Communicating in a crisis is complex. There are a huge number of moving parts all of which can derail a plan and many of which are unknown. However, despite the challenges, even the worst cases can usually have successful outcomes if the appropriate skills, planning and processes are in place in advance and mobilised effectively.
In my experience, when crisis communications fail the root cause can normally be traced back to five common problems:
1. Failure to understand the audience: For even the biggest crises, the number of people who care about the situation is small. A huge incident with international implications (worst case scenario) might attract comments from 150 million people on social media (a pretty low bar for measuring if they care) – that’s only about 2% of the population that cares at all for even the biggest crisis. But there is a much smaller number who care a huge amount, and they are the audience that matters. This core audience must be identified, and their needs and concerns understood. Without this understanding resources are wasted working to reach the wrong people, the wrong spokespeople are likely to be appointed (e.g. Tony Hayward for BP Deepwater Horizon in 2010) and the messages will not land because they’re not structured with reference to what the core audience actually cares about.
2. Backward looking: There are three time periods that any strategy can focus on – the past, present or future. The best strategies will focus first on what is being done now and then transition to what is going to be done next. This approach shifts attention from the bad thing that happened to the good things that are being done about it. Communications tends to fail when they focus on the past (what happened) because this keeps the focus on who’s to blame rather than who is delivering solutions. Ironically, companies tend to adopt a strategy focused on the past when they’re trying to say, “it really wasn’t our fault.” It almost always backfires even when the facts are on the company’s side.
3. Too slow: Opinions and assumptions of blame form very quickly and once formed are difficult to change. Too often I see companies adopt a strategy of “let’s see how bad it gets” before they do anything. Once it has got bad and they call a company like ours for help much of the damage has already been done. Damage control can achieve some successes, but the company’s standing in the situation has already been damaged. The success or failure of most crisis comms strategies is determined in the first hours.
4. Poor interparty coordination: In 1624 the English poet John Donne wrote, “no man is an island”; similarly, no company is an island, but many act like they are. Even worse, divisions within companies (comms, operations, legal, etc.) fail to bridge with each other. In every crisis I’ve ever responded to there have been multiple parties who could communicate. If these parties are not coordinated it often results in inconsistent messaging, significant delays and in some cases errors. Communications plans and communications drills should not be conducted by the communications team alone; all relevant divisions should be involved. While exercising with external parties (e.g. coastguards) may not always be possible, these organisations must be considered in every communications plan.
5. Unrealistic goals: In crisis communications it is important to determine what you want to achieve, and the goal must be realistic. If you’re involved in a major crisis, keeping the name of your company / owner out of the media is not a realistic goal. A strategy based on this goal will make it look like you’re hiding something (because you are) which will almost certainly result in greater criticism and scrutiny. If instead you pursue the more realistic goal of protecting your company’s / owner’s reputation, your strategy will be to come out and address the situation head on and as a result you’ll likely be successful.
In crisis communications there are an almost infinite number of things that can go wrong, but avoid these five common mistakes and your odds of achieving a good outcome improve significantly.