Communicating in a Crisis

By John Wagley

In terms of the content of what is communicated, it’s important to be clear and honest, says Jonathan Bernstein, president of Bernstein Crisis Management. There are several main categories of dishonesty, he says. These include lies of commission, omission, exaggeration, and understatement. Regardless of which type of dishonesty occurs, “the public will look at all of those as lies,” he says.

Companies should consult with their legal counsel before providing any type of response, according to Jordan-Meier. That said, relying too much on attorneys can sometimes lead to situations where organizations will not say enough. In these instances, organizations may even appear to be “hiding behind their attorneys,” she notes. It’s “important not to put yourself in jail,” but when an organization does not provide “basic information for shareholders, it can be perceived as stonewalling or doing something wrong,” she adds.

One area that is sometimes contentious is whether a company should say it is sorry about the incident. Some do not recommend it on the theory that it might be interpreted by the courts as an admission of guilt. Others say that it can avert lawsuits because people appreciate any statement where management expresses contrition. Though not an attorney, Jordan-Meier says she does not believe that organizations will incur any liability for telling customers and others that they are “sorry” about a situation.

It’s important to take responsibility for failures. Organizations and people “start to get themselves in trouble when they start to blame other people,” she says.

Demonstrating compassion is equally important. That can sometimes be lacking in responses by corporations and governments, Bernstein says. When compassion isn’t shown, an audience frequently won’t listen to what is being said. To build trust long before a crisis, companies should reach out to stakeholders and customers before problems arise.

Social media tools offer organizations and executives a way to communicate more frequently with customers and others when crises aren’t imminent, Jordan-Meier says. This can be an opportunity to build credibility on an ongoing basis, which can help when a crisis hits.



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