Eric Mower + Associates has a long-time crisis management expert in Peter Kapcio. His guide for delivering bad news, which will confront everyone at some point in their career follows. Gems of wisdom and experience.
Last year’s terrible Fukushima disaster prompted many of our business acquaintances to ask, “You guys are crisis communications experts, so what do you think?”
What we think is this: 1) Worldwide reaction to Japanese officials’ responses once again proved the validity of the core principles of crisis communications; and 2) Their failures to follow these core principles will profoundly change things for energy companies around the world for years to come.
At some point in nearly every organization’s existence, bad news rears its ugly head. And of course, nobody likes bad news. Most human beings recoil at it. They don’t like to hear it, be confronted by it or be forced to respond to it. But most of all, people hate to deliver it, a behavior seen in Japan repeatedly since the disaster struck.
We recognize that nobody can respond perfectly under the superhuman pressures of a crisis, especially one of the magnitude and complexity of Japan’s earthquake/tsunami/nuclear-related one. But remembering these 12 strategic principles will help you make the right decisions more often than not.
1. If bad news is going to come out anyway, it’s best if it comes from you—not your opponents, critics, adversaries or the press. People respond far more positively to bad news than to uncertainty, unanswered questions or shifty responses. Being first to reveal a negative story about yourself marks you as a “stand-up person” and defuses suspicion and hostility. You only get one chance to shape the story, so get all bad news out at once. Ignoring bad news doesn’t make it go away, and covering up bad news never helps—they merely cause problems that spiral out of control.
2. “No comment” is never an option. Remaining silent means you agree with your critics, and that nearly always equals “guilty as charged.” Today, both the press and the public demand institutional transparency. When the news media sniffs a cover-up, the risk of igniting a media frenzy increases enormously.
3. Speed is everything when responding to a controversy, conflict or crisis. The only way to control it is to get out in front of it, and you only get one chance. If trouble is coming, the earlier battle-tested public relations counsel is involved, the better.
4. “I don’t know” can often be the best/smartest answer—especially when it’s a true fact. Don’t let your ego/pride/emotions prevent you from using it.
5. If you don’t actively manage your reputation, someone else will. Chances are you won’t like the results. There are two (or more) sides to every conflict or controversy. Avoiding or refusing to speak to the media, your stakeholders and the public guarantees only that your side won’t be heard. Why would you give your critics, your competitors or your enemies control over your fate?
6. Both perception and reality must be managed if your organization expects to continue operating after the trouble is over. As you certainly know, perception and reality are often two very different things. Trying to manage both in the same way with the same messages rarely works.
7. The damage from negative press is not correlated to its intensity—it’s a function of time. The greater the duration, the greater the damage. Your primary strategy is always to get any controversy, conflict or crisis behind you as soon as possible. The longer it continues, the more you’ll suffer.
8. There’s no such thing as “off the record.” Don’t say it if you don’t want to read it in tomorrow’s paper. The same is true of speculation and guessing.
9. Facts are your friends. Facts are specific—platitudes are ignored. Facts fill the space that rumor and innuendo would otherwise fill. Show the media that you will be their primary source for facts, and they will treat you very differently.
10. Crisis communications, done properly, should never jeopardize your legal case. In nearly all situations, legal and public relations counsel can agree upon a mutually advantageous strategy. Both should be in the room. Work only with public relations professionals who understand this. Allowing your lawyers to devise your public relations strategy rarely proves wise—they know how to deal with reality, not perceptions.
11. It is possible to apologize and take responsibility for solving a problem without accepting blame, admitting guilt or acknowledging wrong-doing. Mounting real-world evidence suggests this strategy also minimizes the risk of further litigation.
12. And most important of all… Over 90% of what you communicate is how you look and how you sound while you’re saying it. This is the commanding rule of verbal communication when the public is watching. Clarity and credibility are the only two things that matter in a crisis. Lose either one, and you lose your ability to keep control.
The content of this blog is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It originates with Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and in four top editor positions at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs at Eric Mower + Associates, one of the nation’s largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agencies, with seven offices in the Northeast and Southeast. Learn more about EMA at www.mower.com. Steve’s blog is based on his own opinions and does not represent the views or positions of Eric Mower + Associates.