Seven Deadly Sins of Crisis Communications

Terror attacks. Natural disasters. Product failures. Lawsuits. Bad behaviour. Every organisation is vulnerable to crises. And thanks to smartphone videos and social media, these events can be caught on camera and broadcast to the world instantaneously. Just look at United Airlines. The company’s reputation took a huge nosedive after smartphone footage was released of security officers violently removing a man from an overbooked flight. These situations can have a lasting impact on a company’s reputation and bottom line if handled poorly.

Here are seven common mistakes companies make with their crisis comms and what you can do to avoid them:

Burying your head in the sand

In public relations, there’s something called ‘playing ostrich.’ This method of crisis management involves crossing your fingers and hoping no-one will learn about the problem; essentially burying your head in the sand. Making this glaring mistake will leave you little or no preparation time to respond when the story inevitably breaks. Even if you haven’t decided to play ostrich, you can still damage your reputation by failing to prepare for the fall-out. If you know there is an issue that could go public, act immediately. Draft possible responses, test a few key messages, and plan to answer questions promptly and accurately when the public catches wind of the problem.

Being slow to respond

In a crisis, the public will want to hear from you. Waiting too long to respond will create uncertainty and make people angry. Even if you don’t have all the answers, say something. Organisations are often paralysed by inaction, afraid to respond for fear of saying the wrong thing. It’s better to admit that the situation is fluid and you’re working on a solution than to say nothing at all. Remember, the conversation is instantaneous and ongoing. People will fill in the blanks if you don’t.

Being dishonest

One of the biggest traps in crisis management is the temptation to sugar-coat the facts. One obfuscation leads to another and before you know it you’re caught in a web of half-truths that can seriously damage your credibility and reputation. When a person is called out on a mistake in everyday life, you expect them to accept responsibility. It’s no different for a company.

As difficult as it may be, the best advice is to get the bad information out there yourself as early in the process as possible.

Making the media the enemy

In most cases, vilifying the media comes across as scapegoating and usually doesn’t end well. This does not mean you should tolerate poor or inaccurate reporting – you shouldn’t. But it’s better to maintain the high ground and keep it professional. If a reporter gets their facts wrong, let them know and offer to help correct the story. If they refuse or are unresponsive, contact their editor.

While it’s human nature to have bias, most reporters, editors and media outlets want to get their facts straight and report the news accurately. Be a resource, a guide, and an educator to ensure this happens in your situation.

Ignoring customers’ questions

Lack of engagement can spell doom during a PR crisis because it feeds the perception that a company doesn’t care about those affected. But that doesn’t mean lie to your customers. If you honestly don’t know what’s going on, say so, and tell the public what you’re doing to find out.

Keeping the CEO out of view

A company’s CEO is its identity. He or she is the big talking head that people turn to in times of company successes and failures. Without a visible, accessible CEO during a crisis, people, both inside and outside the company, have nowhere to turn. Therefore it’s important that your CEO is seen to be taking the lead on managing the crisis.

Keeping your team in the dark

Your team and investors are going to hear about the crisis, so you should be the one to tell them about it and communicate the response. This will ensure they hear the truth about the situation and know that you are on top of it. Investors and employees understand that crises happen and sometimes take place unexpectedly. So the key is to show them that you are dealing with the situation in a logical and controlled manner. If you don’t, the crisis could lead to employee retention problems and/or loss of funding.

Call in the experts

The easiest way to avoid making these mistakes? Plan for the worst and don’t go through a crisis alone. With 25+ years’ experience, I am well placed to help you plan for a PR disaster, or if you’re in the midst of a crisis, I can help you weather the storm. Give me a call now to find out how.



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