Crisis Management is NOT Crafting Messages

As a “profession” of communicators and public relations practitioners, it’s time we came to grips with an important reality.

Crisis management (and, by extension, crisis communication) is not about crafting messages. It’s about influencing behaviour—specifically the behaviour of the individuals, executives and/or leaders whose actions or decisions led to the crisis in the first place.

For example, consider the Jian Ghomeshi scandal. When the former radio host was fired from his job at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), he immediately took the initiative with his now-infamous Facebook post.

Step one in the standard crisis communication handbook is to get in front of the issue. Check. Step two is to control the message. Check.

(I can’t believe people still attempt to control the message. When a trade journalist with a smartphone can generate a YouTube clip that generates nearly 400,000 views, it's time to recognize that controlling the message is now out of the question. At best, we can only influence the exchange.)

Ghomeshi’s post (now removed from Facebook) portrayed a downtrodden radio host whose sexual habits were at best misunderstood and, at worst, a fascinating form of cultural discrimination.

The post was well-written. It laid out his logic, and managed to tug at the heartstrings of fans. It received thousands of likes in a few short hours. In short, I have no doubt that some consultant somewhere (i.e. Mr. Ghomeshi’s agency at the time) was patting him- or herself on the back for crafting a well-designed message.

But it crossed the line between spin and sin. And any senior PR practitioner worth his or her salt would have pointed it out to him.

Mr. Ghomeshi is now facing multiple criminal charges of sexual assault. While it is up to the courts to ultimately decide whether the sexual acts were as consensual as Mr. Ghomeshi claimed in his post, there are a couple of lessons for those of us, as “professionals,” who help organizations steer their way through issues, emergencies and crises.

First, get to the truth

We are not lawyers. We have no obligation to represent individuals (or organizations) when they are lying. In fact, we probably shouldn’t represent them because, if we do, there’s a high probability any stink will stick to us.

(As an aside, I have long yearned for the day when the media know to dig deeper because the PR agency has fired the client early in the crisis. When that day arrives, I believe we’ll finally be able to call ourselves a profession.)

The first step in any crisis is to ask tough questions behind closed doors to determine what is true and what isn’t. We need to look executives in the eye and determine whether they are honestly attempting to deal with the issue, or if they are looking for some form of spin to save themselves from whatever got them into trouble in the first place.

If they are unwilling to answer our questions, and we’re an outside consultant, we should get up and walk out until they are. If we’re an internal consultant, we should polish our resume and start sending it out. It’s only a matter of time before it’s needed.

Second, help them understand the consequences of the truth

This element of crisis management has two sides: the consequences of not telling the truth to the outside world; and the consequences of telling the truth.

In my three decades of experience, by the time a crisis reaches this point, there is a short-term game and a long-term game.

In the short term, not fully disclosing the truth may mean the issue will fade after a time. After all, the world has a relatively short attention span. But it’s only a matter of time before all those problems hidden under the bed or in the closet are brought into the open again by social or traditional media—or both—and lead to irreparable damage to an individual or organizational reputation.

Think I’m kidding? The following statement was found in a recent article about Dalhousie University that had nothing to do with the recent debacle at the university’s school of dentistry:

“Dalhousie also recently began inquiries into the behaviour of 13 male dentistry students after they were linked to a Facebook page containing sexually violent content about women.” The journalist is bridging back to Dalhousie's problems, and because of the way it mishandled bringing out the truth, Dalhousie can expect reporters to “bridge” to that problem for years, if not decades.

Over the long-term, disclosing the truth is generally the only option that enables the organization to protect its reputation. We need to help our clients understand this concept before we can help them communicate.

Third, help the world understand the truth

This is the communication part of crisis management. The organization must come clean, apologize for its actions if necessary, make reparations where possible, and help the world understand what it’s doing to ensure a similar problem never emerges again.

There you have it; three guiding principles that can help solve any crisis.

Two-thirds of this solution has nothing to do with communication. In fact, if you attempt to communicate without identifying the truth and its consequences, you’re attempting to spin your way out of a problem. If that happens, don’t be surprised if the crisis lingers and the organization’s reputation takes a hit.

And, in this world, it's only a matter of time before the stink starts sticking to those who engineered the spin in the first place.