Straight talk has always been the gold standard in crisis communications. Its importance has been reinforced during the COVID-19 pandemic when the challenge has been to manage outrage as much as preserve reputation.
Dr. Peter Sandman, crisis communications specialist, has created a formula – Risk = Hazard + Outrage – that he uses to assess and respond to crisis situations. He says when people affected by a crisis situation feel frightened, threatened or angry, they want more than technical reassurance the crisis situation is under control. They want straight talk.
Telling people to “calm down” isn’t an effective crisis communications strategy, Sandman says. “The strategies that actually work turn out to be profoundly counterintuitive: apologizing for your mistakes, giving others credit for your improvements, acknowledging their grievances and concerns.” In other words, managing outrage.
Sandman acknowledges it can be hard in a crisis to resist reassuring frightened people that everything is okay or explaining everything is under control. Fears and outrage won’t disappear with kind or confident words. Sandman’s advice, “When a situation is genuinely uncertain, saying so is both wiser and more honest than pretending you know all the answers.” He adds, “Tentativeness is paradoxically more convincing than confidence.”
Most often, “Everyone already knows you screwed up,” Sandman says. “Refusing to admit mistakes prolongs the public pile-on and postpones forgiveness.”
Many of the precepts of traditional public relations don’t square with the demands of crisis communication, according to Sandman. A major goal of PR is to grab attention. In a crisis, the people impacted are already paying rapt attention. They don’t care about your reputation. They care about their situation, whether it’s fouled air or hacked bank accounts. As Sandman explains, they are outraged and expect straight talk and some empathy.
Apologies aren’t always easy to engineer and deliver. They come across best when laced with sincerity, authenticity and action. Effective apologies stand alone, with no scapegoating as a sidekick. Blaming someone else, even if true, only succeeds in turning up the temperature of outrage.
After the apology comes a credible explanation of what happened and why. The explanation needs to thread the needle of being accurate, appropriately detailed and not condescending. Most of the people impacted in a crisis aren’t engineers, economists or lawyers. The explanation must take into account the community understanding of those impacted, including any cultural perspectives. The key is to avoid words or body language that isn’t consistent with straight talk. The goal, Sandman says, is to build trust through candor.
Everyone already knows you screwed up. Refusing to admit mistakes prolongs the public pile-on and postpones forgiveness. When crisis victims are outraged, they expect straight talk and some empathy.
The final step is a clear, direct description of your actions to address the crisis, its aftermath and avoid a recurrence. Tell what you already have done and what you intend to do. This may require stepping over the advice of counsel to be cautious about what you admit or pledge. Don’t promise what you cannot deliver. Accept responsibility and embrace accountability. And, make sure to ask people impacted what they need and feel is fair.
Sandman lays out a communication accuracy standard that distinguishes between helpful simplification and misleading misinformation. The greatest offense, he notes, is leaving out crucial information in the name of simplification – or in an attempt to hide culpability or previous missteps.
Social media and user-generated news content have made sharing outrage easier, faster and farther. As a consequence, outrage management is more complex than making statements in front of a battery of microphones. Crisis messages must be shared as widely as the crisis situation calls for, including almost always employees and often neighborhood organizations, elected officials and community stakeholders.
Many crises are predictable. Crisis preparation done in advance involves identifying known or potential risks and then developing specific crisis response scenarios. A crisis plan can include advance outreach to nearby neighbors, coordination with safety personnel and training of staff members. Sandman says familiarity with risk can result in reduced outrage, even if a crisis eventually occurs. Familiarity with risk also should be accompanied by familiarity with the preventive steps taken to mitigate risk and prevent a crisis.
Crisis communications is far from an exact science. Sandman’s insightful contribution to crisis counsel is to focus on outrage, which is your best chance, he argues, to preserve reputation. A crisis extends beyond an incident to address. Crisis response must confront the fear and outrage of the people impacted. Understanding the causes of outrage, which only can be accomplished by straight talk, is critical to effectively addressing a crisis, both in terms of crisis communications and crisis response.
Sandman goes against conventional wisdom by endorsing the idea of letting multiple voices do the talking, even if the straight talk isn’t just the party line. Other voices can include trusted employees, stakeholders and safety or law enforcement officials. Multiple voices can convey a team approach to dealing with a crisis and avoid having just one person constantly in the spotlight – and on the spot. This can help to prevent, Sandman says, unforced errors and telltale signs of management outrage over the need to manage community outrage.
The bottom line: The best reputation you can preserve is as a straight shooter. The only way to achieve that is to stick with straight talk in the face of outrage.