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Crisis Communication Mistakes to Avoid

I’ll never forget my first crisis-communication project. I was about to meet for the first time with the executive team of a new client, which was in a business that handled all manner of toxic and deadly industrial substances.

When I arrived with my business partner at the time, the CEO and his team were fuming. They had just been told about a newspaper article that reported on the company’s spill of a chemical into a waterway in a town hundreds of miles from where we sat. The CEO essentially demanded that we immediately “issue a press release” calling the local reporter and his editor “yellow journalists.” I asked simply, “Have you read the article?”

No one in the room had. They were relying on the telephone report of an employee in the hinterlands who clearly had an agenda that involved covering a certain anatomical feature beginning with the letter “a.” The article, when we read it, was fair, balanced and complete.

In scores of client crises encountered in more than 30 years, I have seen and almost always helped to avoid fundamental mistakes such as responding with invectives to newspaper articles that no one has read. Here’s some of the common mistakes I’ve seen:

Responding to ego damage instead of real damage. Too many crisis-communication situations are infected with the probably incurable disease I call Testosterone-itis. Rather than responding to and managing the reality of a crisis, those driving the response too often are blinded by the damage done to their feelings. For example, the executives of an insurance company that specialized in annuities was under attack by a rogue rating agency as “most likely to fail” because of its so-called “junk bond” holdings. Though the executives wanted to send a letter to every annuitant reassuring them that the company was well managed, an overnight random sample of annuitants revealed that only a tiny percentage even knew the name of the company that had issued their annuities. Imagine the firestorm that a letter to all of them would have ignited.

Greatly over-estimating the role that mass media play and under-estimating the role that opinion leaders play in creating or resolving the crisis situation. This mistake was just as common in the pre-Internet days as it is today. Yes, mass media (including social networks, Twitter and such) do play an important role during crisis situations. But all crises start and grow with at least one victim and at least one other person pointing out the victimization. Successful crisis-communication programs speak to them directly, not at arm’s length. (For a series of charts describing how crises emerge and resolve, along with specific strategies and tactics to employ during each of the three major phases, visit my website.)

Taking actions that will extend the crisis, not resolve it. (Think Toyota, the modern-day J&J and the Vatican.) There’s a phase during every crisis during which it can almost always be resolved simply by fixing the problem that is causing a crisis to germinate. It often requires a mea culpa along with the fix and a realistic set of steps to avoid a re-occurrence. But too often, company executives listen to their attorneys and not to the overwhelming evidence that acknowledging and fixing problems does more to help a company’s reputation than any amount of foot-dragging, passively voiced non-apologies (“Mistakes were made …”) and finger pointing. The corollary of this mistake: being guided by fear of lawsuits rather than doing the right thing.

Allowing dangerous gaps in the crisis infrastructure. These gaps include lacking a plan, the tools necessary to implement it and to monitor its progress. Gaping holes I’ve seen include lack of a well-coded and complete database of opinion leaders; having no regular methods for monitoring social media and having no alternative means of communicating with key constituent groups when one method can’t be used or isn’t appropriate.

Planning a communication program is a science and an art. Read more here.

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