Crisis Comms 101
It’s a decidedly VUCA world and the new year has been filled with crises in my world, and very likely yours as well.
If I could get every leader I know to absorb the below, we'd all be better off.
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Most of the “rules” for successful crisis comms are things that folks convince themselves out of doing because they think it will leave them legally liable, reputationally exposed, or economically vulnerable.
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The best crisis communicator I know asked me back in my mid- 20’s “why am I $750/hour?” I replied: “because you always know the right thing to do.” He said: “No, that’s only worth $300 an hour, maybe $400, tops. What’s the rest?”
The answer of course was that not only did he know the right thing to do, he also got the client to actually do it.
Think of how you get a careening car back on track. You turn into the spin, which feels wrong, but that’s because the g-force you are feeling warps your perception of the basic laws of physics.
Try convincing someone to do something they are convinced will bring certain death. It’s hard. $750/hour hard.
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Resultantly, history is full of folks who naively thought they could control a crisis, and we all know what happened as a result — every American can name a few. BP. AirBnB. Tylenol. Bayer. The Catholic Church.
Here is how you “win” a crisis, such as you might.
1.) The CEO always goes directly to the front lines. No proxies. Many CEO’s go to a front line, but not the front line. And to the front lines is meant literally as well as figuratively. The 2020 image in my head is of Police Chief Art Acevedo in Houston marching arm in arm with protesters. Find the edge of the front line and go there. Hide behind nothing. Go out of your way to make yourself a.) visible and b.) vulnerable.
2.) Tell everyone at once, and tell everyone the same thing. There is one story, and everyone gets it. No segmentation, and no withholding. One face, unified front, no partial stories or gamesmanship. You’re not trying to win. You’re trying to get everyone on as precisely the same page as possible. Information is not power in a crisis. There is no such thing as an informational edge, like there is in real life. Information in a crisis is more like a time bomb. Get it out of your house, quick.
3.) Related, say exactly what you know and exactly what you do not know. Make each bucket (both what you know, and what you do not know) obsessively explicit. You will lose trust and deepen the crisis if you take any liberties or make any projections or forward any theories whatsoever.
This is profoundly a “just the facts ma’am” time in your life. Every limb you might go out on will break. The information gap between you and everyone else should be as thin as logistically possible.
After all, these days there is no longer any meaningful difference between internal communications and external communications. Closely related, tell the truth, if you know it. No spin. In fact, strive for the naked truth. The most truthy truth.
Every audience immediately recognizes the truth when they hear it. Numerous studies have proven this out. We can point out full truths, partial truths, and lies insanely accurately, with no training, prep, or prior knowledge. Lying (full, partial or white) is a bad business; liars always overestimate their guile and underestimate other’s ability to detect. you will too, even if you’re not a “liar” — instead, take no liberties. Discover and articulate the actual, inner, real truth that needs to be said and written. That’s the most courageous act, and the most powerful one. Everything else is messaging.
4.) Overcompensate. This is probably the hardest one for folks to understand and follow. Be harder on yourself than they will dare be. And do more to help than is required. You won’t regret a bit of the time or money you spend. Doing “enough” or worse, the least possible viable amount, only creates more demand. Folks In the inner circle will argue the opposite — that overcompensating creates more demand. This is a tried and true fallacy. If you overcompensate you can draw a hard line. If you under-compensate, the line will be continually redrawn. Over-the-top is a good thing.
5.) Remember the Rule of 7 (or truly, the new Rule of 29)., also known as the Rule of Effective Frequency. Our psychology is hard-wired to trust things we hear repeatedly. Shamelessly say the same thing(s) over and over and over again. Be a broken record. On purpose. Smart people like yourself may think that repeating yourself is bad. You likely even avoid repeating yourself like the plague — the more ways you can say the same thing differently, the better! Don’t be clever. Look for opportunities to repeat yourself. Be as ubiquitous as you can with the exact same message over and over. I’ll write more about the new Rule of 29 in a few weeks.
6.) You need the press more than the press need you. They have a story, and eyeballs. You may be mad at them. They may be treating you unfairly. But they have the power of audience. Don’t think for one second that you can turn them off, turn them away, or shut them up. Often you can’t avoid them either. You don’t need to comment on every story or grant every interview, but if you think you can strong-arm them or give them the run-around, you have misunderstood the economics of media and their motivations. At some point, you have to pick a partner (or two) and dance.
7.) In my opinion this is the most important one. Actions speak far louder than words. No one wants to hear your inner monologue, or read a diary entry, or an apology. Those all fall on deaf ears, only make you look worse, and make detractors salivate. Your public wants to know what’s next. Sure, acknowledge the problem — as candidly as humanly possible — but without an action plan, you will get eaten alive no matter how well-meaning you are. Outline the next 3 steps. When those are done, come back and outline the 3 after that. Don’t give 4. Don’t give 1. Three at a time — the more specific and accountable the better. And do exactly what you said you were going to do, and then do it again.
If you don’t lay out the next 3 steps and then the next 3 steps and then the next 3 steps after that — maniacally, to the point at which people honestly start to get bored of your specificity and follow-through — you leave the door open for them to tell you what they think the next 3 steps should be. You will have left a power vacuum that others will gladly fill, and fast.
8.) No crisis is one-and-done. Otherwise it was just an “incident” — and those don’t really exist anymore, do they? Instead, plan for the crisis to be at least a 3 act play, and maybe a 13 episode HBO drama (or more). Your strategy and comms must lay out your response in waves, and be adaptable to changing conditions. You are dealing with a wildfire, not a birthday cake. If anyone thinks if they put out the right email or memo this will blow over, they’ve deluded themselves. You need a strategy, not a statement!
(And related, I have always found that statements are a piss-poor battlefield upon which to fight out what the strategy should be. Same for website copy, and press releases, and pitch decks. Set strategy first, then write the statement).
9.) Just as much as we are hard-wired to trust things we hear repeatedly, we’re also hard-wired to trust things with good rhythm and meter. This is in part why figures ranging from Lincoln to Obama fared so well in crises, regardless of how well they actually fared during crises. They had fabulous prosody. You must not have sing-songy prose and platitudes — that’s not the goal. Good prosody does not mean fancy language and SAT words, to be clear.
10.) Finally, you absolutely have to look at this as an opportunity, as sick and twisted at that may sound at first. What do we want to advance? If you’re not advancing something, you're losing ground. “Never let a good crisis go to waste” as Churchill famously said. Every crisis is ultimately an opportunity to make right, get better, evolve, build trust, and advance the mission, guided by better angels than whatever or whomever got you into this mess in the first place.
At my firm JDI, we make precedent-setting science companies well known and understood. Learn more at: www.jones-dilworth.com