Crisis Management: Spin Control is NOT Damage Control: Crisis Response
When the American teenager Natalee Holloway famously disappeared and was presumed dead in Aruba and got tremendous cable news coverage, there was one aspect of case that was eclipsed. Citizens of that Caribbean island worked hard initially to deal with the her disappearance. In addition to the usual authorities being involved, the government mobilized more than 4000 civil servants from their jobs to help search for the 18 year old Alabama girl. Even vacationers joined in the hunt. Aruba was ACTING to help with the case, and not just talking about it. Even when the missing girl’s mother first attacked Aruba, islanders defended themselves and compelled her to apologize. I found the Island’s initial actions reassuring and caring. It was unfortunate that what appeared to be a botched murder investigation by Aruban authorities transcended those initial wise steps. For my purposes, that still will not change the fact that the island’s first step was to act, not spin. A smart move to use as a jumping off point to elaborate on the need for action in a crisis.
Talk is cheap. Don’t rely upon it alone in a crisis.
A client once asked me to “spin” some public comments to deal with a challenge. I laughed and said, “I do not believe in spin.” He responded, “Well, we certainly need to spin this situation.” I didn’t begrudge his looking for an easier out. He faced a dilemma. However, spin control implies that no matter what you do, you can talk your way out of it if you just use the right words. I have found that spinning rarely works and, if it does, not for long. An example:
US Airways once announced an aggressive 12-point plan to reduce consumer complaints. It followed the US Department of Transportation citing the airline for being among the worst for flight delays, lost baggage, and customer complaints. US Airways promised corrective measures that included working with outside groups who would ensure that promises are kept. The airline suggested it would do just about anything to fix itself.
Did anybody buy it? One business journal editorialist in Charlotte, for one, did not. He wrote, “…these [US Airways] steps should be part of any airline’s basic operating procedure from day one, not part of a new initiative. We’d like to think it’s not a ploy to reassure passengers during a period of unrest among the airline’s unionized employees.”
Why the cynicism? I believe the airline may have angered enough people with previous poor performance that words themselves are not sufficient. The proof will always be in the doing.
Another example of words falling short:
A client of mine took bold corrective steps to end a crisis. Actions! We drafted powerful statements to announce them, much like US Airways did. What kind of reaction did we get from reporters? Much the same as the airline. Several journalists didn’t believe us and were reluctant to simply parrot our problem-solving comments. Their stories focused instead on previous errors rather than planned repairs.
As much as I hate to admit it, the doubt expressed toward my client, as with US Airways, was probably reasonable. How can anyone discern whether we are actually correcting problems or just saying we’re fixing them? Why should they trust us? After all, we would not be in trouble if it weren’t for our mistakes.
That is why, when you are in difficulty, you should focus on what you are doing more than what you are saying. If you are in a big enough jam in the public eye, and especially if the public has no pre-existing awareness of your values, most people may not believe what you say.
Studies show that during a controversy most neutral observers will suspend initial judgment about you until they have enough information to make up their minds. Therefore, while they may give you the benefit of the doubt at first, they will ultimately judge you on your actions. That being the case, you might as well concentrate on what you are going to do first along with what you will say.
Another thing to think about. Even if you did a nice job of “spinning” your message during a tough predicament, imagine how little credibility you would have if, in the end, you made promises you did not keep? So what you in fact do means everything.
Furthermore, planning corrective actions gives you something to talk about in your statements.
Consider the following example from my media-training manual. Please note that all of the statements include some sort of action:
An intoxicated employee from your company driving a carload of equally woozy fellow employees home from a company-sponsored weekend ball game strikes and badly injures a 12-year old child. Witnesses tell police the driver was speeding recklessly through a neighborhood. A reporter has just learned details from an officer, will go on the air in minutes, and calls you for comment.
Key message #1
We regret that a child has been seriously injured in an accident involving one of our vehicles. While we don’t yet know where the fault lies, we are getting the best possible care for the boy.
Key message #2
We will monitor the child’s care to make sure he gets the treatment he needs to recover from this tragic accident.
Key message #3
Our employees are wonderful, responsible people, but we have launched an investigation to learn what happened.
Key message #4
If our investigation discovers there is a problem, we will fix it, because we never want this kind of accident to happen.
Again, action, not spin.