The 3 biggest mistakes organizations make on day one of a crisis

When the heat is on, you can easily get burned—so avoid these common pitfalls.

Every day, communication professionals go to work with a rough idea of how the day will unfold.

You’ll attend a staff meeting, develop a pitch plan for a new product, check in with your direct reports, meet with consultants on the website redesign—plus a conference call or four woven throughout. You know, the usual.

But on any given day, a crisis could blow your schedule to smithereens.

You’re suddenly under the gun, forced to draft messages, field reporter calls and juggle a dozen other urgent tasks in an adrenaline-fueled frenzy. It’s an opportunity to shine—your organization needs effective communications today more than ever—but it’s also a serious challenge. Make a mistake, and everyone will notice—because everyone is watching.

Day one of this crisis will go much more smoothly if you’ve prepared for it. (That’s really the biggest mistake organizations make when it comes to crisis communications: thinking they won’t need a plan.) Setting that aside, let’s focus on three common mistakes organizations make in the early hours of a crisis:

1. Clamming up. When you’re alerted to a crisis, the first steps are to activate your team and to find out what happened. The Hippocratic Oath rules: First, do no harm. You’ll need the basic facts—who, what, when and where—before you can decide if and how to respond.

If the crisis has gone public, you need to say something within the first hour. In the social media age, silence is deafening. It sends all the wrong signals and allows your critics to project their own interpretations, such as:

  • “Do they not even know what’s happened?”
  • “Are they confused about what to do?”
  • “Did they do something wrong, and they don’t know how to explain it?”

None of these are a good look.

Within the first hour, post a holding statement on social media channels and your website that makes it clear that you’re aware of the crisis and will have more information or comment soon. At this point, that’s all you need. It tells your stakeholders, “We’re on it,” and it buys you time to develop a more detailed response.

It doesn’t buy you forever, though. Too many organizations take too long to follow up. Depending on the severity and type of crisis, you’ll need to follow up with a detailed statement that:

  • Establishes a basic narrative about the crisis from your organization’s point of view
  • Expresses compassion for anyone harmed, regardless of who was culpable
  • Provides practical information stakeholders may need
  • Takes responsibility for finding out more and providing further information. (Keep in mind: If you did something wrong and are going to end up saying so, the earlier the better.)

Too often, organizations turn into turtles on day one, hiding under a shell of legalistic caution. It’s a mistake. It allows others to establish the narrative, and it just looks bad. Don’t underestimate how much silence can hurt your business—or overestimate how much some straightforward talk up front can help.

2. Forgetting what “reputation” means. News flash: Your organization’s success and failure depends on what your stakeholders think of you. Reputation is no more complicated than that. A crisis is a high-stakes test of the durability of that reputation. Customers, members, employees, the media, shareholders, the community—whoever your stakeholders are—will be watching carefully to see if your organization stays true to its stated values in the harsh glare of the spotlight. Regardless of what happens in a particular crisis, the story that you tell about yourself before the crisis must be consistent with the story you tell during and after the crisis.

Say you sell ice cream sandwiches. If your brand identity includes caring deeply about the quality of your ingredients, you have to act and communicate according to those values during a crisis involving a food safety issue. Your lawyers will advise saying as little as possible to avoid liability. However, legal liability isn’t the only risk you face. If the moms and dads who buy your product see you hiding behind defensive, lawyerly statements—rather than acting decisively and communicating clearly—they’ll be far less likely to trust you in the future.

One way to think about crisis communications is that it’s a chapter in the ongoing story of your organization. The chapter may involve a setback or even a mistake, which happens in every great story, but if the overall narrative remains on track, your stakeholders will keep the faith. If you want a happy ending, don’t let the crisis be a detour that takes you in an unintended direction. Many stories also have a bad guy and that’s not what you want for your organization.

3. Going it alone. Every crisis is unique. Even with a thorough, detailed crisis communications plan, your team’s workload will ramp up considerably during the crisis. You’ll need help handling the workload. Whether the extra support comes from within your organization or from the outside, you should start lining them up on day one.

First, it takes organizations a lot of effort simply to collect the facts and assemble them in an orderly way. This includes not only the content of the crisis itself, but the context: the background facts that will inform your narrative and help you answer questions. I’ve seen many clients’ senior comms team members spend hours of valuable time on the phone and reading documents just to understand complex issues to allow them to write talking points providing background on a crisis. That’s in addition to the nuts-and-bolts work of addressing the immediate crisis itself. The amount of messaging materials you’ll need differs considerably from crisis to crisis; you could be busy all day drafting statements, talking points, Q&As, difficult Q&As, speeches, op-eds, you name it—and tailoring each one for different audiences.

Second, a high-profile crisis can overwhelm your normal media relations process. The problem is not only the volume of media inquiries, but the nature of them: difficult questions, unexpected angles, possibly new information that you’re hearing for the first time. Fielding inquiries and interview requests, strategizing about how to handle them, drafting answers and prepping spokespeople—it’s a lot. You’ll also need increased media monitoring, including multiple social media platforms. After stories appear, you’ll often need to follow up with the reporter to correct misinformation or mistakes. Beefing up your media relations capabilities is essential, and you may need to stay on war footing for weeks or even months.

Third, good crisis communication involves listening. It’s a two-way street. To make sure stakeholders are receiving the messages you’re sending, someone in your organization must keep them in the loop—either directly, via conversations or opinion research, or indirectly by carefully monitoring their communications channels. When you get feedback, adjust your messages accordingly. All of this listening, in a climate in which you have little time to do so, takes time and effort, but it’s essential to maintaining the trust and regard of your most important stakeholders.

The bottom line: Don’t go it alone. If the crisis is serious enough to damage your reputation, it’s worth devoting resources to address it the right way.

