When it comes to crisis and issues management, very bad things can happen to very good people and very good organizations. That’s life.
If I’ve come to learn anything in my years of supporting people and organizations who find themselves in difficult public situations, it is that when bad things happen:
The response is more important to the public than the precipitating bad event itself.
Canadians in particular are very forgiving when mistakes happen if the individual or organization is quick to acknowledge, empathize and when necessary, apologize. Not only that, but you’ll need to show how you plan to fix or change the situation, prevent it from happening again and what you are doing to make amends to those negatively affected.
But let’s be clear here, believing that the “bad thing” can be buried or disappear quickly from public gazing is folly.
Cloaking devices only exist in Star Trek —social media has only accelerated truth. In fact, as traditional media outlets wither, a ruthless –and sometimes ill-informed social media community has emerged in its place that has ability to pry apart—fairly or otherwise—your very innards.
Just Google “Justine Sacco,” former communications director with IAC/InterActiveCorp and erstwhile “global hate figure,” who tweeted a racist remark as a joke before she boarded a plane to South Africa only to have her life systematically dismantled on social media while she slept on her flight. Eleven hours later she was ambushed (quite literally) when she landed. Her 12-word tweet ruined her life, her career and reputation.
There are ways to mitigate the potential reputational damage of a bad thing and shorten the intensity and duration of a story (some of what I’ve already mentioned).
Although I will warn you now that the ability to chart a more favourable course for yourself or organization will be dependent on things like: the number of people impacted by your bad thing; how the public feels about your brand; how influential or recognizable are the people involved; and whether the bad thing—as in the case of Ms. Sacco—was self-inflicted.
Allow me to encapsulate my thinking. When bad things happen, do the following:
- Get out first—Be Visible.
- Speak compassionately, own what you can and talk about how you plan to correct it.
- Eat crow fast and lots of it if the bad thing is unquestionably yours to own.
- Share information with your own internal audiences (staff, business partners, stakeholders)—ideally before the bad thing breaks.
- Be accessible to all media ALL the time.
- Use your social media tools to re-state your messages without being defensive.
- Be positive—even in the face of tough questioning—or you’ll inadvertently end up perpetuating negative impressions.
But my strongest advice is this: hire some help.
Seeing clearly in a crisis with major strategic and reputational implications is difficult for even the most seasoned executive. Bringing in an impartial third-party advisor to guide you through these situations gives you the advantage of a completely fresh perspective. Having someone without emotional or historical connections to your organization to advise you and help you move forward isn’t just smart – it’s essential.
Planning for crisis remains an important part of any organization’s work, but don’t presume that you can insulate yourself from every negative eventuality or – even worse – that “cloaking” will be a successful strategy.
When bad things happen, focus on your response as it will define and help to protect your reputation.
Interested in learning more about or getting help with your organization’s issues management or crisis communications? Senior Strategist Victor can help. Contact Victor at firstname.lastname@example.org for strategic crisis communications planning.