Pinkston
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Reimagining Crisis
Communications

Contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Myth #1: Keep your head down in a crisis, and it will blow over
  3. Myth #2: To avoid going ‘viral,’ issue a quick, public response
  4. Myth #3: Crises are primarily perception problems, and good communications can fix them
  5. Myth #4: Planning (or practice) makes perfect
  6. Myth #5: It’s possible to emerge from a crisis completely unscathed
  7. Conclusion

Control the story.

Access our free crisis communications toolkit.

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Introduction

As the global outbreak of coronavirus continues to evolve, companies of all shapes and sizes face a crisis unlike any they have faced before. Unlike most crises which affect a single company – or, at most, an industry – the ripple effects of social distancing, work-from-home mandates and other restrictions and reactions to the outbreak are upending economies around the world, creating an existential threat to almost every company.

In spite of how different coronavirus is compared to any other crisis, numerous similarities remain. No matter the circumstances, companies in the midst of a crisis need to communicate with employees, customers, shareholders and other audiences in a way that demonstrates strength, resilience and compassion. Having to do so in the heat of the moment puts unnecessary pressure on communicators and other leaders, heightening the risk of missteps that could create lasting damage. One lesson for communicators to take from the coronavirus crisis is the need to plan for crises before they happen.

Before coronavirus knocked everything else off track, it seemed like every day another company, nonprofit or celebrity was embroiled in a public relations crisis. Even amid the current crisis, corporate missteps provide audiences with a momentary distraction that could have lasting effects on the reputation of the company unlucky enough to land in the spotlight. A product fails to work the way it’s supposed to and customers get hurt. A company’s information technology security breaks down and exposes the sensitive data of employees or customers. A business or nonprofit comes under fire from activists for taking the wrong position (or not taking any position) on a hot-button issue.

While bigger and more prominent companies tend to face the most intense scrutiny when they err, you don’t have to be Boeing, Yahoo! or Wayfair to find yourself in the midst of a critical communications incident. In fact, some crises are more likely to hit and have a bigger impact on small and medium-sized businesses.

Take data breaches as an example: Verizon reports that small businesses suffer the majority of cyberattacks. Smaller companies are less likely to have robust protections in place, and have far more to lose in a hack. Compared to larger companies with the resources to address the loss and move on, smaller organizations must not only figure out how to restore lost data and make it up to affected employees, customers, etc.; they must also figure out how to survive the reputational hit. An estimated 25%-60% of small and medium-sized businesses never recover from a cyber attack.

Countless factors contribute to the shifting crisis communications landscape. Online journalism prioritizes speed and provocation over fact-checking and relevance. Technology makes it easier than ever for disgruntled employees, competitors or political activists to target their enemies. But no factor has had a bigger or more profound impact than social media, where every person is an investigative reporter and every company, nonprofit and individual is a potential target of criticism.

And the stickiness of social media renders the traditional approach to crisis communications -- keep your head down and wait for it to blow over -- a risky proposition at best. In the days before social media, organizations in the midst of a crisis could (in most cases) count on reporters to eventually lose interest and move on to the next story. Today, every potential critic can hound a story and rally support for their cause for as long as it takes to get a response. And if they feel the issue isn’t adequately addressed, they can bring it up every time their target posts on Facebook or sends a Tweet.

That’s not to say every instance of criticism constitutes a crisis, but social media has made it more difficult to determine when an emerging incident is headed for a full-blown crisis. Organizations still need the discipline not to overcorrect when an issue is not a crisis. But the x-factor of social media highlights the need for communicators to quickly identify an emerging critical incident, assess whether it constitutes a crisis, and respond in the appropriate manner to minimize the damage without elevating the issue.

The shifting crisis communications landscape has led Pinkston to reevaluate our approach to how we prepare for and manage critical incidents -- not just to help clients navigate difficulties, but because we believe if a crisis is handled properly, it creates a unique opportunity for a company or organization to actually grow stronger, learn and in some cases gain greater customer understanding and market share.

This white paper identifies five widely-accepted beliefs about crisis communications that the new age of social media is proving to be untrue. Resisting the urge to believe in these myths will help companies, nonprofits and even individuals seeking to build or maintain a public profile from falling victim to mistakes commonly made in crisis situations. In doing so, these entities will set themselves up to more effectively survive the gauntlet of public scrutiny and come out the other side in the best position possible.

Myth #1: Keep your head down in a crisis, and it will blow over

When you know a critical incident may come to light, it’s tempting to try to manage it internally in a way that keeps it from becoming public knowledge. This is especially true when the crisis involves information or actions that would be embarrassing to the organization — a leader’s moral failure, an operational mistake, a product bug that should have been caught.