Nick Lanyi is an affiliate consultant with Ragan Consulting Group, helping clients craft stories that move audiences to act. An independent writer and communications consultant, he led the public affairs practice in the Washington, D.C. office of Porter Novelli and was managing director at public affairs boutique LMG. Contact Kristin Hart at Kristin.Hart@raganconsulting.comto learn more about RCG. Follow RCG on LinkedIn here.



3 Responses to “The 3 biggest mistakes organizations make on day one of a crisis”

    Ronald N. Levy says:

    What’s the BEST thing you can say on day one?

    It may be something you can say during minute one when a journalist is on the phone asking whether your company is guilty as hell of endangering the public’s safety, making too much money on the public or being shamefully unfair.

    Common sense may seem to suggest you should say you need to investigate because how can you comment before you know what this is about. DON’T say that! Would you say you “have to investigate” the charge if you were accused of rape?

    Common sense may also suggest the reasonable question, WHO made the accusation the journalist is asking about. Don’t ask that right away either. When a journalist is inquiring whether your management is guilty as hell, the big question is not who asked but whether management is guilty!

    What can make your situation even more difficult—and more dangerous to your career—is if you’re under the common order that in a crisis you must, “say nothing to the press” until you clear it with legal. So even if the journalist is asking whether your top management puts profits ahead of protecting human life, you’re supposed to say nothing until you clear it?

    If you DO say nothing, one of your top executives may ask with disbelief, “do you mean they asked if we put profits head of human life and he wouldn’t answer?” If you DON’T say nothing, a top executive may ask with disbelief, “do you mean that he actually signed a form saying no comment without clearance but he commented anyhow? Get rid of that ass!”

    (Don’t even try to answer a journalist that the damage your company allegedly caused is nowhere near as bad as the accuser says because this would be an admission that you were guilty of causing damage!)

    The ideal thing you can say may be that just the opposite is true,
    that your management PROTECTS human life, SAVES THE PUBLIC MONEY and is STRONGLY in favor of fairness which is why written
    company policies you can email immediately to the journalist require many, many measures to assure fairness.

    When a journalist calls about an accusation, you can say—immediately —that speaking just personally until you have a chance to get evidence you can send the journalist officially, it sounds “very far out” (or use the word “bullshit” if that seems appropriate). Why? Because again as you can email he journalist immediately, you have all kinds of facts, figures and pictures showing that the company PROTECTS public safety and economy. “We LIVE in this community and our children live here” you can point out.

    What can you say if the journalist seems to have solid evidence that your people did the wrong thing? In effect: “them not us.” Any infraction the journalist is asking about may be associated with a few people not following company policy, not the 99.9% of company employees working hard for the public every day.

    It could be tempting to say that mistakes happen to everyone but much better may be to say in effect, “it wasn’t us.” In TRUTH your management takes all kinds of measures to protect the public. So anyone anywhere who deviates from management’s policies is doing what is against management’s wishes and orders!

    Be prepared. That’s the first rule of crisis PR. Know what you are talking about. Nick Lanyi’s advice may work best for you, just as a doctor’s advice may work best for you when you do your part, if you do your share in five ways.

    .1. Have three files of information—including fact you can briefly excuse yourself and email a journalist even before the phone call is over—showing factually with words and pictures how management has taken action after action to increase safety for the public, increase economic benefit for the public and increase fairness for the public.

    .2. Have permission in advance—because management doesn’t want to just answer “we have to investigate” if accused of rape—so you can say “just speaking personally before I have enough time to get information to send you officially,” so you can send any journalist immediately anything in your three files—all of it cleared in advance by legal—on how management protects and advances the public interest.

    .3. Have at least one great PR firm with crisis management skills because having the people you need before a crisis is like having fire extinguishers and fire-protection procedures in place before trouble.

    .4. Make arrangements for half a dozen or of your people from different departments to take one or more Ragan courses in crisis management because just as physical fitness is important so is educated mental fitness.

    .5. Most important of all because a PR crisis averted is better than a PR crisis survived, encourage management to take a fresh look at the #1 question to avert PR crises: what more if anything reasonable can management do to protect public safety, the public’s economy, and company fairness?

    “To be or not to be” is not the only question, and in PR “how do we want to look” is not the only question. A bigger question—the main question in PR and in management—is “how do we want to BE?”

    Ronald N. Levy says:

    I’m asked “why in the world” execs from different departments should take Ragan PR courses, not just you and others in PR.

    Four good reasons.

    .1. In at least five additional departments—Human Resources, General Counsel, Marketing, Security, and Office of the President—meetings that relate to PR may produce better decisions if someone at each meeting knows important realities about PR.

    .2. When there’s a crisis—when stakes are high and time is short–your allies in five other departments may help you get information and approvals you need
    swiftly to produce achievement of what the company needs.

    .3. The five others may have specialized knowledge that you and the PR teachers don’t have. In a PR crisis, having more knowledge often means more chance of a win.

    .4. Since it’s helpful to have a great PR firm that can help the other five departments in addition to yours, more knowledge of PR can help the other departments work effectively with the PR firm, with perhaps both better results and lower cost because one may work better with a consultant when one knows more about what the consultant is trying to do and is up against.

    Surveys repeatedly show that success is more common and incomes higher among the educated. It’s not just luck but is sometimes the training to look for better answers and sometimes find them.

    Levi Armstrong says:

    I like that you mentioned that one of the biggest mistakes a company can do during a crisis is handling it alone, even if they have a full-proof crisis communication plan. Perhaps that’s the reason why my boss asked me this morning to look for a public affairs consultant since we have a high-profile crisis involving a major client. Hopefully, I’ll be able to find a reputable consultant within the day because we’re expecting the crisis to go public within the next few days. Thanks for this.

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