Don’t Try to ‘Common Sense’ Your Way Out of a Crisis

crisis communications

One of the most ‘common’ mistakes public relations pros make when faced with a crisis situation, particularly when they have little crisis experience, is to try to ‘common sense’ their way out of it.  More to the point, if they don’t have experience all that they likely know about crisis management is what they may have read on a couple of blogs or at that one conference they attended three years ago, and they try to wing it.

They feel confident they can wing it because the rule of thumb they use is that when they look at all of the stakeholders impacted by the crisis they think, “What would I want to know if I were them?”  That’s their first mistake because they are not you. Chances are they see things much differently.

Further, inexperienced crisis managers tend to fall back on some of the more pedestrian assumptions that permeate the public relations field.  Some of these are to look for ways to accept blame and fault and apologize; to post early and often on social media; to always have media briefings; and never to cast blame on any third parties’ intentions or motivations.  To them, you must avoid conflict at all costs even if you may need to confront rumor mongers to correct the record.

I’m not saying you should never do any of these things, but what I am saying is I’ve seen too many less experienced crisis communicators operate on the assumption you should always do all of these things.

To amateur crisis communicators, crisis communications can’t be that difficult. All you need is to apply some common sense to the situation.

Why ‘Common Sensing’ Doesn’t Work

These same people wouldn’t be their own lawyer in a court of law. They wouldn’t be their own accountant if the IRS came knocking to do an audit. They wouldn’t conduct DIY surgery if they had an ACL tear. So, why do they think they can manage themselves out of a crisis if they have no real training or experience?

  • First off, most have some or a lot of communications experience. To them, crisis communications is just an extension of that.
  • Second, they think some of those day-to-day problems they’ve faced were actual crises, only small ones, and they feel prepared to manage this now larger one.
  • Third, they over-estimate themselves.

But, ‘common sensing’ your way through a crisis misses a large number of proverbial land mines. Much of crisis management is counter-intuitive. There are many times when you might think you should communicate when you shouldn’t. And there are other times when you think you shouldn’t communicate when you should.

Schooling a Generalist

Not long ago, I counseled a school district that was planning on constructing a consolidated school building in one place, merging four separate elementary schools into one. To prepare for construction, the district had already used eminent domain to purchase one large, vacant piece of residential property to build an access road.

Rumors traveled quickly within the suburban community before the school district’s plans were finalized. It didn’t help that one school board member in particular had started to brag to friends and family about her role in the process.

Understandably, this created widespread rumblings throughout the community about the rerouting of heavy school bus traffic through once quiet residential streets that were not built for such traffic.

That’s when I got the call from the district.  The school board wanted to find a way to keep a lid on the situation until their plans were finalized. They wanted to know what crisis communications strategies could be deployed to stop the rumors. Their leaning was to deny the rumors that were clearly false, and ignore the ones that had nuggets of truth in them.

The district’s communications specialist, who was a generalist, wanted to obey the school board and follow this strategy. But she wanted my thoughts.

After I reviewed the situation, my counsel was somewhat counter-intuitively to lean in. You can’t retract information that’s already out there whether it’s accurate or not. You can’t communicate on plans that aren’t finalized. But what you can do is begin a dialogue with the local community where they feel they have a voice and a certain degree of control.

I recommended a neighborhood survey where the district would send out printed forms so that everyone would literally be on the same page with no confusion. I knew this would spur neighbor-to-neighbor talk. But I also knew that the survey form itself would provide structure for those conversations, an agenda of sorts, packed with key messages for that snapshot in time.

(By the way, I considered various forms of public forums, including town hall style meetings and decided against it. If you’d like to know why, ping me.)

The strategy was to frame the survey as the beginning of a listening process. It would inform neighbors truthfully that the district was making plans for expansion on an existing campus; that those plans were not finalized and therefore could not be discussed; that the district wanted to solicit input from and listen to the community, and this survey was the first part of that process. The introductory paragraph would be followed by a series of simple questions centered on street traffic, school bus stops, contingency plans for snow days, etc.

The strategy in a term was, “managed transparency.”

Thanks, But No Thanks

Now, many generalist communicators might agree with this approach and may even come up with a variation of it. But the generalist I counseled did not. She was afraid of how she would look to her administration and school board by making recommendations that she knew the board would consider bold, a strategy that involved risk. Weak decision-makers are much more willing to accept their fate as a result of indecision, than live with a potential mistake that results from a decision.

Since I could not tell them what they wanted to hear, I politely declined the assignment and wished them the best.

Needless to say, the situation got worse. It became a nightmare in the community newspapers, and in the community itself. For as long as the construction project lasted, a development that should have been welcomed by the community was flatly and largely despised.

And since the school board was tone deaf from start to finish (it never did take seriously the community input it did receive), the bus routes were a mess. That’s just one example.

Take Your Crisis Management Skillset as Seriously as the Crisis You May Face

The point is, if you aren’t a seasoned crisis communicator who learned from others more experienced than you, you will miss a lot. You will not have access to a memory bank that will tell you what strategies are likely to work, and what will not. You will also very likely not have the confidence in yourself to defy convention, to question or challenge information you receive, and the sources of that information.

You may not even challenge yourself and your own thinking or solutions. And based on what I’ve seen, you’re much less likely to take on third parties, activist groups or others with an agenda to destroy your organization’s reputation.

To the generalist, I say there is much more to crisis communications than meets the eye, and it takes going through several complex situations with a solid mentor before you are fully prepared to manage one on your own.

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Tim is the author of the book called “The Essential Crisis Communications Plan: A Crisis Management Process that Fits Your Culture.” He is founder of O’Brien Communications and has provided crisis communications and issues management support to clients from Fortune 100 firms and national nonprofits, to emerging start-ups. Tim has handled hundreds of crises, large and small over decades, working with some of the most iconic brands in the world along the way.

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