The Dangers of Crisis Communications: Balancing Public Need and Company Risk



  • Crisis can lead to panicky decisions in the C-suite.
  • Until you know the full story, do not admit guilt.
  • Develop a crisis plan before the crisis.

Crisis communications is meant to interact with and spread accurate, important knowledge to those affected by events. But at the core, crisis communications is also meant to further a company’s aims, to protect its image, and help it rebound from disaster. But in times of crisis, how can companies handle crisis communications in a way that is sensitive to the needs of the public while staying true to the company’s best interests? 

It’s a tricky balance to strike. On the one hand, providing transparent, timely information to the public during a crisis can be in a company’s best interest. There are manifold consequences for clamming up, which can quickly snowball out of hand (think Congressional hearings/future litigation). The bottom line is that being forthcoming means that you are in control of the message and that you are shaping your own image.

Competitors Lurk Like Wolves

On the other hand, transparency has its dangers. Once something is said, it cannot be taken back, so all statements must be meticulously based upon facts. Saying the wrong thing can cause more harm than speaking at all. Add to this that companies are often wary of transparency because of the potential for proprietary information to be leaked. Competitors lurk like wolves to capitalize on a company’s duress. During a crisis, where declines in profitability and potential layoffs are already more likely, it often proves too much for company executives.  Companies and CEOs can go into gridlock, and in panic their decisions are not what they should be. They speak too soon and out of turn or clam up when they should be talking.
So what’s a company to do? Though every crisis and every company is different, there are a few basic strategies to stick to.

Public Safety and Health Are Priorities

For one, always remember to strike a balance between being as expedient as possible and never making claims or judgments before knowing all the facts. All too often, companies overzealously attempt damage control by accepting culpability before actually knowing their part in a crisis. Until the full story comes to light, stop short of admitting guilt. In the meantime, make sure to show compassion and regret for any damage done, and be sure to make clear that everything is being done to find more information and fix the problem. If the crisis is an issue of public health or safety, effort should be doubled to discover information as quickly as possible. The public is the priority in these situations. Provide help wherever possible, but never forget that once said, something can never be taken back. Stopping short of admitting guilt not only protects against future lawsuits but also stops a company from becoming yet another source of misinformation in the midst of crisis. 

Don’t Talk Before You Have The Facts

All claims and public statements should be treated with equal care. Consider when Philadelphia’s Mayor Michael Nutter blamed the engineer of an Amtrak train for Amtrak’s recent disaster. The crash had only been under investigation for less than a day, and some families had only just been informed about their loved ones. Such a provocative and influential statement was both potentially unfounded and insensitive to the bereaved. Mayor Nutter’s role as mayor is comparable to that of a CEO, and his example is a great one to illustrate what happens when communicators bend under pressure — and in this case, favor political expediency. An NTSB board member almost immediately blasted the mayor’s comments as inflammatory. 

Handling Misinformation

Second, be aware that timing is everything. In this world of 24-hour news cycles and social media, misinformation must be handled quickly. All methods of communication must be monitored around the clock. Doing so means that inaccuracies and items of concern can be addressed as they arise. The importance of a source should also be gauged. Being misrepresented by someone with one Twitter follower might be less of a concern than The Wall Street Journal or a national commenter with thousands of followers. 
Data Breach, Animal Cruelty, Health Recall, Major Oil Spill – Are You Ready?
Finally, preparation is key. Having a crisis plan and knowing your unique vulnerabilities makes for more effective crisis communications. It helps when getting the word out to know YOUR audiences and the most effective methods of communication to reach them ahead of time. Does your crisis affect public safety? Stakeholders? Or perhaps reputation? And remember that a crisis for Sony (a data breach of 77 million users) is very different from one for SeaWorld (animal cruelty) or Blue Bell (public health recall) or BP (major oil spill). Every company and every crisis calls for different tactics, so knowing these things beforehand is a crucial to success.
Terry Hemeyer has handled hundreds of crisis situations over the course of his career. He is a senior lecturer in the Moody College of Communication, teaching communication strategy, executive counsel to Pierpont Communications and has taught crisis communication in the Rice University Jones Graduate School of Management MBA program for almost 20 years.



The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily The University of Texas at Austin.

About The Author

Terry Hemeyer

Senior Lecturer, Department of Advertising, College of Communications, University of Texas at Austin

Professor Terry Hemeyer is one of the few public relations executives that have attained C-suite status beyond typical communications functions....

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