Avoiding the Certainty Trap in Crisis PR

Certainty is only an asset in crisis PR when you have validated a claim to a certainty.

Certainty is only an asset in crisis PR when you have validated a claim to a certainty.

Certainty can be an asset, but not necessarily in PR. Certainty in the PR world breeds overconfidence and swamps skepticism, which should be the animating force for professional communicators.

Statements are false until proven true for PR pros. If you can’t validate a claim, there is not point in claiming it. The court of public opinion has a much lower standard of guilt and a higher standard of proof.

Some of the biggest gaffes in crisis response result from PR pros who drink the Kool-Aid from a charismatic CEO. Failing to suspect spin is like falling down a flight of stairs. Once you start falling, it’s hard to stop.

Another kind of certainty trap is relying too much on how past events unfolded. This trap can be painful if you assume a crisis will blow over because it has before. In actuality, a crisis that went unnoticed previously can be like a slow smoldering fuse to a similar crisis that occurs later.

Crisis situations involve events spinning out of control. Getting facts is a daunting challenge, especially under the clamoring pressure of the news media, affected parties, worried employees and concerned stakeholders. That’s why one of the most important parts of a crisis plan is laying out in advance where you can go and who to seek out to get reliable information.

Many times, this information – such as safety procedures, fail-safe equipment and personnel safeguards – can be traced, documented and positioned on ghost websites, ready for use when needed. You also may be able to line up third-party validation for practices or testimonials from product users. These proactive moves won’t eliminate the confusion in a crisis, but they can provide tools for an effective crisis response.

Another part of smart crisis preparation is put an issue into context. This is not an exercise in excusing the cause of a crisis, but to put an event into some perspective. A train derailment because of an isolated track flaw is serious, but quite different from a series of derailments because of deferred track maintenance. Context can reduce the breathlessness of crisis reporting – or it can breathe more oxygen into a crisis. The key is knowing, not assuming, what you have on your hands.

Claims that turn out to be false or misleading, even if they were made with the best intentions and incomplete data, can damage a reputation far more than the source of the crisis. A crisis can happen to anybody, but a reputation only can be preserved with a credible crisis response, which includes telling the truth, even if it's uncomfortable and hard to find.

Certainty is only an asset in crisis PR when you validate a claim with certainty.

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 garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.