Even after a crisis breaks, the conventional wisdom has been, it’s best to keep your head down and let things blow over. The theory is that anything you do or say while the spotlight is trained on you creates an opening for another round of news coverage, and fresh criticism of both your initial actions and your response.

While it may feel best for all parties involved to handle sensitive issues internally, or at least mask the truth when a public announcement is unavoidable, it may make more sense to take the whole story to a trusted outlet first. Your instincts will tell you to avoid press coverage at all costs, but if there’s any chance the news gets out, you’ll be better off getting it out yourself.

The first story covering a critical incident sets the tone for follow-up coverage.

This is especially true in the digital era where much of the follow-up "coverage" is an aggregation of earlier stories rather than original or new reporting.

The first story covering a critical incident sets the tone for follow-up coverage. Taking an active role in shaping that story can create a more balanced narrative that influences later coverage and ensures your side of the story is being told.

Participating in coverage from the outset also helps demonstrate your company or nonprofit organization is taking ownership of the situation and being proactive in righting any wrongs.

Take the recent example of McDonald’s, which announced in November 2019 that its CEO had been fired for violating company policy about relationships between employees. Rather than waiting for the news to break on its own, McDonald’s announced the decision and was able to get ahead of the story, ensuring key facts were present in virtually all coverage and demonstrating leadership on an issue affecting many companies in all industries.

The company made its announcement knowing there would be extensive coverage, and that the news cycle would last for at least a few days. (That news cycle included follow-up stories about the subsequent departure of other executives and about the transition to a new CEO and its implications for employees, investors and other stakeholders.)

But in doing so, McDonald’s avoided the criticism they would have no doubt faced had the news come out on its own. The board was able to make its decision without the added pressure of public scrutiny, and the company was able to exert more control over the narrative of the inevitable coverage.

There will always be a temptation to keep bad news to yourself, but if there’s any chance the news gets out, it’s worth considering whether making the announcement yourself gives you more control and a better chance at weathering the storm.

It’s important to approach each critical situation on a case-by-case basis to determine whether keeping your head down or engaging directly and authoritatively will produce the best outcome. A big part of crisis response is understanding which world you’re in, and it’s not a one-time decision. You have to reevaluate constantly as the situation unfolds, recognizing that if you under- or over-communicate earlier in the process, that misstep may constrain your options further down the road.

Myth #2: To avoid going ‘viral,’ issue a quick, public response

If Myth #1 is the “heads” side of the response coin, Myth #2 is “tails.” While falling prey to Myth #1 leads entities in a critical situation to under-respond and lose control of the narrative, there’s an emerging philosophy favoring quick, public responses that could have equally if not more damaging effects. The truth is that overreacting or speaking too soon creates several new and unnecessary risks.

A quick response should never come at the expense of the right response. If you err on the side of issuing a statement as soon as news breaks, before you know all the facts of a crisis, you’re setting yourself up for a longer news cycle and more intense criticism.


Prioritizing a quick response also risks elevating the crisis to a broader audience than would otherwise have been aware of the issue. One of the core principles of crisis response is to respond in kind and avoid bringing new audiences into the fold. If you need to respond to criticism in the local press, for example, don’t issue a statement to the national outlets. Quickly issuing a bad statement increases the likelihood the story becomes about your response.

If you need to respond to criticism in the local press ... don't issue a statement to the national outlets.

In the digital age this principle applies to social media as well. It's standard procedure in many organizations to post all their news and statements to their social channels as well, but consider whether doing so would raise the story's visibility to a broader audience than necessary.

In October 2019, an assistant general manager for the Houston Astros baseball team made offensive remarks toward a group of journalists in the locker room covering the team’s playoff games. One of the reporters wrote about the incident, sparking a major backlash on social media, and the team needed to respond.

But rather than take a few hours to better understand what had happened, the team issued a hastily written statement defending its employee and characterizing the report as “misleading and completely irresponsible” — among the worst things you can say about a professional reporter’s work. The backlash to the team’s response was even swifter and more critical than the reaction to the initial story.

The team ended up issuing several more statements over the course of the next week, each walking back the previous statement as the team processed new information and gained perspective. The original story ran on a Monday. On Thursday, the team announced it was firing the assistant general manager. It wasn’t until Sunday that the team formally retracted its initial statement and apologized to the reporter.

In the meantime, a story that otherwise would have lived on the sports pages became national and international news covered by the likes of Vox, NPR, The New Yorker and The Guardian. And the news became more about the team’s bungled response than the original story.

