Corporate Communications executives desire a seat at the management table, and rightly so, considering how they help to shape the reputation of their organisation, however, this is hardly the case. The communications department, where it exists as a stand-alone department is tasked with publicising products and services and supporting the marketing department. But in the event of a scandal that threatens the image of the organisation, the lack of communication expertise of top management would become glaring. Communication in times of crisis brings out the best and worst in businesses. How do you handle media inquiry in the face of a scandal? Is it acceptable to say “no comment” to unanticipated questions from the press? How does the chief executive learn to face the media with composure, while responding to antagonistic questions?
In the first part of this article, I suggested that every crisis communication event has a victim, whether recognised or not. Identification of all those affected directly or indirectly by the event, and then devising when and how to speak with each of them is primary, the primacy suggests that the organisation should pay attention to its perception in the mind of the victims, and strive to keep this positive. It would also be wrong to assume that all victims want monetary compensation, when in fact, most want to be heard, understood and empathised with. In this second part, we consider the place of truth in crisis communication, the interplay between public opinion and legal opinion, and some tips for managing the media at such times.
Always stick to the truth
This is perhaps one of the most difficult and most misunderstood suggestions in crisis communication. Should a business tell the truth in a crisis even if that puts them in a bad spot, or is it better to lie? If you seek a short-term gain, and you care neither for your reputation (which is a long-term good) nor for the victims, you may choose to lie to get out of the present ugly rut; but this approach is not recommended.
What is clear is that a good reputation, especially a long-term one, is best for businesses. It is also generally accepted that lies are ultimately inimical to the reputation of any organisation. Once doubt is cast on your reputation, it takes a longer period to restore, hence the need to be known as the organisation that tells the truth always.
In a crisis, it is also important that the organisation in question remains the only and primary source of news. This will prevent, eliminate or reduce the existence of alternate sources of news, many of which would be unreliable. As such times, the news media would be hungry for urgent and constant news updates (in a 24-hour news cycle, made even more urgent by the internet). With all outlets racing to break the news, the media has tendencies to “invent” news if it is not fed. As uncomfortable as it is to share bad news particularly about oneself, it is best for a business to put out its bad news. This way, as the media constantly refers to the organisation for updates, it will be able to present the news in as favourable a light as possible, if not by the content of the news, but by the goodwill from being the primary source. But the pressing question remains, why should a business disseminate bad news about itself?
Remember that the primary intent here is to maintain the good long-term reputation of the organisation. Concealing the information may lead to disappointment on the part of the publics when they eventually discover the truth, and at this time, the narrative will no longer be yours to control. You would have lost the opportunity to prove that your organisation is proactively truthful and trustworthy.
When an organisation tells the truth, even about bad news, it remains credible and easily forgivable. This is especially so when the entity has, over time, become synonymous with quality product and service offerings, and displays a willingness to resolve the issue at stake.
Distinguish between Public Opinion and the Law
When there is a victim, lawyers appear on both sides. It is natural to want to reduce one’s liabilities; hence it is understandable that organisations are reluctant to admit guilt, or even show compassion, for fear of an increase in liability and compensation demand. Although a tough situation, businesses must learn to separate public opinion from the law. If perception is key, you may be right by the law but guilty in the eyes of the public. Since a good reputation is beneficial to your business in the long run, it makes sense to give priority to the opinion of the public. To this end, businesses may choose not to avail themselves of some legal and acceptation option, that may be ill-considered by the observing public. In the eyes of the judging public, the business is considered a “big bully,” while the individual on the receiving end is considered an innocent “small” victim. Public opinion tends to side with the weaker party. By all means, listen to your lawyer but also listen to the heartbeat of your public through the advice of your Corporate Communications team.
As a communications manager, how have you handled the media and public perception of your organisation in the event of a crisis?
It is generally accepted that lies are ultimately inimical to the reputation of any organisation.