Crisis Communications: Managing Public Perception Proactively
Crisis communications is the act of managing perception of an event. It isn't management of the even itself. It is communicating in a way to minimize damage. Crisis communications is viewed differently by various stakeholders. Attorneys will have the view of saying little to avoid or minimize future litigation. The CEO may have a personal view, trying to save face or retain some semblance of authority. The Board of Directors may be primarily concerned with stock price. One thing they all have in common is a desire to minimize damage.
Who should manage crisis communications?
Crisis communications is therefore about managing perception. Should attorneys be consulted for crisis communications? Probably. But should they lead the effort? Perhaps not. If a lawsuit is almost certainly going to happen, crafting language to minimize future litigation is certainly something you'll want to strongly consider. But an attorney often goes by the maxim that saying less will give the enemy less ammunition when that time comes. Again, they're probably right about that aspect of the crisis - lawyers are in the business of de-escalation when defending their clients. But there are other aspects to consider as well, for example - the public.
Remember the public
he public wants to feel the company has their interests in mind. A crisis strategy that amounts to "say as little as possible" will likely put the company on the public's "naughty" list. Does that mean the CEO should immediately start taking phone interviews? Probably not, because the message needs to be massaged. But it has to happen quickly. Remember that a crisis can go a number of ways. Often it can be turned into an opportunity.
Crisis communications can seem like holding a dragon by the tail. The public is smart and curious. If the company already has a good reputation, they may want their beliefs supported and may give the company the benefit of the doubt - at least at first.
If a company already has a bad reputation, the public probably won't give them an inch. Either way, responding from a place of competence and empathy is usually the best path. But in the fire and fury that follows a PR crisis people can get tongue-tied or worse. That's why it's important to find some breathing space before the temptation to be reactive rears its head.
First - don't make things worse
The first goal of crisis communications should be to not make things worse. A fast response of some kind may give you precious time, but it should be executed properly. When a journalist comes knocking after a crisis, it may be advisable to respond, but to respond via email instead of a phone call. A phone interview right after a crisis, or while it's unfolding, can be misinterpreted and is hard to manage. Oftentimes a CEO will get on the phone, tell their story, and be dumbfounded (and angry) that the journalist significantly changed her story, or spun it in a negative fashion.
To solve this problem consider responding via email, at least at first. This does a few things:
- It gives you time to consider the questions and answer them thoughtfully.
- It shows the journalist you're engaged, while simultaneously buying a little time.
- During that time you can gauge the situation by using social media listening tools to help craft your response
Remember the goal of crisis communications
The goal of crisis communications is big picture - to save the company. That may mean saving its reputation, its stock price, and its people. Part of that formula is saving money, but a short-term saving strategy may be short-sighted. In other words, making attorneys jobs easier (and saving the company money in the process) is a noble goal. But if the cost of doing so is the public branding the company as rogue, the long-term costs in reduced stock price or an exodus of talent could be far more expensive. Both short and long-term goals should be weighed.
Can owning up make things better?
In one study, "the authors found that organizations that made “self disserving” attributions— internal and controllable attributions for negative events—had higher stock prices 1 year later." The authors found that the companies seemed more in control, and able to manage problems more effectively. Share prices were at least 14% higher for companies that admitted mistakes and dealt with them proactively.
Reality can be viewed from many angles
Crisis communications should be strategic. Some may call it "spin", and they might not be wrong, but a company has a duty to defend itself. That duty is to it's shareholders, employees, directors and of course it's customers. The messaging should match reality, but reality can be viewed from many angles. Viewed as an opportunity, a crisis can be leveraged to some degree. A proper response from stakeholders can eventually benefit a company. So it's not in the interests of the company to be less than truthful. It's also not in its best interests to try to obfuscate something that will inevitably surface. A crisis is often an opportunity to set the tone.
Responding to journalists via the middle road
If you're lucky, an email or otherwise written set of questions from a journalist (or a number of them) is a blessing because you can get an idea of the direction of inquiry from the questions. This enables you to quickly craft a response that is empathetic and concise based on both their questions, and any social media chatter that is surfacing.
It also provides an opportunity to be proactive. If you know something bad is going to happen, if it's inevitable, face up to it and outline what will be done to solve the problem. This is a great place for attorneys to get involved because the way something is worded can make a big difference in the outcome of litigation.
Learning from mistakes
Learning from mistakes and making the world a better place because of it can hurt. It can hurt our pride and our pocketbook. But if things are going to go south to some extent anyway, a measure of humanity and humility can go a long way. If a company. Communicating this in a way that keeps all stakeholders, including the public, happy can be tricky but the rewards can be significant. Admitting mistakes doesn't necessarily have to be explicit, especially early in a crisis while things are unfolding. It makes perfect sense at this stage to be "if mistakes were made we'll be unearthing them and finding ways to correct them." It's a conditional statement that doesn't admit fault. It's different than saying "we made mistakes". This is another reason early responses are best provided in writing - things can be nuanced.
Realize human nature is against you
People are drawn to crisis. It's called negativity bias. Bloggers and journalists know this because bad news delivers clicks and shares, and those deliver money. So it's in the interests of many "gotcha" publications to make things look worse than they are. It will happen, so getting ahead of it as best you can is important.
Fake news is often built on negativity bias. Combine a "clickbait" headline with bad news and you have a recipe for shares and clicks. Know that many online publications thrive on twisting stories, because as you know, reality can be viewed from many angles. Their angle will be the one that attracts the most eyeballs.
A little breathing room
Now that you've learned from the questions of the press and social media, and responded in a measured way, you may have a little breathing room. What do you do with it? You proactively follow up and take action. You report it to your constituents in an empathetic and controlled manner. You manage the conversation as best you can by providing a measure of transparency. You lead the narrative.