It’s hard to tell how big the story would have been if the team had responded well, but it’s safe to assume had they taken a few hours to get to the bottom of the issue, consider how their actions would be perceived, and make the right decision on the first try, they would have taken their lumps and let the story die in a couple of days with limited reach.

Control the story.

Access our free crisis communications toolkit.

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Myth #3: Crises are primarily perception problems, and good communications can fix them

In the midst of a critical incident, it’s tempting to think the communication strategy should take the lead. There’s pressure to respond to a crisis in a way that demonstrates compassion, responsiveness, authority, etc. and, in doing so, put the crisis to rest.

While communications-first crises are on the rise — thanks to slips of the tongue on an open mic, a misguided tweet, etc. — the truth is that most crises aren’t fundamentally communications issues. Instead, most crises relate to some other mistake that a company, nonprofit or individual has made: a bad operational decision, misguided corporate strategy, a defective product.

Communication plays a critical role in demonstrating your response to the situation, but if you don’t address the underlying issue, then all the communications in the world won’t fix the problem.

To fight this myth it’s helpful to view crisis communications as part of a broader crisis response plan. The former focuses on communicating about the crisis, while the latter focuses on broader operational protocol for identifying the cause of a critical incident, remedying its impact, and ensuring it won’t happen again.

Almost every crisis response effort requires input from a variety of leaders, including legal, human resources, information technology, operations, sales, etc., and how that response takes shape should influence communications, not the other way around.

This principle highlights the importance of robust crisis response planning that includes communications planning as just one element. If the first time the communications team is meeting and talking about the communications side of a crisis response with those other stakeholders from legal, HR, IT, operations, sales, etc., is in the midst of a crisis, conflicting goals — especially and often between communications and legal! — will hamper your response.


A strong plan also helps prevent a common mistake related to the myth that crises are just communications problems: speaking to the wrong audience. It’s human nature to want to please people, or at least to want people to stop harassing you. So we respond to the loudest and angriest voices in the hope that if we can just explain our position and help them understand the nuances of the situation, they’ll come around.

Unfortunately, in the current climate you can't assume your detractors are acting in good faith.

Nowhere is this more true than on social media. While some of your fans, members, customers, employees and other stakeholders will use social media as a good-faith way to establish or strengthen their relationship with your company or organization, don't be fooled into believing every social media critic actually wants a response. Learning how to identify a troll and resisting the urge to encourage them by responding is one of the most important skills to learn in crisis communications in the digital age.

Unfortunately, in the current climate you can’t assume your detractors are acting in good faith. They may not even want to be assuaged. Rather than trying to quiet the loudest voices in the room by shaping your response to meet their criticisms or demands, it may be more effective to let detractors criticize you while you focus your energy on shoring up support from your key audiences and stakeholders.

A good communications response plan will have already identified the key audiences and stakeholders you need to focus most of your efforts on reaching with your message during a critical incident. It can help you look past detractors who won’t ever be on your side and focus on responding in a way that will be most effective.

Myth #4: Planning (or practice) makes perfect

While robust response planning is an important way to prepare to manage and communicate about a crisis, too much focus on planning can lead communications professionals into a false sense of security about their readiness.

There’s a temptation to believe that with enough thoughtful planning, you can identify the kinds of crises you’re likely to face and prepare a response strategy that covers all your bases. An old Yiddish proverb speaks to this mindset: “Man plans, and God laughs.” (In fact, many religious and philosophical texts speak to the foolishness of putting too much faith in our own plans.) It’s always been true that plans can only get you so far, but with the wild card of social media today it’s even less likely that any crisis will go according to plan.

At Pinkston, we used to do crisis communications planning the old-fashioned way. We’d sometimes identify dozens of specific scenarios and prepare response messaging and tactics for each. It was a tremendous amount of work, and rarely pleasant for our strategists or the clients who had to spend mental energy (not to mention financial resources) dwelling on so many worst-case scenarios.

At some point, we took an informal inventory of how many times we’d used any of those hyper-specific scenarios exactly as they had been laid out. The answer? Zero.

To be sure, we had used pieces of those plans a lot, but we realized we were trying to get too granular in our planning. The result was an overly complex plan that was hard to navigate in the heat of a crisis, and left everyone feeling like they’d done a lot of preparation work that had little reward when it was needed most.

In response, we adjusted how we approach crisis communications planning. It’s still important to identify the kinds of crises our clients might face, their likelihood of occurring and their potential impact. But our goal with crisis plans is no longer to map out as many possibilities as we can think of. Instead, we seek to lay the foundation for an agile, effective response. It’s a starting point for response that can be tailored to the unpredictable characteristics of every situation. (Refer to Pinkston’s Crisis Communications Plan Template for an example of how we approach crisis planning that you can use as a starting point for your own plan.)

