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10 Lessons from the New Crisis Playbook

If crisis response is so obvious, why do so many people still get it wrong?

In a consumer-controlled, activist-driven, media-frenzied world, more and more industries and organizations are being put under the microscope. Flaws, real or not, are scrutinized and attacked. And you only have to take a look at the line (or lack of) at your nearest Chipotle to see the impact of a true crisis on your bottom-line. 

Leaning on decades of behavioral science and dozens of real-world research studies with today’s skeptical consumer, we have identified 10 lessons for a new reputational crisis playbook. 

Step 1: Rapid issue assessment. 

Not every dust-up is a crisis.  But too often serious issues are ignored because executives find good excuses to believe they won’t blow up.  Here are 5 questions you should ask yourself to quickly decide whether this is a one-day story or a serious issue:
1.  What would an activist say?

If you don’t deeply understand the motivations, mindset and modus operandi of your critics before a crisis hits, you are already way behind.  The first thing to do when a story breaks is shift your mindset.  Become your worst critic.  What bad facts could you uncover?  What picture, memo, statement or email could you use to make this look like a really bad situation?  If it feels like the information already public is only part of the story…be concerned.  

2.  What negative narratives about you does this reinforce?

Crises that don’t tally with deep-set beliefs usually don’t last long.  The carcinogenic meat debate came out of left field. And because most people don’t equate red meat with cancer, the story had less impact. Greedy bankers during the financial crisis? That tapped into an existing belief and perception. When there’s already an accepted narrative, it’s easier for related news to stick in consumers’ minds.

3.  What will it look like on Instagram?

When there’s an image involved, you’re job’s going to be even tougher, and you need to be prepared for the crisis to burn longer and faster. Pictures of bankers popping champagne, or meat sitting on the floor of a fast food restaurant create visceral reactions that are greater than simple news stories. And they’re even more shareable.

4.  How motivated are your potential critics?

Are you a media darling or demon?  Do you already have activists targeting your company?  Is this an issue that can help promote a politician or organization’s political agenda?   These groups don’t necessarily care about you.  They care about attention.  So think about whether some group or someone is likely to use this for their own purposes.

5.  Has it happened before?  Could it happen again?

You can still get a free pass in this world if you make a mistake…once.  The reputation risk associated with any given problem increases exponentially with its frequency.  So if this is a repeat offense or is likely to happen again in the future…go to Step 2.

Step 2: Getting the message right. 

If you decided this is an issue you can ignore, go back to Step 1 and do a reality check.  Once you decide to speak, here are five lessons about getting the message right.

1.  Speak quickly – even if you have little to say.

How many times do we have to see “no comment” backfire before executives will recognize that the first law of communication is that any empty void will be filled? If it isn’t your narrative, it will be theirs.  So even if you are in the middle of the crisis, trying to figure out what is happening…go out and say something.  The longer it takes you to respond, the less benefit of the doubt you’ll get and the more likely that the media or others will paint a picture much worse than the reality.

2.  This is a battle for hearts then minds.

Fact sheets often fail in the midst of crisis.  If the crisis suggest your products aren’t safe, or you did something wrong, the public won’t believe you when you tell them otherwise.  The hardest lesson to learn in crisis is that the facts won’t set you free.  Effective messages start by acknowledging – not rejecting – the public’s right to be concerned.  Effective messages also tend to focus on the future not the past.  And most importantly, effective messages replace – rather than rebut – the negative narrative.

3.  Show actions.

Communicating about tangible responses to a crisis – if you have them – are very effective in limiting a crisis.  What companies often miss are the steps they already take, but may not talk about, that can help rebuild trust. Did you collaborate with a research center to increase seatbelt safety? Did you respond positively and make changes during past adversity? Even smaller actions, processes or policies can help illustrate the kind of organization you are and limit reputational damage.  Just don’t tell them how much money you have donated.  That isn’t going to help in a crisis.

4. Be careful about trusted sources.

 When you need backup, make sure you’re getting it from someone who’s trusted themselves. For example, using the FDA to validate your safety argument doesn’t help when many consumers think government authorities are in the pockets of business. 

5. Be constructively transparent.

The public does not have the time or inclination to dig deeply into the facts of your situation.  And complete transparency often creates more confusion than clarity.  But the public does want to feel like they could look at the details if they wanted to.  What matters is that you show them information that provides context and demonstrates positive intent.  Then make it easy for them to find more details if, and only if, they are interested in learning more.

When your company is attacked, the first inclination is usually to attack back. That might feel good, but it often hurts more than it helps. If you aren’t prepared when crisis hits…these 10 lessons can help you get out the other side with fewer bumps and bruises. And when in doubt, we also offer QuickResponse crisis message testing, a fast, cost-effective way to create and test crisis messaging (find more on that here). What do you think?  Are there any important lessons we missed?  I want to hear!