Communicating in a Business Crisis: Part 2

By George Merlis Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Last time we asked whether or not your business needs a crisis communications plan. On the assumption you are reading this post because you answered “yes,” to the question, here are some tips for you and your spokespersons.

Assign your spokesperson or spokespersons in advance: Often, when a crisis breaks, you see multiple personalities jostling for the media spotlight, trying to manage the crisis communications. This is counterproductive; it sends a message that nobody is in charge. Also, it’s imperative that everyone in the organization knows who the proper spokespersons are and refers reporters to those spokespersons. If your people don’t know who to refer the media to, you’ll face a flood tide of speculative answers from your own employees, most of whom will have only a partial picture of the crisis. Also, the fewer the spokespersons and the higher their rank, the better the plan.

Keep your spokespersons in the loop: Your crisis communications plan must include mechanisms for keeping spokespersons in the information flow. They cannot address public concerns if they don’t know what’s going on themselves. Never withhold information from your spokespersons because you want it withheld from the public. If that information gets out and the spokesperson did not know about it, he loses all credibility with the media.

Once you have your spokesperson or spokespersons, here are some tips for how they should communicate in a crisis.

Stay out in front: Late messages are as bad as mixed messages. If your spokespersons don’t get out and address the crisis quickly, other “experts,” many of them self-appointed and ill-informed, will assume the mantle of authority. After the 9/11 attacks, Americans wondered if they should buy gas masks. It took the federal government three weeks to come up with the recommendation not to buy them. During these weeks, self-appointed terrorism experts filled the 24-hour news channels, warning of chemical weapons and frightening the public into depleting Army/Navy stores and online military surplus companies of every gas mask in stock. If you don’t respond in a timely manner, someone else will, and it may prove hard to wrest back control of crisis communications once that horse is out of the barn.

Tone: Your spokespersons needs to exhibit empathy, not paternalism. People resent being talked down to, even in extremely dire crises. Another form of paternalism is withholding bad news from the public for fear it will panic or react badly. Eventually the information is going to come out and once it does, your credibility will be in shambles.  The public can handle bad news if you present it in a mature, factual, respectful way. A series of 55 focus groups conducted across the country by the Centers for Disease Control and five universities found that uncertainty is more difficult to deal with than bad news and that any information is empowering in a crisis.

Speculation: The media will invite you and your spokespersons to speculate on the progress and outcome of the crisis. Decline the invitation.  Speculation is dangerous. If you are wrong, you damage your credibility.

Swat rumors promptly: A rumor left standing becomes a fact in short order. While this is an extreme example and unlikely to be duplicated in the world of business, it is instructive: There were rumors of mass assaults in the Superdome in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. It didn’t happen, but authorities failed to refute the rumors in a timely manner and to this day many people still believe and repeat the stories.

Don’t answer what you can’t answer. Do answer what you can answer: “I don’t know. We’re working on it,” is a perfectly valid answer, especially if followed by a description of what steps are being taken. On the other hand, you can’t manage a crisis by withholding information. As Shakespeare wrote in The Merchant of Venice, “Truth will out.”  When it does, your credibility plummets and you find yourself managing both a crisis and a credibility gap.  But what about information you really can’t share? Respectfully, tell the media that you are withholding some information and why you are withholding it. If you have no results to report, talk about the process that will lead to results. The public wants to know something is being done, even if it hasn’t yet borne fruit.

The bottom line: candor: Candor is the most important tool for the crisis communicator. It served Johnson & Johnson well in the 1982 Tylenol poisoning crisis. J&J’s handling of the crisis is cited in every crisis management text written in the last three decades. And from a business point of view, candor worked extremely well because within months of the emergency, Tylenol regained its position as the country’s top-selling over-the-counter pain relief medication.

*Disclaimer*: Harvard Business Services, Inc. is neither a law firm nor an accounting firm and, even in cases where the author is an attorney, or a tax professional, nothing in this article constitutes legal or tax advice. This article provides general commentary on, and analysis of, the subject addressed. We strongly advise that you consult an attorney or tax professional to receive legal or tax guidance tailored to your specific circumstances. Any action taken or not taken based on this article is at your own risk. If an article cites or provides a link to third-party sources or websites, Harvard Business Services, Inc. is not responsible for and makes no representations regarding such source’s content or accuracy. Opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of Harvard Business Services, Inc.

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