By Karen Naumann, APR, Vice President at Susan Davis International
Apologies abound. From political figures, religious institutions, entertainers, corporations, there seems to be an apology issued in the public domain every week.
For professional communicators, the apology is an attempt to restore the image of the entity or person, preserve the business/organization, and minimize damage after a crisis. However, simply saying “sorry” is not the proper response for every crisis as academia’s Situational Crisis Communication Theory would inform.
Before taking a message position, culpability should first be carefully considered. Ask, “Was the person or organization actual the victim? Did the situation arise through unavoidable circumstances or unknown factors?” If the answer is “yes,” then “sorry” is not the response.
- If there is clearly another blame-worthy party, then the message positioning could shift blame to the culprit and attack the accuser of the false accusation.
- If there is some negligible responsibility to be taken, then minimizing role and justifying choices may be the best message positioning.
- If, however, responsibility for a tragic and avoidable situation falls with your client or organization, then “sorry” is only the beginning. Compensation to those affected and demonstrating authentic change is immediately required.
This is a simplistic framework of crisis message positioning. The content of the crisis response will likely be multi-layered.
Sometimes the foundational messaging framework is followed by necessary instructional information for those affected by the crisis. Instructional information can be actions taken to correct or mitigate the threat of the crisis for stakeholders. Also, expressions of compassion and sympathy may need to be part of the messaging, especially if there was a loss of human life.
Regardless of response message positioning selected, always be transparent, accurate and swift.
Once the Smoke Clears
The above addresses crisis response messaging. Issuing the messaging and fielding media inquiries is not the end of the crisis.
Post crisis is comprised of follow up actions and changes to avoid similar crises in the future. The benefit of time to make sense of a crisis may be an opportunity to issue a report stemming from investigations into the crisis and the actions taken to prevent another going forward.
A thorough report can set the record straight and restore faith in an organization.
The Best Offense Is a Good Defense
In the end, the best crisis is the one that never happens. Preventing crisis should be job #1 for the professional communicator.
Pre-crisis scenario building is pivotal to that risk management role. Scenario building is a strategic-planning technique that projects multiple future situations for an organization.
While there is no rigid scenario building process, the most respected models are rooted in James E. Grunig’s work. Steps to consider include:
- Conduct environmental scanning of stakeholders, influences, trends
- Identify issues emerging from environmental scan
- Zero in on areas of potential crisis, such as legal/regulatory, physical locations, internal employees and clientele
- Examine the intersection of issues, stakeholders, influences, trends, and areas of potential crisis
- Create response frameworks for the potential crises identified.
Additionally, actively preparing the crisis response team for the most likely scenarios for an organization is a common initiative led by communicators. These efforts should go beyond the crisis response team to prepare the entire organization from the top down and to open dialogue that promotes deep understanding of what stakeholders think of the most probable crises.
Additionally, communicators, along with internal leadership, should proactively work toward mitigating the circumstances that may lead to the crisis in the first place.
About the Author
Karen Naumann, APR is a Vice President at Susan Davis International, a Washington D.C.-based public relations and public affairs firm. She is a member of the PRSA-NCC Board of Directors.