How Not To Manage A Crisis

A crisis is defined as a major unpredictable event that threatens to harm the reputation or the legal/financial status of an organisation or an individual ( The way the crisis is handled is determined by a number of key factors, including the response time, what is said, and what was done to prevent the crisis in the first place. A crisis can easily spiral out of control due to a delayed response time, a failure to admit guilt and vague recovery plans or explanations. To avoid a potential PR firestorm, here is how you shouldn’tdo it.

1. Cover it up and hope it goes away

To avert a worsening crisis situation, the party in question should always take responsibility as soon as possible. Any delay makes the public suspicious and fuels the speculation inferno. However, often people in the public eye don’t realise this and they think that by ignoring the problem, it will somehow disappear.

Case in point: Two US Congressional Representatives, both unrelated, both accused of sexual misconduct, and both hoped it would go away. According to Forbes, David Wu and Anthony Weiner both denied the accusations against them, until the truth eventually came out. They were forced to apologise and they lost their jobs. Wu, however, had been in a similar predicament before, but he had handled it better, and he even managed to salvage his career. In 1994, just prior to the elections, a newspaper had run a story about his dodgy sexcapades in the ‘70s. He admitted guilt immediately, and quickly apologised. The result? He was re-elected! (Forbes).

2. Take forever to respond

Tiger Woods is a good (or bad) example of this. According to The Wall Street Journal, his 2009 infidelity drama began in the early hours of a Friday morning. He only issued a statement on the Sunday, and apologised the next Wednesday. This resulted in massive public speculation, rumour, gossip and intense scandal.

According to PR expert Karen Doyne, a message should be sent out within three hours of a crisis occurring, or within 24-hours at the latest. Clearly, Tiger Woods failed miserably in his timing, which only exacerbated his crisis. A rule of thumb is: the longer the wait, the more details need to be divulged. Also, his apology seemed forced and his explanations weren’t specific, as he just spoke of vague ‘transgressions’. This further damaged the public’s perception of him (The Wall Street Journal).

3. Be ill-prepared

The March 2011 Japanese nuclear crisis shows how a lack of preparedness can do untold harm. According to The Asia-Pacific Journal, the energy utility TEPCO was woefully under-prepared for a nuclear crisis at its Fukushima plant. Probes found that workers made critical errors, and they assumed that part of the cooling system was working, when it wasn’t. Most shockingly, however, was the fact that they had received inadequate training, and that they lacked basic nuclear emergency knowledge. They had no idea what to do in the event of a reactor cooling failure.

It also came to light that TEPCO ignored seismologists’ warnings about possible future tsunamis and earthquakes in the area. Furthermore, during the crisis, TEPCO ignored radiation updates and evacuated people to places that had higher levels of radiation than those they had left!

Effective crisis communication can be achieved if you don’t do the above! The public is generally quite forgiving, if the crisis is handled correctly. A fast response, an admission of guilt and a sincere apology can make a tremendous difference. The public also likes to know that all avenues were pursued in order to avert the crisis, so this needs to also be communicated quickly and clearly. If you follow this advice, your crisis can be controlled and reputations can remain intact. 

This post was written by Ang Lloyd, a freelance writer based in Cape Town, South Africa. Ang relishes the challenge of writing on a diverse range of topics, including the role that PR companies play in ORM and crisis communication.