Oct 31, 2014

It’s a little hard to be in the PR business and not handle a crisis or two. In our case, it’s something we do for clients quite often. Over the years we’ve handled a wide and varied assortment of problems most of us wouldn’t wish on our worst enemies – data breeches, toxic spills, SEC violations, lawsuits, product failures and bankruptcy filings, just to name a few.

In the spirit of Halloween, we thought we’d share a few things we’ve learned about managing crises:

    • Bad news is like a dead fish… the longer you wait to deal with it, the smellier it gets – There is often a reflexive instinct in people to want to delay releasing or somehow conceal bad news. Usually (as in darn near every time), that ends up being a bad idea. You never feel ready to share bad news about your company or something someone has done, but the sooner you do it the better. Why? Because it’s the first sign to the external world that you’re going to be honest, credible and determined to do the right thing. And while you don’t want to make your news sound worse than it is, don’t succumb to the temptation to sugarcoat or “spin” it either. People are way too smart for that. They’ll see through it and you’ll get credibility demerits at a time when you can ill-afford them. If it’s bad, say so. If there are facts you don’t yet have, say that too but commit to releasing additional information when you do have it. Whatever you do, don’t worsen your situation by creating the perception that someone else had to make you do the right thing. Be the source of the bad news as well as the architect of the solution.


    • Remember what you learned in kindergarten – Imagine if one of your kids spilled milk at the dinner table or wrecked the family car. How would your reaction differ if you A) immediately heard an apology and saw the guilty party make a move to clean up or fix the mess they created, versus B) witnessed rapid fire finger-pointing and excuse making from the offending party? You get the point. Most people can be tolerant of mistakes, lapses in judgment and even negligence if someone takes responsibility for it and makes a good faith effort to repair the damage. When the person in charge projects a “buck stops here” attitude in the face of a crisis and then articulates a plan to unearth the details, find the problem and right the wrong, you’re usually on the road to recovery.


  • Risk over-communicating – Some crises are one or two day events that affect an isolated group of people while others have far wider reaching impacts and can last a very long time. Obviously, you’ll want to calibrate your response to the severity of the situation but if you are going to make a mistake, err on the side of communicating too much. There are a few reasons for this. First, if you’re on the inside and understand what’s going on, it’s easy to assume others know more than they really do. After all, it’s your business and you understand what’s going on. Why shouldn’t others, right? Also, remember that old advertising adage about reach and frequency. Most people need to hear the same information multiple times before they can absorb it, retain it and believe it so communicate even if it feels redundant. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, know that in a crisis the penalty in the court of public opinion for over-communicating is far less severe that the one for under-communicating.