Crisis Positioning -- 16 principles that will help any company figure out what to say about a negative event

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Crisis communications

A company that chooses its words carefully can escape a crisis with its reputation intact – or even improved.

Statistically all companies can expect a reputationally significant crisis roughly every five years. Cyber hacks, employee misconduct, product recalls, supply chain mishaps and a long list of dramas are all waiting around the corner. The good news is this: if you handle the crisis well, not only will you most likely be forgiven, but you may even gain new respect for showing your true colours.

If you need convincing that a crisis can be an opportunity, look at the share prices of companies hit by bad news. Share price is a proxy for public confidence. Studies show that effective communication in the early stages of a crisis predicts long-term reputational impact. All crisis-hit companies take a hit on the markets initially, but those that don’t explain themselves effectively can take years to recover. Those that communicate well catch up much faster in market valuation and actually overtake the shares of companies that had no crisis at all.

One of the prime challenges in crisis communication is figuring out what to say, in the most difficult circumstances. Following are 16 principles of crisis positioning that together cover almost all the bases for choosing the right wording.

Hack the template

News works on templates. This happens for the same reason that every classic story in history boils down a handful of fundamental plotlines (e.g. Homer’s Odyssey and Star Wars are both a “hero’s journey”.) News media have learned to explain events in frameworks that people find familiar, because confused readers take their eyeballs elsewhere.

In a crisis, you are likely to be cast as the villain in one of a handful of formulaic plotlines. Get ahead of the curve in your statements. If you think the villain narrative template might be “company cut corners on safety,” talk proactively about how much you spend on training and inspections. If it might be “company cares only about shareholders and profit”, talk proactively about what you’ve already done to help the communities affected.

Be as open and communicative as possible

Tell as much of the story as you can, within the limits of the law and common sense. In law, anything you say can and will be used as evidence against you. In crisis positioning, it’s the opposite: saying too little will work against you, because people equate silence with guilt. On top of which, the media will fill an information vacuum with whatever voices they can find (pundits, commentators, critics, speculators) whose positioning in the absence of yours will become the narrative.

Always express compassion for those affected

This is self-evident enough that it’s rarely forgotten, but too often corporate empathy doesn’t ring true. People read formulaic expressions of compassion like “thoughts and prayers” as crocodile tears. Sometimes this is exactly what they are, but more often the people in crisis-hit organisations are genuinely feeling terrible about the impact of what has happened. The trouble is that in external communications this truth gets hidden beneath a veneer of corporate-speak. Take a deep breath, look into your heart and feel what you really feel about the people on the wrong side of this crisis. Use what comes up to start drafting something authentic.

Use consistent messages

Define a small number of simple, clear messages before you begin. Your company will be communicating across multiple channels: media statements, social media updates, interviews, internal communication, conference calls, direct engagement. Stakeholders need to hear the same thing across all touchpoints. Everyone who communicates with them needs to know what the message should be. Consistent messaging creates a reassuring sense that what’s going on in the company is well-organised and under control. It also helps define the narrative – inconsistent framing doesn’t work.

Think of a message not as a fixed phrase like a political slogan, but more as a theme. People usually won’t remember precise wordings. What will persist in the long run are the feelings they experienced and the “story” of the crisis. Start with an idea like “safety” or “compassion” or “customers first”. These kinds of thematic messages can be both consistent and versatile in how you use them.

Be wary of crisis clichés

Are your “thoughts and prayers” really with those affected? If so, great – but can you find a more authentic and personal way to say it? A set of stock phrases has emerged over the years that are very familiar to anyone who has read crisis statements or watched crisis interviews. One problem is formality, which used to be a default tone in corporate communication, but more natural conversational language is better received today. Authenticity is a “hygiene factor”: without it, people smell manipulation.

Just because you’ve heard cut-and-paste crisis statement language a thousand times, don’t assume it’s good practice. It is better to humanise your organisation than to speak like an institution. If in doubt, don’t use wording that sounds clunky coming out of your mouth when spoken aloud.

