, but sometimes it is unavoidable. In any case, you must be prepared to navigate the situation as positively as possible. Communication is the key to surviving scandal, but it is essential to know how to communicate and what steps to take in order to get the outcome you are looking for. Assess the facts, prepare your message, deliver your information, and keep a positive and respectful attitude while doing so. This is what will get you to the other side.

Melissa DeLay is the owner of crisis communications agency TruPerception and author of the book “The Truth About Scandal: The Everyday Guide to Navigating Business Crises.” 

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