Your choice of words in a crisis is of paramount importance, yet many individuals and organisations still manage to make matters worse with ill-judged comments or poorly crafted statements.
When the stakes are high, what you say takes on extra potency – and of course a longer shelf-life, thanks to Google, where quotes lurk, just waiting to be rediscovered. So it is prudent to keep things simple, clear and accurate.
So before we explore how best to shape your crisis communications, here are some of the pitfalls you need to keep in mind:
There is a very understandable tendency to throw up a defensive wall of formality in the face of a potential crisis.
In fact, this is often the opposite of what is required. Staff, stakeholders or the wider public are more likely to be mollified by a statement that is calm and clear.
Deploying a barrage of unwieldy quasi-legal terms can expose you to the risk of appearing clinical, uncaring, or pompous. It can also create the impression that you’re hiding something.
Humanity goes a long way here, so have the confidence to make your statement as straightforward as possible, with the kind of phrasing you might use in normal conversation.
If your audience is a mix of experts and laypeople, straightforwardness has a universal appeal.
Crucially, plain language also engages journalists, so offering statements that are eminently quotable helps put you in greater control of your message, and it doesn’t alienate reporters.
If you decide it is necessary to issue an apology, don’t try to swerve it with the equivocal ‘we regret if any offence was caused’. Who hasn’t heard a publicly uttered variation of this and groaned? It’s a natural temptation, so it’s good to be aware of it – eating humble pie in a timely manner can neutralise long-term threats to reputation.
Honesty is the best policy, but treat candour with care.
The early stages of a crisis breed confusion. Until hard facts emerge, steer clear of definitive statements and any kind of speculation. These might make you a hostage to fortune, and can open up avoidable legal risk.
A holding statement, explaining, for example, the stage that investigations have reached is entirely reasonable, but be prepared to answer questions in more detail later on.
Avoid allowing personal opinion, desires or irritation to infect your message.
Plenty of people have learned that lesson the hard way.
Outspoken Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary caused widespread offence a few years back when there was a row over printed boarding passes. He said passengers turning up for a flight without one were ‘stupid’.
Mr O’Leary has a talent for turning what one might call extreme candour into a PR opportunity – but few people can get away with that as a strategy, so it’s wise to consider him a high-risk role model.
And former BP CEO Tony Hayward was responsible for a string of ill-judged comments and made himself a hostage to fortune in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.
Less than a month into what became an agonisingly protracted calamity in 2010 – it killed 11 workers, injured another 17, decimated wildlife and sparked multi-million dollar law suits – Mr Hayward told reporters: “I think the environmental impact of this disaster is likely to be very, very modest”. A distinctly chippy press pack asked him whether he could sleep at night. “Of course I can,” he replied.
Later the same month, he provoked further outrage when he said: “There’s no-one who wants this over more than I do. I would like my life back.”
In exposing his humanity, he was cast as lacking it. It might seem a harsh judgement, but in hindsight he would have been well-advised to focus on the impact on others rather than the effects on himself. These public statements, arguably as much as the oil spill itself, cost Tony Hayward’s and BP’s reputations dear.
Way back in the early 1990s, Gerald Ratner famously trashed his own jewellery retail business by a woefully ill-judged speech in which he described his products as ‘total crap’. That slip wiped £500m off the value of his company, and ensured Ratner had a special place in the crisis-gaffe hall of infamy.
He’s not alone – a string of leading business figures have made disparaging comments about either their customers or their own products, causing seriously damaging crises that need never have happened.
Public statements that are professional, tailored to your audience and delivered plainly and promptly are always going to be your best defence.