Crisis Management: Credibility – How to Avoid Losing It: Crisis communications
Speed saves in a crisis. Lack of speed is the biggest reputation killer I know. Yet there’s another reputation devastator: loss of credibility
Consider what was happening in Tennessee after five million cubic yards of toxic coal-ash from a settling pond burst through a berm during heavy rains and swamped 300 acres of a Kingston neighborhood in December. Internal memos accidentally sent to the Associated Press suggested the Tennessee Valley Authority tried to downplay the danger of the spill that swept away homes and fouled creeks and inlets. AP reported that in the memo “catastrophic” was replaced with “sudden, accidental.” “Risk to public health and risk to the environment” and “acute threat (to fish)” were removed. Opponents said those changes proved TVA was soft-pedaling the threat. TVA said it was merely trying to be more accurate.
I am partly sympathetic with TVA. In every crisis clients and I routinely engage in such wordsmithing. It’s not disingenuousness: we’re trying to strike a balance. Overstating might unnecessarily frighten and be untruthful. Understating might make you ultimately look like a liar. Finding the best wording when facts are fluid is hard.
While monitoring in Kingston indicated drinking water from the river and private wells was safe and the air clear, press reports suggested TVA was making itself tough to be believed. The public energy company had doubled its original estimate of the size of the spill. Also, after first saying the situation was safe and that fly ash was not a hazard a neighbor quoted TVA’s CEO saying in a meeting, “Don’t let your dogs or pets get out. Don’t let them drink the water. Keep your kids away from it. Don’t breathe it. If you have any contact with it, spray it off.”
This is tough stuff. In chaotic situations companies should strive to withhold characterizing risks until they have sufficient facts. You say, “Here is what we know: we’ll tell you more as soon as we get it.” Yet it is difficult to hold that line. With an environmental incident like that in Kingston people want to know whether they are safe and you can only delay so long. Therefore, it is better to err toward communicating seriousness. You can always back down. Conversely, if you’ve underplayed an incident and it turns out worse then you’re toast. Underreaction is the greater sin. Overreaction less so.
Another credibility challenge in fast-breaking situations is to avoid getting ahead of the facts. That happened in late 2007 when a tiger at the San Francisco Zoo killed one person and injured two. In the zoo’s well-intentioned rush to reassure the public a spokesperson made an off-handed response to the question whether the tiger retaining wall was as high as at other zoos? The answer was yes and it was wrong. The wall was 7 ½ feet shorter. Zoo credibility suffered especially with a publicity-seeking lawyer hovering. If you don’t know the answer to a question, say so and promise to get back with an answer later.
Here’s one final credibility issue especially during these times of mandatory media training of company officials and crisis teams. We all know it is smart to have talking points before addressing the media or any important audience. Still, your credibility rests on your ability to answer tough legitimate questions. Contemplate the questions: know or learn the answers. Messages alone rarely suffice.