Four Reasons Organizations Fail at Crisis Communications

We continually see organizations respond poorly in crises. We shouldn’t be surprised. The fact is that the great majority of organizations don’t prepare for crisis. It’s hard to get it right during a crisis; its nearly impossible when you aren’t prepared. Here are four reasons why organizations usually handle crisis communications poorly:

Human beings. We are wired genetically to deny responsibility—that’s what Adam did, that’s what we did in our high-chair when we spilled our cereal—and we’re still wired that way. Accepting responsibility and owning up to a failure is a learned response. In crisis, being unprepared, instinct dominates and the organization denies responsibility. It works fine if it turns out that the organization isn’t to blame, but, just as often it’s the opposite. After the organization has issued the denial and then is found to be responsible, the public’s attention focuses on the integrity and credibility of the organization itself. The damage to the brand reputation can be severe, possibly fatal.

Stress. Very few organizations are set up to handle crisis communications well. Doing things for which we are unprepared is stressful and all the more so when it feels like the whole world is watching.

Attorneys. When a crisis lands you in the public spotlight, your lawyer’s trained response is “don’t say anything.” That is good advice for matters in court, but not the court of public opinion. In a crisis communications situation you aren’t in a court of law and you are not innocent until proven guilty. You are in the public spotlight and the public will judge you. Saying nothing is better than falsely denying responsibility, but silence allows the media and your critics to control the narrative. Once your problem becomes a matter of public concern, you need to manage the message from the very beginning. The public “jury” will decide your fate quickly. Silence is rarely your ally.

Incomplete information. On the first day when a significant crisis begins and the public spotlight hits, an organization often does not yet have all of the facts regarding the issue. At this same moment—with incomplete information, and high stress—the organization is pulled between legal advice to say nothing and the instinct to deny responsibility in advance of having all the facts.

Taking all of these elements into consideration, it isn’t a surprise that most organizations respond poorly when the spotlight hits them in a crisis. Organizations can prepare. In fact, it doesn’t take a great deal of time and effort to become a prepared organizations and, by doing so, empowers your team with a path for when crises do arise.

-J. Vander Stoep