In a crisis? Don’t do these 7 things. Ever.

When organizations and individuals find themselves in crisis, what you do in the first 24 hours is critical to how events will subsequently unfold. Investing in the news-media cycle (including social media) early and regularly is an essential component of crisis response — but what common pitfalls should you avoid?

Here are my top 7 tips to avoid making your crisis a disaster:

1. Do not spin the truth to suit you — that’s not truth, it’s manipulation: the very definition of propaganda

While Dan Rather’s tweet might be aimed at News anchors (who are, let’s face it, paid to read those scripts) his sentiment can be just as easily applied to CEO’s, board members, celebrities, influencers and politicians. In fact, anyone who becomes the public face of a brand (or is their brand) and is the talking head of the crisis day — must be prepared to have conversations that are uncomfortable, embarrassing and/or shameful.

Spin really does suck — and we know that for a fact. Trust has been in decline over the past 3 years due to the global audience’s quest for truth for according the 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer.

The lesson?

If you don’t trust your audience with the truth in a crisis, they won’t trust you with their attention, money or loyalty in the future.

2. Don’t fight or flee the truth

When the inconvenient truth puts an organisation in a place of negligence or culpability our natural fight or flight instinct kicks in. While some people will take an adversarial view of the crisis to instinctively fight their way out, others … well, you can only see the dust left in their wake as they flee the situation.

In a crisis, this is evident in two ways:

(a) The talking head who is overly defensive and combative, failing to take responsibility for their crisis; OR

(b) There is no talking head, only deafening silence.

The lesson?

Don’t be (a) or (b)!

Facts are facts. Report them as best you know them and be transparent about failings to the extent that your legal advisor will allow. There many ways to effectively express empathy without apologising or admitting fault or guilt.

3. Do not play the blame game

Not your circus, but the monkeys are still swinging from your rafters?

Doesn’t matter — the perception is those monkeys are yours.

Throwing contractors, associates or employees under the proverbial bus to defer blame will quickly turn your crisis into a disaster. Even if your crisis IS someone else’s fault — your audience or customers don’t care. If your brand is on the building, product or letterhead they deal with, then it’s you they want to take accountability for the situation.

Take responsibility and communicate solutions instead of excuses.

4. Do not make demands of, or threaten the media

This includes sending harassing legal ‘cease and desist’ letters.

One of the worst behaviours larger organizations demonstrate from time to time is the pro-forma ‘cease and desist’ letter that is sent out to media outlets to try and quell the volume of news being generated by their crisis. Similarly, threatening to withdraw participation, access or cooperation with long-standing agreements smacks of leadership that has lost control of the situation. Actually, it’s not leadership — it’s a crack at dictatorship.

There is no quicker, sure fire way to reassure the media and the public that you have lost control of the crisis than by calling in the lawyers and making threats. This tactic will absolutely burn your relationships and result in a death spiral in the trust stakes.

As Don Draper wisely said:

Don Draper

Change the conversation by investing in it and being a part of it — honestly and truthfully.

5. Do not give sorry-not-sorry pseudo apologies

If you say sorry — mean it.

And actually say ‘sorry’ — as in that actual word: “Sorry.”

Do not use words like ‘regrettable’ or ‘unfortunate’ to avoid the big S word.

Do not make long winded statements or give interviews that ramble around some facts of the crisis but still don’t get to the ‘Sorry’ bit.

Do not bury your sorry under layers of spin, positives and other guff.

If you can’t accept that an apology is required, your crisis is the least of your organisation’s problems.

6. If you’re an influencer, celebrity, or notable member of the public do not hold out for a tabloid payday

The longer your silence after a crisis, the less people will trust you when you do speak. This is particularly the case when you turn up on prime-time television or in an exclusive magazine article that has been stage-managed to suit you after huge sums of money (to most people) has changed hands.

Adamant that you haven’t accepted any money as part of the TV PR blitz deal?

It’s unlikely you’ll be believed. Plus well lit, made up and set people in fancy hotel rooms don’t look half as sorry as those with fudgy mascara after stepping off a long-haul flight.

It’s this simple: There are no ‘deals’ to protect when your reputation has gone up in flames.

Holding out to get a ‘deal’ to stage-manage your crisis response will not get you a more understanding journalist or secure a ‘friendly media publication – their motivation isn’t in your reputation, it’s in exploiting what’s left of it for profit.

If you have worked well with a particular publication or journalist in the past, pick up the phone. Do the story for free, as soon as the news cycle will allow. Less is more when it comes to staging, hair and make-up.

Social media is also your friend here.

If you need to be heard, publish directly to platform early and honestly. Keep it simple, address the big issues and tell people how you’re going to fix your crisis.

Above all — mean what you say.

7. Never hinder or obstruct a governing body or law enforcement investigation/s

If the Police, sporting authority or other regulatory body have a stake in the crisis then you must cooperate with them at all times.

Do not give interviews to the media BEFORE providing the Police or your regulatory body with an official statement of facts.

If you try to spin the judicial process you’re likely to create a second and third order of effect crises as obstruction of justice, interfering with evidence and/or witness tampering offences quickly come into the equation. That means your crisis burns longer, brighter and with more frequency. It also adds a whole new dimension to your SEO.

Reputation management during a crisis often misses the point when the protection of that reputation comes at the cost of remaining tone deaf to the crisis that threatened it in the first place.

Learn from the mistakes of others to avoid your next crisis turning into a disaster.


This blog was first published on the Firebrand Talent website. To read more of my blogs there click here.