There are endless ways a company or organization can screw up when responding to a crisis. And while every crisis has its own set of issues, here are five common crisis communication mistakes you don’t want to make:
My seven-year-old daughter once etched her name into the dresser of my new Ethan Allen bedroom set. To cover it up, she pleaded the fifth and then tried to blame her older sister claiming it was all a set up. Little did she know she was executing a crisis management mistake often used by much older and more educated people called noncredible denial. Organizations that react childishly to a crisis lose legitimacy and have trouble earning it back. Take the Exxon Valdez oil spill for example. Exxon’s attempt to shift the blame made the company the subject of ridicule for years and tarnished the reputations of many good people who worked there.
BELIEVING YOUR REPUTATION WILL SAVE YOU
Two words: Penn State. Two more words: Arthur Anderson. The former, a great college football program with football legend Joe Paterno as coach. The university took a giant hit to its reputation after the child sexual abuse scandal in 2011 and is still dealing with repercussions. The latter, an accounting firm with a long, prestigious history that ultimately went out of business along with the Enron Corporation in 2002 after a conviction of altering a single document for Enron.
TAKING TOO LONG TO PROACTIVELY ADDRESS A CRISIS
From July 2015 through December of that year, health officials identified 53 cases of E. coli linked to Chipotle in nine states. Later, dozens of customers became infected with a norovirus, most notably in Boston and California. From a public standpoint, it seemed to take the popular restaurant chain forever to address its problems, especially since the company focused on explaining the viruses first rather than emphasizing solutions to give customers faith it would not happen again. Chipotle finally turned things around by becoming aggressive about fixing the problem and very forthcoming with the public about what happened and what they were doing to fix the situation (DNA testing of food, changes in food preparation, new training standards, employee sick leave, etc.).
USING LANGUAGE YOUR AUDIENCE DOESN’T UNDERSTAND
This may seem like one of the more minor crisis communication mistakes, but it’s not. For example, most people will immediately tune out when they hear, “We are focused on user acquisition and securing a unicorn valuation for our Series A.” When a large chunk of the population is disinclined to even read past a headline in an article, they certainly won’t look up the meaning of highfalutin words. I remember thinking it was a big mistake every time pundits would criticize a recently departed president by using descriptors like “iconoclast” and “misogynist.” While those words may have been accurate, many of the people they most wanted to convince would not comprehend what they’re saying.
NOT LISTENING TO STAKEHOLDERS
For a crisis plan to work, it needs to be intelligently conceived and have input from relevant stakeholder groups. Getting stakeholder feedback will provide insight that is crucial to avoiding pitfalls in any crisis plan.
This article was written by Lynn Holley. Holley spent 20 years as an award-winning business journalist before joining the journalism faculty at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2004.