Crisis Communication: If It Had a Precedent, It Wouldn't Be a Crisis

By Tortorella, Albert J. | Communication World, June 1989 | Go to article overview

Crisis Communication: If It Had a Precedent, It Wouldn't Be a Crisis


Tortorella, Albert J., Communication World


Crisis Communication: If It Had a Precedent, It Wouldn't Be a Crisis

Any professional communicator who's lived through the '80s has at least a passing acquaintance with crisis communication. Throughout the decade an ongoing series of events in such disparate fields as finance, oil, food, manufacturing and politics have seen the rise and importance of well-tuned "crisis preparedness plans," "damage control strategies," "silver bullet strategies" and other "key rules" or "principles."

Yet after handling more than 200 crises for over the last decade, we can only offer one specific rule: there is no single way to solve a crisis, no bullet-proof plan which will always work, no iron-clad media relations approach that will fix the crisis overnight. Each crisis bears its own marking and its own unique solutions; indeed, if it had a "precedent" it wouldn't be a crisis. To draw upon the strategies successfully used by others such as Tylenol is not the key to developing a strategy; in fact, following such "proven" course could prove disastrous for you and your crisis.

The only rule of crisis communication is that there are no rules. But most crises share generally the same characteristics, some of which are described below.

Characteristics of a Crisis

The first characteristic is surprise--if not at the actual event, then at its timing. Consider the difference between a problem and a crisis. A problem which may be on the agenda for future action becomes a crisis when it is pushed into the present ahead of its schedule.

Often the pushing in a crisis comes from the media. Suddenly your organization has become a fishbowl.

Surprise leads to insufficient information. What's going on down there at the plant? Who's running the store? Are people really dead? How many? What's being done about it? The media want to know--and at this point rumors and half-baked facts are flying. No one at this point really knows what the problem is, much less how to solve it.

Communication is critical here. You will have an early opportunity to begin taking control of the situation. And the way to do this is to get your spokesperson out there--the one person who has the confidence of management, the board of directors and the employees to face the crisis head on.

Of course, at this point your spokesperson may not have much to say. Knowledge of the crisis is scant, speculation is rampant and the cameras are rolling. Your board, managers and legal counsel may wonder what is to be gained from facing the media and addressing the public. And what, at this early stage, can we say, much less do?

Demonstrating concern and your ability to take control early on in the crisis can prove to be the difference in weathering a subsequent phase: intense scrutiny from the outside. This manifests itself among several audiences, including the financial community, regulatory agencies, government and most of all, employees.

And all along the media are peering inside the fishbowl, hunting down middle managers for quotes, documents and more.

Suddenly the boardroom has become a bunker. The entire corporate culture becomes crippled. When it comes to communication, the attorneys in the room--dashing to minimize liability--will generally offer two words of advice, "do nothing."

The result of this is a short-term focus. The crisis has made you so distraught that rather than keep your eye on the true solution to the problem, which is going to take a long time to cure (remember, once upon a time it was a low item on the agenda, a matter a task force was researching), the organization begins looking at what appear to be solutions, but are often incredibly stupid things: firing employees who appear in TV interviews, pulling advertising from "offending" media and, again, refusing to do anything.

Only Media Pressure Is Consistent

As stated previously, no two crises are alike, be it Tylenol, Union Carbide, Exxon or the Girl Scouts of America. …

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