Why you shouldn’t trust your instincts in a crisis

Good crisis communications can seem to defy logic, especially when legal teams are involved. One pro looks at Google’s response to a recent PR firestorm—and how it got better over time.

PR crisis planning

Under the pressure of a crisis, how a company responds is almost always the same: a knee-jerk response that tells their side of the story.

Google has spent much of the last month trying to build an effective response to The New York Times’ article on October 25, 2018 titled “How Google Protected Andy Rubin, the ‘Father of Android’” about how the company paid Mr. Rubin $90 million dollars all while keeping silent about harassment claims made against him. CEO Sundar Pichai is hoping that his fourth statement in less than a month addressing the piece will finally allow the company to move forward.

Why did it take four responses—and what can companies do to apply the lessons of past failures to the next crisis they face?

The heat of the moment

Google surely believed they had a thoughtful communications plan in place for this story. They knew the story was coming with The New York Times reaching out for comment. What they did not realize was that three crucial elements stood in their way.

1. Emotion

Crises are often personal, especially when companies or CEOs feel like they are being attacked. The natural reaction is to delay, deny and defend. You delay because you feel you shouldn’t have to respond or don’t yet have all the information. You deny because the accusation feels like it is exaggerating or manipulating the issue. You defend when those fail, and all that seems to be left is a counterattack. Emotion leads to messages that vent or make the company feel good but are ultimately ineffective with outside audiences.

2. Protection

In a crisis, lawyers (much like doctors) operate to “first, do no harm.” If they could, many lawyers would have the company respond to a crisis by saying nothing at all. The corporate-speak that results from an over-lawyered statement is designed to say nothing.

The instinct is to avoid the risk of saying something that makes things worse. The reality is that small crises often become big ones when companies prove they are tone-deaf in how they respond.

3. Over-engineering

Every statement needs to be accurate. However, technical experts, including scientists and policy wonks, often too much in the weeds. A well-articulated message in their hands can turn into jargon-filled nonsense to outside stakeholders.

It’s difficult to overcome these corporate instincts. Communicators often watch these debates in frustration, but without hard data to show that a different approach works better. Using decades of crises and issues messaging test results, my team analyzed Pichai’s comments (employee letters from Oct. 25, Oct. 30, and Nov. 8, as well as his comments at the Dealbook conference on Nov. 2).

Here are the key takeaways:

How Google’s first response got it wrong

Google’s first response to the crisis read like an impersonal statement: “Today’s story in the New York Times was difficult to read.”

It also was defensive. It continued:

“We are dead serious about making sure we provide a safe and inclusive workplace. We want to assure you that we review every single complaint about sexual harassment or inappropriate conduct, we investigate, and we take action.”

It also fails to look to the future with statements like“In recent years, we’ve made a number of changes.”

How Google’s fourth response got it right

Pichai’s later response was more personal: “So first, let me say that I am deeply sorry for the past actions and the pain they have caused employees.”

He also emphasized openness. He continued:

 At Google we try hard to build a workplace that supports our employees and empowers them to do their best work. As CEO, I take this responsibility very seriously and I’m committed to making the changes we need to improve. Over the past few weeks Google’s leaders and I have heard your feedback and have been moved by the stories you’ve shared.”

This response also looked to the future: “It’s clear we need to make some changes. Today, we’re announcing a comprehensive action plan to make progress.”

Why it matters

Impact assessment is highly personal. Because Google’s crisis is intensely personal for employees and directly related to actions taken by leadership, it required more empathy than the original response

Google’s first response assumed that the issue was over lack of oversight. What employees really wanted was a sense that they had power to drive real change and that all played by the same rules.

When highly personal issues are at play, past actions rarely suffice. Google has recognized this by taking new, responsive action.

Google recognized that they needed to respond quickly to the New York Times story. What they did not fully understand was why employees were so angry, nor what it would take to address the issue. Had Pichai resisted corporate instincts and instead taken a more data-driven, analytical approach to what to say, he could have avoided sounding tone deaf and may have kept this issue from turning into a month-long assault on Google’s culture.

Michael Maslansky is CEO of maslansky + partners. You can contact him at info@maslansky.com.

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