There is an old saying, “if you don’t want egg on your face, don’t crack an egg on your forehead.” That’s actually pretty good crisis communications advice.
Mistakes happen. They may be your fault or maybe you’re just the fall guy. But if it falls to you to respond, don’t crack an egg on your forehead.
Don’t try to low-key a big-deal crisis. Soft-selling a hard crisis is an invitation for trouble and a loss of trust. Before you tell people you have the crisis under control, be sure you really do have it under control. If you aren’t sure how severe or dispersed the crisis is, focus on telling people what you are doing to find out. Don’t compound a crisis by creating another one centered on your inability to manage a confidence-building crisis response.
Own the crisis. You can own up to a crisis, even if you don’t accept full liability for causing it. You build trust by being the person that deals squarely with the crisis, regardless of fault. Pointing fingers instead of pointing to a solution can raise suspicions and erode trust.
Prioritize your response. Many crises have victims or neighbors who are impacted. Take special care to communicate with them on how you are addressing the crisis that is intruding on their lives or livelihoods. Do what you can to personalize outreach to those most directly affected. Don’t rely on media reports to do the job for you.
Step up your communications. Waiting for the media to find out about your crisis before you say anything can be the wrong approach. It also is less likely in our digital age where everyone has a cell phone and can generate news-making video with the push of a finger and a click on Facebook. Holding a press conference is no longer enough. Crisis managers use tools such as Twitter to provide real-time updates and live feeds to show work in progress to address a crisis situation. Instead of viewing social media as a threat, embrace it as a place to discover and address what you might not know in a crisis.
Don’t wing it. Crises call for quick responses, but not reckless ones. Get your facts, corroborate them and craft a message that is clear, crisp and true. Crisis spokespersons should be trained to shape and deliver a key message – and to stay on message. What you don’t say can be just as important as what you do say. The key is saying the right thing to reassure people you are top of the crisis and are addressing the concerns of those directly impacted by the crisis. The best spokespersons practice just like an actor so they deliver their lines powerfully and don’t ad lib.
Jimmy Fallon has a running gag game on the Tonight Show where he and his guests have to choose eggs and crack them on their foreheads. Some the eggs are hard-boiled. Others are fresh. It’s funny to watch grown people smash eggs on their foreheads and see yokes dripping down their face. It’s no so funny to watch crisis managers do the same thing in serious circumstances.
Know your eggs before you get in front of a microphone. You are less likely to come away with egg on your face and an even bigger crisis on your hands.
Gary Conkling is president and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at firstname.lastname@example.org and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.