In crises, perceptions rule and must be addressed

When going toe to toe with a crisis, understand that perception is your sparring partner, not reality.

Many managers feel that their version of the facts is all that matters. And we certainly teach that if you defend yourself against criticism at crisis levels, getting the facts out fast is a must.

But understand too that a crisis is about perception. And these days perception is fluid and ever-changing. The 24/7 news cycle, spun up and magnified by social media, instantly grows perceived flaws into fatal ones.

For instance, if Bill Gates or Warren Buffett were accused of unethical or illegal behavior, their current excellent reputations would initially blunt the charges against them. They’d get the benefit of the doubt. How many people, when they heard about O.J. Simpson‘s attack on people in a Las Vegas hotel room resulting in armed robbery and kidnapping charges thought he was innocent?

But perception goes beyond someone’s personal reputation. It’s institutional. You compete against “common knowledge.”

If you’re a rock star arrested for drug possession, it’s a news blip. If you are a pastor, DEA agent, elected official or educator, it’s scandalous. We perceive rock stars differently from politicians and hold them — consciously or unconsciously — to different standards.

Are we truly surprised when Rush Limbaugh runs off at the mouth too much? Does Hugh Hefner‘s latest 30-something, blonde-bombshell girlfriend create the same scandal as a presidential candidate’s affair?

We may be shocked and horrified, but does it truly surprise us that a soldier on his fourth tour of duty in a Mideast war zone kills 16 innocent Afghan civilians? Did a Goldman Sachs‘ whistleblower stun us with his revelations, or confirm what we already knew?

That’s what you’re up against in a crisis. Avoid central casting as a stereotype. If you are known for circling the wagons and not commenting, hold a news conference. If you’ve never faced your accusers, stand up and face them. If you usually hold so many news conferences no one comes any more, stay quiet for a bit when your crisis breaks.

You can have the facts on your side, and if you do, promote them. But don’t think your tasks are over or your crisis vanquished until you address all the perceptions.


About steveoncrisis

The content is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It comes from Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and as managing editor and editorial page editor at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs at Eric Mower and Associates, one of the nation's largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agency with six offices in the Northeast and Southeast.
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