A long time ago in a galaxy not so far, far away, the first three key words used in response to a crisis were: deny, deny, deny! For example, for many years, the Catholic Church’s response to child abuse was often to deny any wrongdoing. That approach has not done their reputation or the victims any good in the short or long term. Thankfully, this old-fashioned and ineffective ethos is becoming known as the wrong way to deal publicly with a crisis situation, but there are still plenty of examples of how not to react.
Another far-too-common mistake is avoidance: avoiding the media, avoiding any victims or avoiding the place where the crisis took place. The chairman of Montreal,Maine & Atlantic Railway Ltd, Ed Burkhardt, was heavily criticised for waiting four days to address the public and media in the small Canadian town of Lac Megantic after an accident that killed 40 people in 2013.
When a crisis occurs to you or your organisation a large part of your crisis plan is to limit the damage as much as possible. Denial and avoidance rarely help. It is far better to be as open and honest as you can, as soon as you can. It may even involve falling on your sword or light sabre, to continue the Star Wars theme.
Take the recent ‘wrong text message’ saga as an example. Earlier this year, the Australian Immigration Minister, Peter Dutton, had a serious case of text regret after sending a rather offensive message about a female journalist to that very journalist. He referred to her as a ‘mad f—ing witch’. The message was reportedly meant to be sent to his colleague Jamie Briggs after he had stood down after inappropriate behavior towards a staffer while on an overseas trip. Mr Dutton admitted the texting error soon after the journalist went public with the mistake. He also immediately apologised to the journalist. The minister still had to deal with the damaging effects of his bad language and mistake, but his prompt and honest actions would have helped to reduce the impact, at least a little.
A prompt and simple apology can go a long way. It sends all the right messages to any victims or members of the public affected. It tells them you empathise with them and want to deal with the situation in a timely and honest manner. There are times that you cannot say sorry, owing to the fact it may not be clear who is to blame, but even then you can empathise with those adversely affected.
Imagine if there was a fire at your hospital or surgery and a number of patients died in the blaze. You can still show empathy without accepting blame in the immediate aftermath. You could, for example, say ‘we are sorry for all those families who have lost loved ones due to this awful fire. The fire authorities and police are investigating what went wrong, but until we know how it started we just want everyone to know we are doing all we can to help those involved.’
It’s a crisis you will hopefully never have to cope with, but you and your employers may at some stage have to deal with a situation that may potentially damage your reputation irreparably if you don’t handle it the right way. In the box is a list of some basic rules to help you and your communications team deal with any potential crisis, but in the meantime I urge you to share my vision where the first three words used in response to a crisis are not ‘deny, deny, deny’ but ‘I am sorry’.
The author can be contacted via http://mediaangle.com.au
- Don’t panic. Stay calm, get advice quickly and be ready to react in a measured way. If you look like you are panicking, the public are likely to do the same.
- Go public with a response as soon as you can. Avoiding the public and media will often make things far worse for you. Engage with the public as soon as you can. You/your organisation will suffer in the short-term, but informing the public early will help reduce the risk of long-term damage.
- Acknowledge what you did wrong or what went wrong. Being open about what went wrong is also vital during a crisis, especially when human lives are at risk. Even when lives are not at risk, denying responsibility for a crisis you are clearly to blame for is foolish. If you don’t know who is to blame at least acknowledge that something has gone wrong and you are trying to fix the problem and investigate.
- Empathy or an apology must be part of your message. You must always put the victims or those affected first. Your message must be about them and how sorry you are for hurting/inconveniencing them. Your response should address what you are doing to help them and fix the problem that has caused them distress. Who can forget the barrage of criticism directed at former BP boss Tony Hayward after the deadly Gulf of Mexico oil disaster? He not only chose to go sailing with his son in the immediate aftermath of the spill that killed 11 workers, but he also said publicly, ‘I’d like my life back’.
- Outline what you are doing to fix the problem. If your computer system is down and thousands of customers can’t do their online banking or they can’t get on the flight they booked months ago, there is little doubt that you are trying to fix the problem. Even if you are yet to find a solution, your customers want to know that you are trying to solve the issue. So tell them.
- Keep the public informed. You need to keep the public informed as the crisis unfolds or as you work on a solution. This is especially important when a crisis is unfolding, for example, natural disasters, fires and disease outbreaks.