For instance: instead of "We will keep you updated as the situation develops,” how about: “as soon as I get more information, you’ll be the first to know.” Instead of “we are cooperating fully with the relevant authorities,” how about: “we’ve been on the phone with the fire department and the chief of police regularly all day to make sure everyone has the latest information.” Instead of “we are taking appropriate measures,” how about: “we’re doing everything humanly possible.”

Anticipate questions and answer them

The predictable nature of crisis reporting also allows you to prepare answers to difficult questions that are likely to be asked sooner or later. Some questions (e.g. “who will resign?”) are best kept for reactive communication, if you don’t have useful responses now. But there are many questions that you can defuse by answering them before they are asked (e.g. “why didn’t you respond faster” is a question that won’t need to be asked if you start by explaining proactively how fast you responded).

It’s OK if you don’t know

In the earliest moments of a crisis, almost by definition you know almost nothing. However, if you wait for a comprehensive picture to emerge, such is the pace and hunger of crisis reporting that it will be too late to establish your communication as the foundation of the narrative.

In reactive communication (such as answering a question at a news conference), if you don’t know, the right thing to do is to say so. Immediately add what you’re doing to find out and when you expect to be able to share that information. However, in proactive communication (such as crisis news statements), there is a place for news-critical don’t-know information (e.g. “we haven’t yet identified the cause of the explosion.”) Still, don’t waste much time and space listing things that you don’t know because this information adds no news value and conveys a message of uncertainty.

Take the right tone

For most types of crisis it’s appropriate to take a sombre and serious tone, but don’t fall into the trap of being too formal. Written statements should be somewhat be more formal than spoken communication, and social media somewhere in between.

Don’t fall into the trap of being overly formal because this makes you less relatable. Your organisation is nothing more than a collection of human beings. It is much easier for stakeholders and the public at large to muster outrage against a faceless corporation. That’s what will happen by default, unless you communicate in a natural way.

Don’t be evasive about real problems

If there’s an elephant in the room, you’re going to have to talk about elephants sooner or later, so do it as soon as possible. Sometimes there are liability and legal constraints on what you are able safely to say, in which case often you can zoom out and at least say something general (e.g. “obviously this is something that absolutely should not have happened.”)

Be careful what you choose not to say

If there’s a skeleton in the cupboard, you might have good reason not to talk about skeletons. But if the skeleton is likely to be discovered sooner or later – for instance in an investigation – it is in your interests to open the cupboard now. Being found to have hidden something will hurt you worse, especially because the act of concealment is a powerful news angle that will become its own story in a fresh news cycle.

Give context but don’t make excuses

Perhaps you have the best safety record in the industry and spend twice as much on health and safety training as your competitors. Be careful how you say so: this has to be done in a way that doesn’t come across as playing down the significance of the crisis event or trying to make excuses for it. People will be listening out for the old trope of a company making excuses or avoiding responsibility. If that becomes the narrative, it will hurt your reputation more than holding up your hands and owning the impact.

Sometimes it’s best not to use defensive logic even if it’s valid. Err on the side of not playing down a crisis event. Don’t say things like “many people face similar issues” and “accidents like this happen” even if these are factually true and valid mitigating arguments. Instead, present context very gently (e.g. “this was a rare and isolated event”).

Define and isolate the actual problem

A common theme in media coverage of a crisis is a rush to judgment: taking an event as a symptom of a universal failing a company. Good crisis positioning presents the situation in clear and precise terms in a way that helps prevent its implications from contaminating the reputation of the organisation as a whole. There is a subtle art to defining the problem in a way that constrains it, without seeming to play down or make excuses for wrongdoing.

