Media and Crisis Management
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Media and Crisis Management

What to Say and Do When Things Go Wrong

Posted on: July 29th, 2012

Crisis Management: What to Say and Do When Things Go WrongCrisis response

As crises go, this was a small one, but still instructive. Accusations and recriminations flew furiously one winter here in my home of North Carolina after officials of two area school systems misjudged the impact of an impending snowstorm. Mystified parents saw children head to class just as the weather began to throttle the roads. Mothers and fathers were frightened – and later angered – to learn of stranded buses and students. A student died when her car wrecked on a slippery road.

As a crisis/issues consultant, several people asked my opinion of how officials handled the tumult. Since I have worked previously with some of the participants on other matters, I will not criticize them publicly. Besides, the father of the dead teenager called for peace instead of blame, and some officials did the right thing, in my opinion. All promised to improve decision-making and communications.

Nevertheless, this highly publicized ruckus can be a jumping off point for understanding what to say and do when things go wrong. Judge the school officials by these recommendations if you will, but also ask yourself whether you would implement them.

Apologize quickly and meaningfully

– When mistakes are self-evident, apologize. Say, “I am sorry.” “I made a mistake,” is even better. Do it quickly and people will likely believe you. Rapid, sincere apologies reduce friction in public disputes. As a reporter, I saw apologies soften and even negate the impact of my investigative stories.

Warning #1 – Don’t delay, or your apology will look like spin control. For example, did you notice that weeks passed before American military officials apologized to Japanese families after the submarine USS Greeneville collided with and sank that fishing boat off Hawaii? Everyone knew it was a mistake, so why the holdup in paying homage to survivors? That hesitation allowed unnecessary anger and resentment to build.

Warning #2 – Your lawyer may not want you to apologize. I understand that. Attorneys and I collaborate routinely and I know they want to protect you from admitting culpability. My view, however, is that if a mistake is obvious, then do the human thing and apologize instead of parsing statements. Most significant incidents end up in a legal forum anyway, so say something reassuring and meaningful. In the unlikely event the case reaches a jury, I believe your good intentions will mitigate jury animosity.

Warning #3 – Apologies without action can be perceived as just words. Therefore….

Do something – Most people don’t want you to dwell on why you erred, they want you to correct the problem and not repeat it. In my media training, clients face mock crises. At one point, I ask them to role-play an average citizen observing the incident. What would they, the citizen, want to occur after the incident? They almost always say they want the company to “do something about the problem.” “Fix it.”

In the case of the school flap, thoughtful parents seemed to appreciate that the capriciously fast-moving snowstorm could have confounded most reasonable decision-makers. Therefore, detailed explanations of why events went awry were not particularly helpful. They sounded like an excuse. After your apology, they want you to “do something about it.” “Fix it.” What will you do to prevent a recurrence? How will you examine your decision-making processes? Actions, not explanations, will earn their trust again.

Use an outside PR expert 
I know, I know. This sounds self-serving, but I believe you must consider outside PR counsel. Here’s why. Even as a mature adult, if you make a mistake, you are scared and want to hide. It’s human. Apologizing, much less admitting a mistake, is daunting. Add an attorney to the mix and you have a prescription for saying and doing little. It’s natural. An outside expert with no vested interest can give you the big picture and, perhaps, push you out of your comfort zone into action that, while initially counterintuitive, might protect your reputation.

In conclusion, we all find it disquieting to live in an unpredictable world. We, the followers, perhaps naively and unrealistically, want a predictable and reliable society headed by trustworthy leaders who shield us from the unknown. As I say repeatedly, we want to know, “Am I safe?” As a leader, it is your mission to reassure us that we are safe. We want to know that you care and will protect us. If you stumble, we expect you to apologize, get back on the horse, and tell us how you intend to do better in the future. If we believe you, we will forgive your frailties and follow once again.

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