01 Feb Crisis Management and the Media: What to do when something goes wrong
Whatever business you are in there will be times when something major goes wrong (e.g. you need to do a product recall). The bigger you are and more significant your products are to the market, the more attention there will be on you. A recent example of a crisis was Google’s blunder which led to every website on the Internet being labelled as malware.
The most important thing to remember in managing a public crisis is to communicate with the public via the media quickly, assertively and truthfully. There will often be tremendous pressure to explain what went wrong and why and it is tempting to say anything just to “get the media off your back”. You will be judged on how you are coping by what you say and do in the first few hours of a crisis so it is absolutely crucial to be fast, thorough, truthful and accurate. Your business reputation depends on it.
But what you need to do is stay calm and if you don’t know say so. Don’t think about talking with the journalist, think about talking to the people at home reading their newspapers, visiting their favourite online news website or watching TV. You are communicating with them.
Here are some tips:
- Never Speculate. If you don’t know the cause, don’t say that you do. Google did this well initially in their crisis by acknowledging that they knew something was wrong and that they were looking into it when they said to initial BBC enquiries “There is a fault. We are not sure what the nature of the fault is yet. We are looking into it.”
- Tell people how they will find out more. Google also did this well by telling the public that they would be making a statement on their official blog as soon as they were ready.
- Inform your key staff about the problem so they can report on it if contacted. If you have a call centre or live chat operators tell them what is going on and how they should respond. Prepare a FAQ document for them to reply to enquiries. Be fast! fast! fast! Google ensured their key media staff and public personas (e.g. their search engine public face Matt Cutts) were informed and could confirm when and how Google would communicate with the public
- When you do communicate show empathy to those inconvenienced or harmed. If customers were frustrated by you acknowledge that you understand it must have been frustrating for them.
- If you can’t comment, give a reason. Don’t just say “no comment”. If you can’t comment say why. For example, “I can’t comment because there is an official investigation into this.”
- Take responsibility if it is your fault. Don’t blame others. Google made a blunder in their malware meltdown by stating in their official statement that their malware URLs were obtained from a non-profit third party called StopBadware.org and that there was a human error in this list. It turned out that this was not exactly true – StopBadware.org provided lists of bad URLs and criteria that were then entered by Google into their system. The error was Google’s but their initial statement seemed to blame their partner. This flooded their partner with enquiries and inflamed the problem somewhat. Some more checking before issuing the media statement would have helped there as they had to later update their official statement to correct this inaccuracy.
- Threats are opportunities too. If you handle this crisis professionally and carefully there is the opportunity to prove your business is sound under pressure and win over critics and even gain new customers.
Overall, Google handled their issue well. They identified and fixed the problem in under an hour, informed their staff and issued a statement promptly. They made a mistake in not fact-checking their statement thoroughly but resolved and apologised for it quickly. They have said they are putting in place procedures to ensure this doesn’t happen again. Let’s hope they live up to their promise. If they do, this is a good example of how to handle an online crisis.