Right now the Biden administration is dealing with multiple crises. But almost every politician or public figure deals with a crisis at some point in her or his career. Dealing with a major crisis is the most difficult of all communications challenges. When a leader or a subordinate in a highly public position does something stupid, illegal, unethical, or even if something bad or momentous occurs entirely by accident, enormous opportunity exists to further exacerbate the problem with bad communications.
A number of years ago I wrote an article about crisis communications. I’ve updated it here:
With a crisis usually comes confusion, panic, intense emotions and feelings of despair and disaster. It’s difficult to think rationally and first impulses are often wrong. Those in the midst of a crisis often can’t put things in perspective, can’t judge the size, intensity or importance of what has happened, and are often in no position to make good decisions. Few policymakers or corporate executives are really prepared for crisis management because they don’t expect a crisis will occur on their watch. It’s like preparing for an earthquake; no one really believes it will happen to them. In almost any crisis, mistakes are made in the early going.
Here are some tips to make the best of a tough situation:
Tip 1: Don’t make decisions alone. Get people you trust around you quickly and discuss every angle and issue. Bring in people from the outside with fresh perspectives who aren’t emotionally entangled, including communications professionals with experience in crisis management. Talk things through. Don’t make instant decisions. Listen to an array of people you trust before deciding on a course of action. Immediately notify superiors or colleagues of the crisis and seek their direction. In the thick of a controversy, those directly involved usually can’t see the forest for the trees. They lack context and perspective. If one person is making all the decisions without any discussion or outside input, bad mistakes will almost always be made.
Tip 2: Never, never, never, never, try to cover up what happened. Most policymakers and corporate leaders know that if something bad happens, trying to cover it up is usually the worst thing you can do. However, in the heat of the moment when a crisis erupts, when reputations and careers are on the line, an enormous temptation exists to think the mistake or improper behavior can be swept under the rug and no one will ever know. Only a few people know about it, right? They can be trusted, right?
Trust me, the walls have ears and it will get out. Someone will talk and the resulting crisis will be much worse than the original mistake. Whether the original problem was a big deal or not, a cover-up attempt will turn it into a big deal. The cover-up will be a much bigger story than the original foul-up. The first step in resolving the crisis is to acknowledge the mistake, misbehavior, or whatever happened. Come completely clean.
Tip 3: Instead of trying to cover up, do just the opposite. When something bad happens, whether it is your fault or not, get everything, EVERYTHING, out on the table as quickly as possible. Provide more information than would be expected. Provide names, dates, details, background and everything you know. As new developments occur and new information surfaces, get it out.
You can’t be seen as hiding anything. Constituents or customers will appreciate the fact that you’re being transparent and dealing forthrightly with the matter. Another reason to quickly release all information is that if the crisis isn’t major, you might be able to confine the story to one or two news cycles instead of allowing the story to be strung out over several days or weeks as new facts are revealed.
Tip 4: Defer major decisions and courses of action until you feel you have a good grasp of the facts. When bad things happen, never, never make quick, rash, emotional decisions. Admittedly, this is easier said than done. Sometimes the crisis is so clear-cut and the course of action so obvious that you can move quickly. Often, however, facts need to be gathered and options considered. You should, of course, immediately acknowledge the situation, but you don’t have to immediately announce a course of action such as firing someone or resigning. It is important to take reasonably quick action, but not before you know what really happened and understand all the ramifications. Take time to dig out the facts, but not too long. People understand that a little time is necessary to grasp the nuances of a crisis situation. But don’t take longer than a couple of news cycles.
Tip 5: When something bad happens, be sorry, be humble, apologize, vow to take corrective actions and outline what will be done. Don’t minimize the blunder. We are forgiving people. Everyone messes up at one time or another. We empathize with people or institutions that make mistakes, immediately fess up and promise to do better. Someone who is arrogant, blames others, and refuses to take responsibility only exacerbates the problem and encourages detractors and the news media to dig deeper and find further fault. After accepting full blame, lay out a course of action to correct the problem and move on. A little humility goes a long way in defusing a crisis.
Tip 6: Don’t misjudge the severity of the crisis. That’s easy to say, but hard to do. When something bad happens, the natural tendency is to underestimate its impact and expect and hope that the situation will quickly blow over. That’s particularly true if details are still being uncovered and you are just seeing the tip of the iceberg. You should think through worst case and best case scenarios — but expect the worst. Ask this question: “If a half-dozen dogged investigative reporters are digging into this matter and calling everyone involved, what is going to emerge?” It’s important to think carefully through how big the incident is, and all the ramifications. Don’t minimize the impact. If you know there’s more to be uncovered, take the initiative and get it all out there yourself.
Tip 7: Beware the “hypocrisy factor.” If an ordinary guy steals something, it isn’t much of a story. If a cop steals something, it’s big news. If a bar patron gets drunk, it’s no big deal. If a clergyman gets drunk, it’s a story. If a crisis has any smell of hypocrisy, it’s an even bigger story. A little hypocrisy makes it a “man bites dog” story. That’s important in determining the scope of a crisis and how to deal with it. A story about a county auditor filling his car from county gas pumps, and not paying for it, was front-page news because the auditor was supposed to be the county’s financial watchdog. When hypocrisy is involved, it’s even more important to follow previous tips and get everything out fully and quickly, without trying to hide anything.
Tip 8: Expect a media feeding frenzy. When every news outlet has several reporters aimed at you and your organization and they’re all competing for the next scoop and any tidbit of information, you’re going to feel like all hell has broken loose, like you’re in a war zone as “shock and awe” is unleashed. Expect it. Expect to feel victimized. Be patient and deal with it. Understand that any usual modicum of restraint and courtesy on the part of the news media will be tossed out the window in the mad scramble, especially if the national media get involved.
Answer all the questions. Choose a good spokesperson, possibly yourself, but don’t shield top leaders from the onslaught or it will look like a cover-up. The top people in the organization must be visible and be seen dealing with the crisis. To help defuse the feeding frenzy, as quickly as possible announce a recovery plan with concrete steps to prevent the blunder from happening again. Any major crisis or scandal is going to hurt, is going to be damaging, and may cost some people their jobs. But handled forthrightly and openly, the harm can be minimized.