A similar principle is true for crisis drills. It can be beneficial to gather crisis response leaders on a regular basis under non-crisis circumstances, especially for large organizations where leaders don’t have much face time with one another. Spending time reviewing crisis response protocols can help ensure everyone is on the same page — at least that all the key decision-makers know each other as more than a name and title. That shared understanding and trust goes a long way toward a smoother response in real crisis situations.

But don’t be fooled by the mistaken belief that any real crisis will unfold the same way a mock crisis situation does. There’s really no way in a fake scenario to recreate the genuine stress and pressure that characterize a legitimate crisis, and giving people a false sense of security could ultimately do more harm than good.

While a strong plan and practicing with crisis drills certainly help improve your crisis response, every situation is unique. It’s better to have flexible messaging and an adaptable response strategy so you can adapt to the unique circumstances at hand.

Control the story.

Access our free crisis communications toolkit.

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Myth #5: It’s possible to emerge from a crisis completely unscathed

Critical coverage on the news or social media will always affect your reputation to some degree. This doesn’t necessarily mean customers will abandon you or that employees will quit en masse. It may be something as small as loyal employees finding themselves a bit less quick to fall in line with the company line, but any kind of bad news changes people’s perception of your organization.

How you respond to the criticism ... can influence the degree of impact and the time it takes to recover.

In the digital age it is naive to believe things will ever go completely back to normal after a crisis. Even minor missteps can live on in the collective memory of detractors, who are empowered by social media to bring up their criticisms in a response to every post. The sooner you can accept this as the cost of doing business in today's world and focus on proactive, positive outreach to the people you can win back, the better.

How you respond to the criticism or negative story can’t change the fact that your reputation will take a hit, but it can influence the degree of impact and the time it takes to recover. When you understand that you will take some hits but it's about damage minimization, you're less likely to make bad choices that will undermine the response and make matters worse.

One of the most common ways we see this myth in action is in organizational leaders — usually executives in non-communications roles — wanting to engage directly with criticism in the hopes of putting it to rest. We commonly hear some version of, “I know if I just talk to this reporter, I can make her see our side of the story.”

Oftentimes, journalists will use this tendency against you. We recently dealt with a producer for a national news program who persisted in encouraging a client to do an on-camera interview instead of issuing a statement. The producer made a compelling argument about the appearance of a written statement vs. an on-camera interview. But doing an uncontrolled interview created too much risk in an environment where something as innocent as an awkward turn of phrase could have blown the story out of proportion. (We stuck to our guns, and the producer ended up not even running a story.)

It can be difficult to accept that weathering a crisis is not — at least not always — about winning in a shutout. It’s about incurring the least possible damage and pivoting to recovery as quickly as is reasonable. One of the best ways to monitor success in a crisis is to watch the mention of negative news move down from the first paragraph of stories to the second, then down further into the story, and eventually falling out of coverage altogether.

While it’s counterproductive to enter into crisis response with the faulty assumption you can come out the other side unscathed, it’s important to seek out opportunities to start that recovery process as early as possible. If there is a silver lining to the reputational hit that comes with a crisis, it’s the fact that new attention on your organization creates an opportunity you may not otherwise have had to grow stronger, learn and in some cases gain great customer understanding and market share.

Conclusion

Whether it’s a global pandemic, a storm of criticism over a CEO’s sloppy tweets or anything in between, all crises create uncertainty and stress that can lead to communications missteps that will extend the crises and deepen its impacts. The best way to avoid such missteps is to have a clear understanding of how the crisis communications landscape has evolved and have a clear plan in place that will help you navigate crises with certainty and confidence.

As communicators, we must find the right balance between the urge to keep your head down in a crisis and wait for it to blow over, and the urge to respond quickly in the hopes of killing the story quickly. The former risks losing control of the narrative while the latter risks amplifying and extending the crisis and doing more harm than good.

We must also help other leaders in our companies understand a few basic truths about crisis communications: that most crises require an operational response at least in conjunction with, and preferably before, a communications response; that crisis planning and practice are valuable but not a silver bullet and that it’s rarely if ever possible to emerge from a crisis completely unscathed.

Keeping these principles in mind and coupling them with a strong – but simple – crisis communications plan will help companies, nonprofits, individuals and other entities navigate complex and risky situations. There is no such thing as a perfect response to critical incidents, but equipping yourself with the right knowledge and the best tools will help you chart the best course and come out the other side in as strong a position as possible.

Every crisis requires a response; learn how to craft yours.

Control your message and download our free, editable crisis communications plan.

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