Media and Crisis Management
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Media and Crisis Management

Speed does NOT always save you in a crisis

Posted on: July 28th, 2012

Crisis Management: Speed does NOT always save you in a crisisCrisis response

As we’re caught up in the vortices of 24/7 news channels and info-by-the-second social media like Twitter, companies run breathlessly to keep up and protect their good names.  But what if in this media maelstrom the tortoise sometimes still beats the hare?  First some background.

BP, Toyota, and Tiger Woods all had serious crises and were criticized for reacting too slowly.  Same with the Catholic Church molestations. Same with Firestone”s tire defects.  There’s an endless list of violators of the “when did you learn about it and what did you do about it” maxim. Lack of speed is the most frequent reputation killer.  Therefore, speed is mandatory, right?   Well, sometimes not.

Speed in responding does not permit “getting ahead of the facts.”   BP badly erred in low-balling the oil leak estimates after the Deepwater Horizon rig explosion.  1000 barrels a day?  That defied common sense and outside experts just five days later said the leak was at least 25 times worse.  Official estimates eventually pegged it at 60 times worse.  BP’s credibility was badly damaged from the start.

Speed in acting is not synonymous with “rush to judgment.”  Example: the 2006 Duke lacrosse case.  Under enormous pressure to act after a district attorney-supported rape claim against white lacrosse team members by an African American stripper at a party, the university raced to reassure the public with actions.  Faculty, students, and community demanded action.  Campus-wide probes began, an athletic director was forced out, a season canceled, reputations vilified, and on and on.  All actions, many well-intended, were based on a bogus charge and irresponsible D.A.

Speed in communicating is not synonymous with speculation.  Example: the San Francisco Zoo’s fatal tiger attack case in 2007.   Trying hard to answer reporter questions after one person died and two were injured, a reporter asked if the retaining barrier was as high as at other zoos.  The spokesperson’s immediate answer was yes.  Wrong.  The barrier turned out to be 5 ½ feet lower than others.  Zoo credibility tanked.

Speed usually saves reputations.  Executed imprudently, it can garrote like a low-hanging clothesline. Occasionally, the best strategy is to go slow.

There was a case in which deliberate patience was successful.   I am not at liberty to discuss specifics or names or locations but the gist was this.  A bookkeeping error became a claim of felonious intent by government lawyers.  They pursued the wrongly-accused nationally respected businessperson and attracted some local press attention.    So how did the accused respond?  Low and slow: low profile, minimal comment only through a lawyer, and consistent engagement with authorities.  This process lasted years and at various times looked dire.   The outcome?  The case evaporated.  Government lawyers dropped the investigation.  The former “target” and I talked about this recently. This person said, “Rick, when I read about your push for speedy crisis response I often think of my situation.  If we had gone fast, or acted pre-emptively or hastily it could have ended extremely badly.”

At that moment I promised myself to remind readers of the occasional exception to the speed rule.

There is, however, one thing this individual and the lawyers did do fast.  Decide.  They quickly chose slow and steady.  So speed was still essential even in this case that took years to reach a positive outcome.

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