5 pop psychology myths that lead to crisis communications mistakes

Crisis communications strategies aim to influence how people respond, think and feel about a situation…
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By Dustin Eno

Crisis communications strategies aim to influence how people respond, think and feel about a situation – crisis communication is psychology. The trouble is, there are many psychology myths and these myths often lead people to choose exactly the wrong strategy.

The five myths that lead to the worst communications mistakes:

1. Scary words scare people. “The crew were traumatised.” “It was a large spill.” “His injuries are serious.” Such words should be used with care but acknowledging the seriousness of a situation can actually be reassuring. It’s tempting to down play any situation, but such is usually the wrong strategy. If a company appears to be denying or covering up the risks – “everything will be ok” – it is scarier for audiences than if the company shows that they are taking the situation more seriously than anyone else. Scary words can be reassuring.

2. It’s bad to ever say “I don’t know.” A spokesperson should have some information to share, but it is equally important that they are honest about what they don’t know. In the early stages, a spokesperson won’t know many specifics, but by demonstrating a serious response      s/he can still be reassuring – admitting the limits of knowledge can help build trust.

3. Acknowledging risk increases fear. This is only true if people don’t already believe there is a risk (in most crises people will assume there is risk – they usually assume the worst). To convince an audience that a company can be trusted to respond effectively without being forced to do so through political, legal or activist pressure, we must first acknowledge the risk and then shift the focus to how the company is responding. Reluctance to acknowledge risk will create fear.

4. People like positive outlooks. In the same situation, which is better? “Everything is under control and will be resolved by the end of the week” OR “We will continue our response for as long as may be required to ensure the best possible outcome.” The first is tempting, but it is usually the wrong approach. Will people believe everything is under control? Probably not; and if they do, what if it’s not resolved by Friday? It is much better to surprise people by resolving a situation sooner than expected than to risk disappointing them by being overly optimistic at the beginning.

5. People are rational. If we’re in the “right,” then we don’t need to worry about what people think – they’ll see that we’re the good guys. This is the most dangerous misconception. Audiences quickly assign blame and are slow to change their minds. If initial unmanaged speculation points to a collision being your fault, this will be remembered both by people and by the internet through the timeless archive of media coverage. When the investigation report is completed, a fully motivated rational person will change their mind and realise that your vessel was 90% the victim, but most people are neither rational nor motivated and will continue to believe that your vessel was to blame. They might even rationalise that “Investigations often get things wrong” or that “companies are always covering up the truth.” It takes much more than facts to convince people.

Too many crisis communications strategies fail because decision makers are guided by popular psychology myths rather than the much more complex reality of how people perceive the world.

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