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Dumb Crisis Comments

firearm-409252_1920Once a crisis occurs, the bloviating begins, mostly by PR people. Most of these uninformed comments leave the erroneous impression that if you do maybe three things right, quickly, the problem is over before it begins. It’s sort of like when you were a kid, seeing a show where people were shot for the first time, and saying, “Why didn’t they just quickly jump out of the way the moment they heard gun fire?” The moment you know it’s a crisis, you have, in fact, been shot.

Let’s talk about how we really should prepare those we advise to what’s going to happen once the bullet arrives. What happens first is Mindless Crisis Management Commentary Errors, mostly made by PR people eager for the visibility such commentary provides.

Seems many of our public relations brothers and sisters know a whole lot less about the patterns of crisis than they let on, including many who write and blog about the subject.

Let’s start with the basic realities of crisis that the instant critics seem to miss or fail to care about. Or perhaps they are ignorant of what gives rise to crises in the first place. What we get instead is mindless commentary.

Mindless commentary # 1: “They didn’t act fast enough.”

Well, duh!

Anyone with any serious crisis experience knows that it’s a crisis because it happens faster than anything, and often defies easy, early response, realistic commentary and disclosure. Just because the press and the bloviators report something immediately doesn’t mean they are correct, or even close. Early reports and criticism are almost always wrong, mostly fabricated and never corrected.

No one can act fast enough to respond with the power and effectiveness to instantly mitigate a crisis. The slowness comment is actually a cheap shot. Most first responses are weak, misdirected and need to be fixed, sometimes repeatedly.

Mindless commentary # 2: “The Company obviously did not have a plan to respond to an event of this magnitude, and they should have.”

Any military strategist will tell you as will any experienced crisis responder or communicator that whatever the scenario, however clever the strategy, once the first bullet is fired, all early bets on the first response approach are off and new strategies will be required. Crises are sloppy, random affairs that only slowly reveal the extent of the damage and the actual response requirements.

Here again, those who actually have survived a crisis understand that all crises tend to happen explosively, but resolving crises happens incrementally. The big problem with crisis is nobody really knows for sure what’s going on for quite a period of time, sometimes never.

In British Petroleum’s case it took around 120 days to shut off the oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico. Was this a slow response? Actually it was a miracle, only achievable by BP. While all the politicians, pundits and other ill-informed or opportunistic commentators were bloviating and bellyaching, BP got the spill stopped. It’s pretty safe to say that no comment made by any PR commentator, including this one, nor by others more qualified, or even the President of the United States sped up the resolution of that leak by even a nanosecond. Only British Petroleum is responsible for that success. All crises take far longer than anyone ever assumes to be resolved. On top of that, there is collateral damage in every crisis that often fails to surface until serious crisis resolution efforts begin to occur. What are communicators talking about?  . . . The media. Is it any wonder management so often ignores us? We tend to be more eager to be heard than to be right.

Mindless commentary # 3: “The response should have been executed much more cleanly and with fewer hiccups than it was.”

Total nonsense. Crises are always messy, sloppy, stupidly expensive and miserable affairs to manage. Mistakes are constantly made in responding. My rule is that 50% of your energy and 25% of your resources in the early response to crises go to fixing the mistakes you made yesterday or just this morning.

Mistakes are always more common than success in the early going in crisis response. Responses are constantly being attempted. Sooner or later, after you have piled up sometimes millions of dollars in mistakes, suddenly something works with very little knowledge of what the underlying causes and circumstances truly are. Honorable companies react, respond, and risk public embarrassment and public condemnation.

Remember the complaint-scarred but hugely successful Target 10% discount weekend following disclosure of the hacking incident.

This huge act of benevolence on the part of the company was immediately converted into a media set-up for criticism. Which always arrives late and is usually gratuitous.

Instead, most coverage comments, despite full and overflowing Target parking lots, criticized the CEO for “not having known that there were going to be exceptions.” Blanket responses and blanket attempts at doing good things always have their hitches, glitches and hiccups. As they say in the Marines, “No good deed goes unpunished.” So what’s the point?

Accommodating Mindless Criticism

Like it or not, mindless commentary has become part of the pattern of crisis reporting. Get used to it, remain calm in spite of it. Here’s what you can expect:

  1. In crisis, media always do and say the same things, makes the same mistakes, and invent or get others to invent erroneous hypotheses, then cover these hypotheses as though they were true. During the school shootings in Boston and Connecticut, the victims’ family members begged the media to stop making things up. In crisis, more than 80% of the early coverage is fabricated. Breaking news is too often just plain broken news.
  1. Mindless commentators come out of the woodwork, many are PR people, because the media knows PR will always bash the perpetrators. Beware the instantly created CNN panel of “experts” assembled specially to fabricate the news for you.
  1. Even the best companies can become perpetrators at some point. The truth comes out very slowly, no matter how loudly the complainers complain, the accusers accuse and the plaintiffs sue.
  1. The “perpetrator” has to actively correct, clarify and comment on the ill-informed misinterpretations of others – intentional, unintentional, errors and stuff that was just made up. Otherwise crisis problems can and do live forever in the ethosphere.
  1. Silence is always the most toxic strategy choice; there is no rational excuse for silence by honorable companies, their leaders and individuals, even for the first hour or two. Silence becomes the focus of the coverage, regardless of how splendidly and perfectly a response is carried out. Speak immediately . . . 140 characters, said now, is all it takes to save your reputation.
  1. Lukaszewski’s Law of Bungled Crisis Communication: no matter how perfect and competent your response; no matter how humanely you treat the victims and deal with the consequences of your situation, if you fumble, stumble, mumble and bungle the communications of a crisis situation, your crisis will be characterized and remembered as a stumble, fumble, mumble and bungle – even if your response was arguably perfect.

Make mindful comments, if you must.

  • “It’s going to get worse before it gets better . . .” and why.
  • Bad news always ripens badly.
  • Focus on caring for the victims.
  • Do things faster, do things now, speed always beats smart.
  • Stop the production of victims.


Delivered at the Secure360 Twin Cities 2016 Conference
May 18, 2016

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