Liability and lawyers

Crisis statements should not admit blame or liability that would expose the organisation to litigation later. Lawyers can provide essential advice on which statements could be problematic. However, their advice is often slow to arrive and also overly cautious in the balance of risks between legal damage and reputational damage (which is sometimes not on lawyers’ radar). Be prepared to push back against risk-averse opinions on the content of communication with the argument that taking accountability for relatively trivial points now will insulate the company against ruinous damage to its reputation later.

Say sorry (for something)

Saying sorry has a powerful diffusing effect in a crisis. It’s the right thing to do, it makes those affected feel that their suffering has been seen and acknowledged, and it makes those inclined to feel critical or outraged feel that a point has been scored against the mighty wrongdoer. It takes heat out of the situation.

Saying sorry is difficult in situations where an apology might trigger legal problems, even when the company genuinely wants to own its behaviour. Try to find something that you can say sorry for, in a wording that doesn’t give rise to liability. If the lawyers won’t let you say “I’m sorry we did this to you,” perhaps “I’m truly sorry that this happened” could work.

Either say sorry or don’t. Avoid weasel apologies (e.g. “We are sorry that our customers feel we have let them down”). These don’t work on public stakeholders for the same reason they don’t work on spouses.

Apologies need to be tied to action. If you say sorry, also state the remedy, even if it’s in general terms (e.g. “We will make this right.”)

Focus on facts

Don’t wait for polished and perfect explanations: get out there fast with the facts as you know them. In the early stages of a crisis, the media dynamics are primarily about “who”, “what”, “when” and “where”. There is great appetite for basic factual information. Analysis and judgment (“why”) rise in importance later, but in the early stages you can focus on pumping out whatever verified knowledge you have, as soon as possible, and in as great detail as possible. For an aircraft crash, for instance, these kinds of facts might include the model, service history, pilot hours flown, weather conditions, etc.

Facts are value-neutral, and the company usually is best placed to push them out in volume and frequently. Doing so establishes you as the primary voice of the crisis. Media have airtime to fill: if you’re not cranking out information, other voices will emerge to fill the vacuum (commentators, competitors, social media) with ideas that might be inaccurate or critical.

Facts are more convincing than promises or assertions. Consider the difference between “we are a company that puts safety first” versus “this is our first accident in 25 years”.

Focus on actions

Facts – Compassion – Action is a solid crisis positioning formula. The action part is essential and often makes up most of the content. You may be doing a stellar job on the ground to contain and mitigate the impact of the crisis, but to the extent nobody knows, you might as well be doing nothing. When you talk about what you are doing, you are sending an implicit message that you are in control.

Crisis wordings

Here are some of the most common crisis wordings that we see. The intention behind them is often spot on, but in all cases you can improve them by choosing your own language.

  • "We take this matter very seriously."
  • "We are doing everything we can to address the situation."
  • "Our top priority is the safety and well-being of our customers/employees/community."
  • "We apologize for any inconvenience/distress this has caused."
  • "We are cooperating fully with the authorities/investigators."
  • "We will keep you updated as the situation develops."
  • "We are committed to being transparent throughout this process."
  • "We have implemented new procedures to prevent this from happening again."
  • "We understand the concerns you may have and we are here to address them."
  • "We appreciate your patience and support as we work to resolve this issue."
  • "We are deeply sorry for any harm that has been caused."
  • "We are taking responsibility for our actions and will make things right."
  • "We understand the gravity of the situation and are working to mitigate the damage."
  • "We are committed to providing timely and accurate information as it becomes available."
  • "We are offering support and resources to those affected by this situation."
  • "We are conducting a thorough investigation to determine the cause of the issue."
  • "We are taking steps to prevent similar incidents from occurring in the future."
  • "We are working around the clock to address the situation and find a solution."
  • "We value the trust of our customers/employees/community and are committed to regaining that trust."
  • "We are listening to feedback and taking it into consideration as we move forward."

ISOC course links

This content relates to the following short courses at the International School of Communications, available live online and also face-to-face at our training centres in London and Dubai:

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