Crisis Management: The Hard Lesson of Having Nothing to Say: The need for speed
By now, you almost certainly know that rarely, if ever, should you say “No comment” when facing a public problem. Saying nothing may be legally pleasing to avoid misstatement, but it hardly enhances your reputation or reassures outsiders. That is why media coaching is valuable. It is a path to reputation-saving actions and comments. However, as I just watched happen with one company, you can fall into a hole so deep that corrective action and constructive comments are almost unachievable and “no comment” thinkable.
I want to examine this sad case for one compelling reason – to alert you to the importance of taking reputation-saving action before you reach an intractable position.
Furthermore, this case underscores an aphorism about war – “The reasons for all lost battles can be summed up in two words, “Too Late!” Too late to train, anticipate, investigate, plan, decide, act, react, etc. When you think about it, “too late” also applies to almost all of our professional and personal failures as well. Now to our case.
After being successful for many years, this company suddenly closed, dismissed its workers, filed for bankruptcy, and found itself portrayed in harsh headlines. As the bad news droned on for days, the head of the company, an honorable person with a previously excellent reputation, asked my advice on how best to defend and reclaim his reputation. Early in an exploratory conversation, I outlined bold steps. Unfortunately, as we worked through the details I began to realize he could not take them. Like “Titanic” after the iceberg, the problems were fatal and the company would sink.
Trying to follow the “Action Tree.”
We tried in vain to apply the 10 steps of the Crisis Communications Action Tree that I use in my coaching and consulting. It is a list of actions to follow in sequence to resolve a public problem. They are: 1) Fix the problem, 2) Take care of victims and perceived victims, 3) Notify critical audiences – and not through the news media, 4) Acknowledge the facts fast to the press and respond in the first story if possible, 5) Get it over with, 6) Don’t make it Worse, 7) Tell the Truth, 8) Reassure, 9) Follow your crisis plan, and 10) Rehearse critical press interviews.
The first three steps are mandatory. They are the foundation. Failure to follow them may scuttle all the rest. As I was about to learn, this company could not implement them.
Here is what we discovered when we tried.
1. Fix the problem.
I am not at liberty to discuss details, but let me say that the “problem” turned out to be a catastrophic internal systems failure. By the time it was spotted by top management, it was “too late.” Creditors had already moved to recover their money, and there were far more debts than financial resources. Since debts could not be paid, the problem could not be fixed. Step 1 could not be implemented.
2. Take care of victims and perceived victims.
The victims were the employees and those owed money. Here again the company had no funds to take care of either. While bankruptcy liquidation would provide some dollars, there were not nearly enough to make the victims whole. Victims remained victims. Step 2 could not be implemented.
3. Notify critical audiences and not through the news media.
The critical audiences included employees, creditors, vendors, customers, and perhaps community leaders. However, if you cannot fix your problem and cannot take care of your victims, then what do you say when you notify these audiences? Step 3 could not be implemented.
(By the way, the reason you should not communicate with critical audiences through the press during a crisis is that you cannot rely on how your information will be conveyed. Furthermore, media notification rather than personal notification may also embarrass, upset, or anger your critical audiences, and thus transform them from potential allies to enemies.)
By now you realize how cornered this company had become. The subsequent crisis communications steps were no help either. Following step 4 – acknowledging the situation to the press – would have been ludicrous without implementing the first three steps.
As for the steps Get it over with, Don’t make it Worse, Tell the Truth, and Reassure…
We contemplated going public to admit mistakes, tell the truth of what had happened, reassure the public that it would not happen again, and ask public forgiveness. However, there was a genuine legal risk to spilling our guts about all the internal information. Also, how could we really reassure the public when we could not even reassure those personally effected by the company’s closing? The crisis communications action tree sank along with the company. The conclusion was inevitable
Sometimes, it is best to say nothing.
The overriding lesson from this case for all of us is this:
Act while you can.
When faced with a dilemma, act while you still have the resources to do so. Follow the first three steps of the Crisis Communications Action Tree. Fix your problems. Take care of victims. Communicate with critical audiences.
Taking these steps early may even be so remedial, that you might not ever have to go public to explain yourself. If you’ve done the right thing there may be no public interest in your case, and no press interest. Even if you must go public, then you will have a host of actions to offer as proof of your determination to do the right thing.
Don’t lose a battle because you were “too late.”