Communication crises come in lots of flavors. They don’t all involve cataclysmic events like a plane crash, an oil spill or a high-profile arrest. In fact, most crises involve everyday events. That doesn’t make them any less potentially toxic.
- A critic bashes you in a public forum such as an online review site or social media.
- A major investigative story mentions your organization, even though you aren’t the focus of the investigation or even involved.
- A whistleblower files an anonymous complaint, then decides to go public before you have a chance to respond.
For affected organizations, these attacks, which are more common than you may think, can damage reputations that took years to earn. However, how you respond to these communications crises can go even deeper, sometimes irreparable reputational damage.
Crisis response is serious business. The best practice is to seek out and listen to good crisis counsel. That advice may resonate with your instincts or it may add to the frustration. Remember, the goal is to protect your reputation. The right mentality is how to transform the crisis into an opportunity to burnish your reputation, not bruise it.
Respond quickly and directly, if possible. Lead with a sincere apology. Ask about the incident and ask to take the conversation offline with the promise of making the situation right. Investigate what happened, less to find fault than to identify the problem and its cause. If the problem is chronic or a process failing, fix it. Get back to the critic with a repeat apology, substantive explanation and offer the critic would consider as generous.
Some critics will never be satisfied. But many will respect your directness and responsiveness to criticism. Make sure the last impression isn’t the bad meal, poor service or faulty product, but your effort to listen to the critic and take remedial action. The gift certificate, credit or coupon will be gravy.
P.S. There is no doubt some critical reviews are posted by unprincipled competitors. It is important to respond respectively, even if you know the criticism is made up. There may not be a real problem to correct. There is a lesson to teach on how a well-managed operation proactively responds to criticism.
Employ a good media screening tool that sends an alert when your organization’s name is mentioned in print, TV or social media. This may seem like an unnecessary defense – until the day your name pops up in a story that attracts wide coverage.
Assemble and verify your facts disclaiming any association, then proactively seek a correction from the media source of the story and any media outlets in your area of operation. Avoid excoriating the reporter or news source. Be firm in seeking, as appropriate, a correction and/or a pledge to stop including your organization in follow-up stories.
P.S. Use the situation as a teachable moment within your organization. Even though you were unfairly associated with the target of the investigation, look for ethical lapses or questionable practices that should be addressed and take responsible steps to lessen risk.
Seemingly, whistleblower complaints are becoming more common, many of them delivered through organizational hotlines established to field them to allow for prompt internal review and action. Skip searching for motives or the whistleblower’s identity if it’s anonymous. Focus on the substance of the complaint and dig for the facts.
Since many whistleblower complaints originate from within organizations, management must be transparent in informing employees, board members and relevant stakeholders about the basic allegation, the investigation and ultimately the response. Transparency will communicate that whistleblowers and their complaints are taken seriously and their criticism is viewed as a way to strengthen, not weaken organizations.
P.S. Whistleblower complaints that spill into the news media, inadvertently or intentionally, require careful attention and parallel transparency to internal audiences. It is fantasy to suppose internal “news” won’t leak into “public” news, especially in small towns. Again, public transparency of a credible investigation can earn respect, along with inevitable criticism. Because of the potential that whistleblower complaints can morph into legal action or occasionally criminal charges, you must be measured in responding to any public criticism, sticking with correcting errors of fact that are conveyed to media outlet editors.
Universal Best Practices
Even though no two communications crises are exactly alike, there are some universal best practices to follow:
- Start by getting the facts. Facts may not matter in political debates anymore, but they do matter in addressing a crisis, resolving a problem and getting your fair treatment in the news media.
- Adopt a respectful tone and a patient demeanor. Getting mad or hurling your own attacks will aggravate a situation, without leading toward a resolution. Agree when you can, correct misstatements or inaccurate descriptions and sympathize. Look for a win-win or at least a win-no lose outcome.
- Be proactive. Criticism can sting, but lingering criticism can cause enduring damage. If there was a screw-up, own it and make the situation right. A quickly handled situation can turn the critic into a fan. At a minimum, they can’t say you compounded a mistake by ignoring their complaint.
- Don’t offer excuses. Accept responsibility for making a situation right. As tempting as it may be to tell your side of the story, stick to the facts that you can show or prove and quickly get to the fix, which is what most critics really care about.