Crisis communication: This is not a magic show, it’s a crisis

On November 18, 2015

One weekend, not long after I started out in public relations, I went to watch a good friend go skydiving. There was a storm brewing but the company took a risk and decided to go ahead with the jump.

While I waited for my friend to land on the beach, the panicked owner of the skydiving company told me that if they couldn’t jump because of the weather, my friend would lose his money and wouldn’t be offered another chance to dive. He went on to describe how upset some customers get about this but that the company’s ‘PR people did a great job explaining the situation’.

At the time, I wondered how any PR professional could use only words to make this situation seem acceptable. It was a dangerous decision that showed a total disregard for customer safety and a blatant focus on profit above all else.

Unfortunately, this was only the first of many times I’ve watched as business owners or executives make poor decisions or take inappropriate actions, only to rely on communication professionals to clean up the mess.

And it never works; for two reasons.

Firstly, because crisis communication professionals are not magicians. They are good with words – yes – but they don’t have wands that can make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.

Secondly, because it’s dishonest and without substance. When there is no action to back up a carefully worded media statement, the public will see straight through an organisation’s empty words and they won’t be impressed.

In these situations, the organisation inevitably ends up with its tail between its legs and its reputation in tatters.

During a crisis, it is not the communication team’s job to ‘spin’ the organisation’s response with messages that attempt to turn inaction, or worse, bad behaviour into glowing reviews.

And the truth is, if the crisis response team isn’t doing anything wrong, it shouldn’t need this type of miracle.

It’s not good communication that protects an organisation’s reputation during a crisis, it’s action.

During a crisis, the communication team develops key messages to use in materials that honestly, openly, clearly and quickly deliver messages to stakeholders.

But these messages are not weasel words. They are simply a summary of the situation and how the company has responded; a reflection of an organisation’s actions.

This is why a crisis response team’s focus should be on the response strategy first and foremost, not communication (admittedly, a holding statement may be required in the interim).

Make admirable decisions. Take actions that prioritise the emotional wellbeing and physical safety of your customers, staff and stakeholders.

Do the right thing first. Only then can your communication team say you’ve done the right thing.

By Kath Christie