Over time, crisis management pundits have considered many types of responses to a crisis and have sometimes recommended actions and reactions that today seem out of step with effective solutions for most crisis situations. These out-of-step solutions fall into two categories: 1) stonewall the media and the issue will eventually die without you fueling the topic; and 2) a strong defense is a good offense, namely attack the accuser, deny the issue or point the finger elsewhere.
In today’s media jungle, stories don’t die. If something doesn’t pass the smell test, someone in the media is going to pursue it. Ignoring a crisis by ignoring the media doesn’t cut it. And if the media doesn’t pick up on an issue, the public certainly will, via Facebook, U-Tube, Twitter or some other yet to be invented faster-than-light communications vehicle.
In times of crisis most corporate managements would prefer to avoid the limelight, deal with its issues, solve its problems and escape negative publicity. Understandable, but dealing with a major crisis like an ostrich is terribly risky and makes a company look like it’s not owning up when the crisis is exposed.
So let’s assume you are willing and able to deal head-on with the public. Most senior executives are used to being in control. They pull the levers, call the shots and aren’t used to being told what to do. There is a tendency to be defensive. “I nurtured this baby, I grew it and I know how to defend it”. The reaction often lacks finesse. Instead of appearing open, the reaction is authoritarian. Instead of appearing honest, the reaction is defensive and oftentimes gravitates towards the blame game or, just as bad, the rationalization or justification game.
All of these “public” reactions can hurt your organization, because you will have missed the point. There is a problem. Acknowledge it. The problem has ramifications. Acknowledge them. No one is interested in finger-pointing or excuses, even if you are correct. There is time for that. Don’t act like the whiney school kid or the weasel that can’t or won’t take responsibility. The public expects companies and organizations to man-up. Period. Man-up and get moving so the problem can be fixed. The public respects organizations (and their spokespersons) that emanate competence and authority.
When BP went to Capital Hill to testify back in May, 2010 they were joined by Halliburton and Transocean, Ltd., two of BP’s subcontractors. All three looked foolish because of the finger pointing and denial that ensued. What to do? Act like a responsible citizen whether you are at fault or not. A responsible citizen acknowledges the problem and positions itself to take whatever action it can to help fix it. It investigates and determines the best course of action based on its expertise. The public needs to know you are responsible citizen. You convey that when you take immediate, competent action.
But what if you are not to blame? If you aren’t, good for you. It will come out in the end but as an immediate step the public needs to know that you recognize yourself as a player with a role, and that you willingly undertake that role for the public good. Expensive? Perhaps. Worth it. Most often a resounding yes, in terms of public perception and goodwill. If you are to blame the same holds true. Your legal team and your insurance advisors may have made it clear that you cannot say anything that admits culpability. Even so you can act as the same responsible corporate citizen as you would if you were not to blame. You can act sensitively, you can investigate and you can devote whatever resources you have to help fix the problem and keep the public informed regularly along the way.
Preserving your reputation and directing your efforts to problem-solving are the first order of business. Assessing blame comes later and is best left to third parties. No one ever looks good saying it is someone else’s fault. An insurance investigation, a public hearing, a regulatory investigation, a private investigation that is made public are just some of the opportunities you have to provide input to show the root causes of a crisis. Let a neutral source absolve you of blame. In the end it carries far more weight, and is more persuasive and acceptable.