5 Crisis Communication Mistakes

In his second blog for OnSolve, Dr. Steve Goldman shares crisis communication guidance from several perspectives:

There are about a gazillion articles and blogs on crisis communications, mainly about “What YOU should do!” Here, I am going to take a different tack and point out my top five crisis communication mistakes.

As a former spokesperson and manager of media relations, I will do this from the content-provider side – the communications people delivering the information. Then I will ask two media colleagues for their "Top Five Crisis Communication Mistakes" from their perspective as content-receivers.

Dr. Steve’s Top Five Crisis Communication Mistakes:

  1. Not Having a Valid and Current Crisis Communications Plan/Procedures/System
    Some recent surveys note that several companies do not have a comprehensive crisis communications plan. How can any company not have this nowadays? Every company or agency – no matter its size – needs to plan out who does what, when, where, how and why. You should have pre-approved news/information/web/social media templates ready to be immediately used when a crisis hits. However, having a plan is not enough – read on.
  2. Not Having a Set of Your Own Trained and Effective Spokespersons
    This should be fairly obvious, but I have seen some spokespeople who look like the proverbial deer-in-the-headlights while fumbling an answer. Is that what you want as the perception of your organization? Also, I do not recommend outside PR flacks speaking on behalf of an organization. It’s your organization; therefore, they should be your spokespeople. News media can sniff out PR flacks and will act accordingly – and not to your benefit.
  3. Not Truly Exercising Your Crisis Communications Plan
    World Boxing Champion Mike Tyson once said, “Everybody has a plan, until they get punched in the face!” You MUST properly test, evaluate, validate, and improve your crisis communications operations. Only having a plan is not going to work in the real world. You will fail. My next blog will address how to do crisis communications exercises successfully.
  4. Believing You Can Get Away With Something
    Don’t try to spin, hack, delay, obfuscate, politicize, avoid, slant, lie, bend, mislead, or (if you own it) blame others. You may get a short-term reprieve, but eventually the truth will be revealed. Then you will have another crisis on your hands.
  5. Forgetting Who Your Audience Really Is
    A medium – plural: media – is a means through which communication is conveyed or achieved. The news and social media are the mechanisms through which you communicate with your intended audience. Your audiences will vary depending on your organization, its purpose, the event, and your objectives for communicating. Too many PR departments cater only to the news media; use the media to get to your true target audiences.

Let’s see what the news media think; I asked two colleagues for their thoughts.

Editor-in-Chief (retired) at a major metropolitan newspaper; currently Editor at a TV News Department:

  1. A Rush Job
    The need for speed does not trump the need for accuracy. Be sure your message is crystal clear and based on fact before you hit “Send." You don't want to be telling everybody to "Disregard our previous message."
  2. Failure to Distribute
    The message must go across multiple platforms simultaneously. Don't assume a single e-mail will do it. Go social, text and all other channels. There are no “nice to have” options – all are necessary.
  3. Overpromising
    Don't promise transparency on things you can't deliver. Don't promise a briefing you will have to continually delay. These raise more questions you will have to address later.
  4. Too Many Fancy Words
    Speak in a language we all understand. No complex industry jargon or PR buzzwords. A misinterpretation will have you scrambling to clarify all day.
  5. No Direction
    Back up every talking point with a plan of action. "The wellbeing of our employees always comes first. We have dispatched counselors, medical personnel and other employee resources to assist our workers on scene."
  6. Bonus: Conflicting Messages
    Communicate the same message internally and externally. Your internal messaging may very well go public; if it is not consistent, you will have some explaining to do.

An award-winning, long-experienced news editor at a major market television station:

  1. Lack of Timeliness
    Waiting too long to communicate critical information. This can be a real credibility killer! You may never recover from this.
  2. Fear of Liability
    Constraining information flow for fear of saying something that could get you sued. You are in an emergency – get the critical information out as soon as possible. Let the lawyers do their jobs after the crisis is over.
  3. Monopolizing the Communications Chain
    Do not concentrate messaging authority at the highest level. Share it at the business unit level.
  4. Not Knowing and Not Using All the Modes for Reaching Key Stakeholders
    You must reach your audiences in the manner(s) in which they communicate. This includes the traditional media, as well as social media and any new forms of communication.
  5. Not Being Simple and Direct

    Do not infuse spin with facts. Do not over-complicate the message. As Warren Buffet said about crisis messaging: “Get it Fast. Get it Right. Get it Out. Get it Over!”

    As attributed to Albert Einstein, “The definition of insanity is repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results.” Many of the above issues have been repeated over many years, crises and organizations. Why? Well, to quote George Santayana, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Learn from this and take action!

(Shameless plug alert) Come join us next July at the “Crisis Management & Business Resiliency” course at MIT. Yes, that MIT. See you there!

Thanks to my news media friends for your input. And thank you OnSolve for setting up this blog. Where else can the astute reader find, in one article, lasting philosophical guidance from Albert Einstein, George Santayana and Mike Tyson?

Dr. Steve Goldman

Dr. Steven B. Goldman is an internationally recognized expert and consultant in Business Resiliency, Crisis Management, Crisis Communications and Crisis Leadership. He has over 35 years’ experience in the various aspects of these disciplines, including program management, plan development, training, exercises, and response strategies. His background is unique in that he has been a professional engineer, corporate spokesperson, business continuity planner, situation responder, consultant, and a Fortune 500 Company’s Global Business Continuity Program Manager. Dr. Goldman has developed, conducted, and evaluated drills and exercises ranging from two-hour table-tops to massive three-day full-scale exercises involving hundreds of responders, multiple organizations, and all levels of government. Dr. Steve is also Director, Crisis Courses, at MIT. His “Crisis Management & Business Resiliency” Course is at http://professional.mit.edu/cm  You can contact Dr. Steve at Goldmans@MIT.edu