"Failing to own a crisis is like walking away from an opportunity to show your character, resiliency and values," CFM President Gary Conkling advised a group of water agency officials. "You will be choosing a road other than the road to redemption."
Conkling was invited to be the keynote speaker at a meeting of the Pacific Northwest Chapter of American Waterworks Association. The meeting was centered on strategic communications by water agencies. The title of his talk was "Owning, Fixing and Talking About Your Crisis." "I honestly believe crisis response is that simple," Conkling said. "Unfortunately, it isn't that easy."
A leading crisis communications counselor, Conkling said it is hard to "fix a crisis you don't own." "An insufficient apology or an evasive explanation won't put a crisis to rest," he explained.
Owning a crisis involves acknowledging what happened, expressing an appropriate emotion, apologizing and providing relevant detail about why it happened and why it won't happen again, Conkling said. "Owning a crisis doesn't involve saying you have everything under control, telling people not to worry or urging people to trust you."
"By definition, a crisis means events are out of control," he said. "You can't stop people from worrying. Your words don't elicit trust. Only actions can do that."
Fixing a crisis relies on taking "demonstrable steps that show you own the crisis and are willing to deal with the root cause of the crisis."
Talking about your crisis response "is easier when you have something to say," Conkling said.
Sometimes it is smart, he said, to talk with stakeholders or neighbors before a crisis occurs. "People respect you for telling them what could happen," Conkling said. "The absence of an incident actually reinforces your trustworthiness. They assume the potential problem you discussed with them is being managed well."
"A crisis may uncover something you wished would have stayed hidden," he said. "But your crisis response can demonstrate your openness to owning a potential problem and addressing it responsibly."