Crisis Communications in the Age of Everything Toxic

By: Rob Ford, Senior Vice President

The new state of our media is creating a landscape proving ever more difficult for businesses and the communications professionals that represent them. The traits stamping the media apparatus increasingly dictating the behavior of those participating in it are breakneck speed, loud volume, disappearance of long-form, social media (micro journalism), and an emphasis on being first (or not being last) instead of being right.

One need not look further than the preponderance of reporters refusing, as policy, to amend articles even when factually wrong, as evidence of this phenomenon. We’re not talking about remodeling articles in the vision of the marketer who prefers fluffier language to the direct line, we’re talking about basic factual errors as simple as a misspelled company name or location of headquarters. This extends to editorial standards applied to a piece, which even in the face of demonstrable evidence proving falsehood, are defended.

The common initial refrain is something in the vein of ‘we really don’t go back and change articles’ or ‘it would be a bad look for me with my editor’.

Think about that for a second. In their minds, the greater crime would be in admitting you need to go back and get it right, not in allowing it to be wrong.

Realistically, one has to attribute at least some of this inertia to the epoch of Fake News. Malleability of the news is a slippery slope and should be handled with care. The news media are acutely aware of this and presumably would rather err on the side of protecting what’s written than grant free license to anyone who simply disagrees with what an article says and demands a retraction or clarification.

To be sure, these hurdles do not rest solely with the media – far from. Consumers of news are increasingly more demanding, insistent almost, on immediate gratification. It is, in many cases, the readers who are less interested in something factually accurate than in getting to the finish line first. Readers mean revenue means success of news outlets means livelihoods of those in their employ.

In addition to readers’ insistence on speed and volume, is the need for a line drawn in the sand. Pick a side. For businesses and high profile individuals this has become synonymous with aligning yourself distinctly on one side or the other in highly important, but controversial debates.

Where does your business stand on Trump? Gay Marriage? Gun Control? LGBTQ rights, the list goes on.

This takes companies astray from their core mission of say, making shoes, for example. It places them squarely at the center of debates in which you cannot possibly go without alienating some group of people.

These two phenomena come together to form just a small snapshot of what communications professionals are up against in the new era of news media.

So where does this leave companies and communications teams in the event of a crisis, where timing is everything and getting it right is paramount?

Every situation is unique and requires a customized plan of approach, but there are some bedrock values that any company would do well to remember.

Relationships matter. Tapping a professional who possesses those relationships with media is critical. They’ll be given the extra five minutes on the phone to walk through exactly what has transpired and how it came to be. Keep in mind, relationships are a two-way street.

Experience is key. While the road may be changing, the pitfalls that mark the way are often the same. Working with a team that has the foresight to know what’s coming next and how to prepare for it will serve your business well.

Leading versus following. Don’t chase the news cycle, dictate it. Basic communication goes a long way. In a vacuum of information, people will create their own, or draw new, more extreme conclusions based on the same information that’s already available.

Apologize. Don’t be afraid to apologize; be less concerned with whether it’s an admission of fault and more concerned with whether someone or something has been negatively impacted and show empathy for that. We’re a forgiving public, but you have to ask for it.

Act with integrity. Consider what it is that’s actually core to your business and what the spirit of your company actually is and use that as a starting point for how you approach a problem. Don’t try to be something you’re not just because you’re in a tough position. Our appetite may be for controversy but our desire tends toward resolution.

When a crisis hits, it’s difficult to think in this way. A quote from Mike Tyson is apropos to crisis communications: “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.” Working with a professional team who can bring objectivity and calm to a bad situation is at least half the battle.