What Not To Do In Crisis? Media & Communications Strategies' Danielle Blevins Takes A Look At Three Examples

This post originally appeared here in the “Thoughts Leader” section on Bulldog Reporter. Danielle Blevins is an Account Associate with Media & Communications Strategies.

That dreaded moment you hoped would never come…but you knew might come…came. A secret has been revealed that has caused you (and your association, corporation, law firm, school—pick one or all) great embarrassment. The clock is ticking and you must think quickly to contain and manage the fallout.

At this moment, the worst thing you can do is hide. Once the secret is out, someone, such as a blogger, a journalist, or even your competition is already spinning a public narrative of what happened and why it is all you and your organization’s fault. Uncomfortable questions are being raised. Uneasy answers are being sought; answers to questions you might not even know. Your stock may be taking a dip. What should you do? The year 2013 saw these scenarios unfold in similar fashion time after time.

If you were to give 2013 a headline to describe the year, it would be called, “2013: The Year of The Scandal.” From Edward Snowden and the NSA, the IRS and the Tea Party, to Paula Deen and her “dream wedding,” this year has been full of scandals. With the Democratic Party coming off an electoral landslide, this was not the year many predicted. The Republican Party was licking its wounds after being so wrong during the 2012 election cycle. Even so, a significant number of communications professionals on both sides of the political aisle goofed this year when dealing with the various crises as they committed serious faux pas costing them and those they represented the trust of the American people, their fan bases, and monetary contracts.

In our business, it is not if a crisis will come, but when a crisis comes. Each different, each with some similarities. All beg an answer to questions about what to do immediately and what to do to save reputation and business in the future? The Media & Communications Strategies, Inc. team advises our clients to minimize or prevent disaster by putting a plan in place to handle whatever type of crisis may come, especially when it involves public and reputational crisis. Regardless of what type of crisis may come, here are three things (and examples) you can learn from the scandals that plagued 2013 and integrate into your crisis plan.

1. Don’t hide. When allegations are thrown at you by the media, do not hide from them. If you do, journalists and bloggers will tell the story in a way that generally supports their medium with little regard for consequences that affect you and your stakeholders. So, define your own story or others will define the narrative for you. Be upfront, be honest, and be sincere.

Example: Target and the debit/credit card scandal: In late 2013, Target voluntarily came forward with information that its system had been hacked and shoppers who had shopped in their store between November 27th and December 15, 2013, had their debit and credit card information stolen through their system. Shoppers were notified through several means, including email and social media, that their information had been compromised. Target offered free credit monitoring to all who had shopped in their store during that time. An internal investigation into the incident is underway, and U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer has called for a federal investigation. By coming forward voluntarily, Target told the story it wanted to tell and accepted the initial backlash from consumers. By owning up to its system being hacked, and offering a 10% discount the following week, the story was no longer front page or Block A news. Coming forward when they did also mitigated legal liability going forward as they investigated the crisis.

2. Don’t lie. No one likes a liar. No one likes it when someone lies to their face and it is obvious they are lying. Being caught in a lie is usually worse than the original act that is being covered up. People want the truth and when you are communicating to them, you owe them the truth. If you do not give them the truth, their trust in you will be broken and it may never be restored. In a 2013 study in the Social Science Quarterly, researchers found incumbents involved in scandals were three times more likely to resign, retire, or be defeated in the next election cycle after a scandal than their scandal-less counterparts.

Example: With the rollout of the Patient Protection Affordable Care Act (PPACA) legislation that has taken on the President’s name, Obamacare has been underwhelming. After surviving a last ditch effort to thwart the landmark legislation (which led to the government shutdown of 2013), the advocates of the PPACA thought they had won. However, they were wrong and their miscalculation was just the beginning of cascading reputation and credibility for the administration and backers of the biggest health care initiative in decades. After a failed technical rollout of the system where only a handful of the nation’s citizens were able to register, many learned the act they had championed was not what they thought it would be. On stump speech after stump speech, President Obama often said, “If you like your health care plan, you can keep it.” In late 2013, it was revealed that President Obama and administration officials allegedly knew that was a lie from the beginning. From the horrible website launch that has been skewered by both Republicans and Democrats and mocked by all kinds of demographic icons, from country singers Carrie Underwood and Brad Paisley to Jon Stewart on The Daily Show, the situation has been compounded by the fact that this legislation heralded by the current President is not what he promised the American people, plus the fact he knew about impending technical and legal problems for years prior to the implementation. As such, his statement received Politifact’s infamous “Lie of the Year” for 2013. With approval ratings around 45%, the President is not even doing well with his own base or the millennials. Additionally, since January, the President’s rating of “not trustworthy” has risen 15 points to a whopping 45%, according to a joint Pew Research Study and USA Today poll. With his Obamacare lie as his albatross, it will be increasingly difficult for the President’s approval ratings to recover over the next 3 years, having tremendous repercussions for both local and national elections coming up in 2014.

3. Don’t Repeat Your Mistakes. In a media crisis, it is easy to stay silent and hope it all blows over. It may; but it probably will not considering the aggressive and ubiquitous nature of our mainstream and social media outlets. People from all walks of life understand slip ups, hot microphones, and momentary lapses in judgment. Sometimes an “I’m sorry” will do the job. Sometimes it won’t. However, what the public will not forgive are repeat offenders. Once bitten, offenders (or accused offenders) should be twice shy of repeating the same actions that caused them to get in a reputational crisis in the first place. If they are caught in a similar situation, the second time around, neither explanations nor apologies are accepted. If 2013 taught us anything, it is that it is better to learn from your mistakes than to be caught repeating them.

Example: “Carlos Danger”/Anthony Weiner. The congressman was bitten by the same snake that bit him the first time. As he was close to resurrecting his promising political, Weiner lost all credibility and hope for political office when he managed to throw away a second bite at the political apple. After resigning from Congress in 2011 for sexting on Twitter, the former Congressman thought running for mayor of the Big Apple might give him second chance at a political life. With his wife by his side, he engaged in an aggressive campaign to lead America’s largest city in 2013. Before the last scandal broke in July, Weiner led the pack running for the mayor’s office. Little did the public know, he was still sexting someone who was not his wife, under the pseudonym, “Carlos Danger.” In the end, his weird and tawdry Internet activities on Twitter were not forgivable even by his staunchest supporters, 5% of the votes castWeiner left his election night party flipping off reporters and cameras waiting for him outside.

These three examples of scandals in 2013 demonstrate what not to do when faced with a media crisis and how crisis plans should take into consideration scenarios that deal with these lessons learned. There were plenty of other scandals that rocked 2013, and there were many more that caught the attention of consumers, media, and businesses alike. However, implementing safeguards and controls as part of a preventative crisis plan before bad news breaks can build internal confidence and morale and mitigate the crisis, preventing a fatal disaster, when the inevitable truth does come out.