Crises come in all forms and sizes, from the nuisance lawsuit or customer complaints that go viral, to major cybersecurity breaches, sexual harassment issues, or other incidents that impact a community or take human lives. As strategic public relations professionals, we have been dealing with these issues and more for decades. We have honed best practices and tempered them under fire, and have evolved our strategies as the explosion of social media for instant, widespread communications continuously adds new complexities to the art and science of crisis PR. The race is increasingly to the swift and those who have planned ahead.
In analyzing failed or derailed crisis programs, we’ve identified the extreme dangers hidden along any path to success in managing a crisis. The list could fill a book. For focus, we’ve identified the top 10 (or bottom ten as the case may be) most threatening landmines to any crisis program.
Individually, not every landmine can be fatal. But one blast can lead to another, making the goal of getting through the crisis unscathed unlikely or impossible.
- No Plan – When crisis issues arise, the best-prepared organizations pull out a well-rehearsed crisis plan and implement quickly, confidently and successfully. If an organization isn’t ready with its own carefully thought-out, plug-and-play plan, panic can rule the day. Take the time now to plan for the worst-case scenarios. The forethought that goes into the planning will often lead to mitigation efforts that can prove just as useful as the plan itself.
- Lack of Core Values – No, this isn’t a Kumbaya moment. Investing in the development of culture and corporate values is essential to the long-term success of any organization. The companies best prepared to weather a crisis are the ones who have already determined what they stand for and have provided ongoing evidence over time to support their position.
- Hype-Based Image – Having a corporate history of hype or muddled communications strategies can create frustration and distrust among reporters and key stakeholders. Proactively executing a strategic communication plan that aims to accurately position and depict the company with the media is a valuable investment, even if that means backtracking on some of the previous hype in an effort to build authentic, long-term relationships and understanding of the company.
- CEO Ego – CEOs are human, and humans can have egos. Big ones. From refusal to prepare or downplaying the gravity of a situation, egos can limit a company’s ability to respond quickly and authentically in crisis situations. This landmine calls for honesty and the ability to call it when “the emperor is wearing no clothes” or the CEO’s ego is preventing the company from taking the actions necessary to strategically manage an issue or clean up a mess.
- Attorneyitis – This landmine occurs when otherwise good messages and communications that the CEO and crisis team have approved get handed off for legal review and come back bruised, bloated and infected with the deadly disclaimer virus. The test: read a sentence out loud and if everyone’s eyes glaze over like you were reading from C-Span transcripts or they laugh so hard they herniate, start over.
- Too Slow to Respond – Time is of the essence when corporate reputations are at stake. When dealing with quick-moving media deadlines, a well-rehearsed crisis plan and existing message strategies can help organizations provide solid facts and meaningful quotes to ensure more balanced coverage and avoid the regrettable, “the company was unavailable for comment.” Getting back to the media with even a short statement (“We are checking all the facts and will get back to you as soon as we have an answer.”) can help mitigate pending disaster.
- Dueling Internal Fiefdoms – While turf wars and lack of corporate alignment have broader ramifications in preventing an organization from achieving its business and marketing goals, in a crisis, the problem is exacerbated and accelerated. Good organizations exhibit grace under pressure through positive, consistent communications. For the unaligned and contentious, disaster looms. Factual inconsistencies and delays in responding can create the perceptions there’s something to hide, erode trust and invite deeper probing.
- Stuck in Jargon Land – This isn’t necessarily fatal, just annoying and a potential roadblock to getting your compelling messages through the clutter during a crisis. Speaking in a sincere, human voice will help build bridges with the media and the ultimate target audiences on the other side of this filter. A trick of the trade to help clients focus on the goal is to imagine the perfect headline for the crisis situation. What would the headline say and where would it appear? Then, work backward from perfection and align all plans, themes, evidence, strategies and tactics to bring that headline and impression to life.
- Skeletons in the Closet – The evidence exists – against the company, CEO, employee, organization, product, or service – for an illegal action, threat to public safety or other transgression. The crisis management team needs access to all of the information and a full 360-degree view of the issue at hand. This is not the time or place to hold back details. The PR team analyzes the crisis in context and with a host of factors before determining the response. Do not wait to bring on board outside crisis support to provide independent strategic thinking on how to address the skeletons in the closet or pending issue you kept hidden that might explode into the public eye. A positive approach to dealing candidly with any crisis can include immediate and honest communications about the situation and a commitment to making things right in the future.
- No Comment – Avoid this nuclear landmine whenever possible. Even a simple “we’re looking further into this matter and will get back to you soon” is better than saying “no comment,” which can be perceived as “guilty as charged.” Armageddon may seem eminent but salvaging a small part of your reputation during difficult times can provide a starting point for building a new one for the future. There is always a better answer than “no comment.”
A Final Word
Some experts estimate that less than 5% of all crises are fatal to an organization or individual. CEOs reinvent themselves regularly, particularly in industries with high failure rates (technology, biotechnology, internet). Companies and organizations go through constant change, deal with major public issues and market turmoil, and keep moving forward. The path becomes much easier with a continuous investment in reinforcing strong core values, proactive crisis planning and avoiding potential landmines before the next crisis erupts.
Ready to take the next step in preparation for whatever crisis could be around the corner? NST is here to help. Set up time to discuss your company’s potential landmines (and how we’ll help you avoid them) at firstname.lastname@example.org.