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Crisis communications: what Tiger should have done

Crisis Communications - 27th January 2010

Tiger Woods recently gave a master class in how not to handle a media crisis. What was previously a towering, vastly profitable brand was taken to the point of implosion by a series of misjudgements. While Woods’ circumstances were pretty unusual, the episode has lessons for any organisation, as, by definition, a media crisis often comes about unexpectedly.

If you know the right way to act you may be able to protect the reputation you’ve worked so hard to create. Here are the four rules to remember in a media crisis:

1. Communicate, and fast. Things happen very quickly, so it’s essential to be fast in getting your arguments across. Otherwise, your opinion may not be heard and the facts could be misreported.

Return calls quickly and work out how to be proactive.

Once you start, keep going. A crisis can play out over days or weeks as new events occur. Keep communicating the latest developments – this is your best chance of retaining some control.

In the social media age speed is more important than ever. A major event can attract thousands of comments online within minutes of it happening. (When rapper Kanye West invaded the prizegiving at MTV’s video music awards, Twitter saw over 5,000 tweets within five seconds.) A crisis works at Internet speed and so must you.

Contrast this with Woods’ slow and meagre communications and you can see how he let events get out of hand.

2. Deal in truths. If you’re in the media spotlight it’s best to be open. Attempts to conceal or distort the truth are likely to be found out. The bizarre explanations for Woods’ late-night car crash only promoted incredulity and further media investigation.

Instead, focus on getting the truth out to ward off rumour and protect goodwill. Tell the facts as you know them. If you don’t know, say so and explain what you’ll do to find an answer.

Your most precious commodity at this stage is credibility. Safeguard that and you may just come through your crisis unscathed.

3. Think of others first. This crisis may be appalling for you, but that’s your problem. If others have been hurt or inconvenienced, your top priority must be their wellbeing. Show you understand how they’ve been affected and care about putting things right.

If, like Woods, you’ve enjoyed the trust and admiration of others, your only way forward is to prove that this has been earned. Any appeals for space and privacy will rightly be given short shrift if customers, or fans, feel they are a secondary concern.

4. Fix the problem. Even the best-run, most ethical companies can suffer lapses that spark public indignation. If you have erred, a major part of your solution has to be changing that behaviour.

Setting out a course of action to ensure something never happens again deprives a crisis of much of its fuel. Doing the right thing, even at great personal cost, is the surest way to regain trust and protect your interests over the long term. Tiger is presently enduring those consequences, but it would have been so much better had he faced them early rather than having them forced upon him.

To borrow from Warren Buffett, an older and wiser public figure than most: “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.”

Following the four rules above should help you manage a crisis adequately. However, when it’s your reputation at stake, you might rightly conclude that ‘adequate’ isn’t enough. Therefore, the fifth rule of crisis communications is the one you can follow now: Prepare. A thorough crisis communications plan is an insurance policy for your firm’s good name. While you hope never to need it, you’ll be extremely pleased to know that it is there.

To discuss crisis preparedness planning or crisis management, contact Marc Cornelius at 80:20 Communications.